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Pimps Use Facebook to Recruit Prostitutes (and Other Facts About America’s Underground Sex Trade)

The illegal sex trade is an abomination. It's also a reality.

In a groundbreaking report released on Wednesday, researchers at The Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center provide the most comprehensive look to date on the size and dynamics of the illegal sex trade in eight major American cities. Some of their conclusions are shocking.

What follows are five of the most interesting insights to be gleaned from the 339-page study.

1. How social media facilitates prostitution

Of all the things revealed in the report, this has got to be the most shocking -- and disturbing if you're a parent.

The role of social media came up time and again throughout the study. Most notably, it's used as a tool to recruit new prostitutes into the industry.

As the authors note (emphasis added):

Pimps will often [...] recruit from anywhere and everywhere, including train stations, bus stops, bus stations, clubs, homes, schools, detention facilities, group homes, and homeless shelters. They will also use Facebook and Myspace to recruit new women and girls.

2. Atlanta has the largest commercial sex industry

Of the seven cities examined (there were actually eight, but the results from Kansas City weren't meaningful enough for the authors to include), Atlanta was found to have the largest commercial sex trade, estimated at $290 million in 2007.

3. Atlanta also has the most pimps

The definition of a pimp isn't as settled as one might think. Formally, it's an individual who "controls the actions, and lives off the proceeds, of one or more women who work the streets."

But as the study goes on to note, "Debate exists over who is and is not considered to be a pimp, particularly because legal definitions between municipalities and countries can differ from popular and public understanding."

For instance, a 25-year-old respondent who fit the vocational profile explained:

I'm not a pimp. ... A pimp has the hat, the cane. Those are pimps. They have guidelines, just like gangs. What's happening now, it's nothing like what it is supposed to be like. It is just money for habits ... I don't know if you heard of renegades. I think most are renegades now. Even if girls have pimps, they're boyfriend and girlfriend. A pimp keeps all the money and dishes it out. That hardly happens anymore.

Whatever a pimp is or is not, however, the report concluded that Atlanta has the most of them.

4. Structure of the industry

Every industry has a structure. The illegal sex trade is no exception. Additionally, the structure is in constant flux, morphing in response to technology, law enforcement, and other market realities.

In the past, the industry mainly consisted of street prostitution. Today, however, it's become more segmented.

According to the study, a majority of business takes place on the Internet. Street prostitution is the next most prevalent. The industry is then rounded out by illicit massage parlors, brothels, and escort services.

5. The role of the Internet

As already noted, the Internet has fundamentally transformed the illegal sex trade.

It's shifted the venue from the street corner to Internet chat rooms and online classified ads. It's facilitated price discovery and marketing. And it's made recruiting easier and law enforcement harder.

In Denver, for instance, law enforcement officials have seen a decrease in the street market for prostitution, but an increase in the number of advertisements for escort services online.

And in Dallas, "Advertising via the Internet is said to increase during winter months and in periods following increased law enforcement investigations of street-based sex work and sex trafficking."

Foolish bottom line

To be clear, these observations are just the tip of the iceberg. The full report covers much more and the insights derived could easily serve as a catalyst for positive change. Here's hoping that they do.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2014, at 7:53 AM, winston1952 wrote:

    The so called facts in this article ignore that many if not most sex workers don't have pimps but are independent adult consensual sex workers.

    Every day across the country men and women are arrested for prostitution and related actions. Why are these people, both sex workers and their clients so vilified and harassed? Society's view of sex has changed over the years. It now accepts more public display and discussion about things sexual. With all the openness and heightened exposure of sex in the media and general public, the oldest element of sex, prostitution, still lives in the shadows. Both prostitutes and their customers are reviled and forced to operate in the margins of this otherwise open society. What does who one has sex with and whether or not the sex is paid for have to do with their qualification for public or private position? Rather than fall back on the tired bromides and sensationalism of the plastering

    it appears that society is beginning to take another look at sex work, sex workers and those who patronize them. Why is prostitution against the law? Where is the crime when two adults agree to have sex in exchange for money? This isn’t trafficking, which isn’t a sex crime but is a human rights abuse. Those forced into sex work should not be charged with prostitution but should be rescued from the traffickers. These laws allow too many dehumanize sex workers. If they aren't looked on as having the same rights as the rest of society then those who prey on women find easy targets in sex workers. Today sex workers and their customers are marginalized and viewed through a distorted lense. They are dehumanized and as a consequence it is too easy to take advantage of or abuse them. We need to recognize they are members of our society with the same wants and needs as everyone. Many if not most add to society in a positive manner, paying taxes, raising families adding to the economy etc.

    Legalizing will allow escorts the opportunity to contact police when they need to. Right now they can't because no matter why they call they are subject to arrest. Believe me escorts who are in the business for themselves are as against trafficking as you are. Legalization will allow escorts to be removed from the criminal element. Just like gambling, and alcohol and other so called vices, when legalized prostitution will be no longer a vehicle of the mob or pimps or gangs.

    Watch the documentary "American Courtesans", a movie where sex workers, their families and even customers have a chance to speak about their lives. It is powerful, fascinating and has been shown in film festivals all over the world including the ECU festival in Paris and Women's International festival in Miami and won awards for best editing and best documentary. The producer Kristen DiAngelo is also a sex worker/activist.

    Kristen DiAngelo is a voice for the rights of all sex workers and has launched The American Courtesans Project to bring light and humanity to the world of sex work. She is giving lectures at Rutgers and San Francisco State later in the year.

    'American Courtesans' is available in over 100 million homes across the US and Canada -- including on some of the largest cable systems in the country and iTunes , Amazon, Google+ and Hulu. It is also available on DVD and BluRay on and ebay.

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John Maxfield

John is The Motley Fool's senior banking specialist. If you're interested in banking and/or finance, you should follow him on Twitter.

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