The Underground Commercial Sex Economy

A Cultural Shift

As social attitudes about sex changed, so did men’s demand for sex workers.  In centuries before, premarital sex was typically frowned upon by American society.  Without a “hookup culture,” men were simply forced to seek out commercial sex.  Additionally, as there were few other employment opportunities for women, sex work became a reasonable option.  Sex work was still stigmatized, and thus women could charge more to make up for the social status they lost.  Thus, the entering the sex work economy was more financially lucrative than it is now (The Economist).

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Found at “Laying bare supply and demand in the oldest profession.

The Underground Sex Economy Today

Today, sex workers and pimps usually join the economy due to family ties.  Many participants grew up seeing sex work and normal, and then chose to join as a result.  Other times, sex workers asked family members to act as pimps as a form of protection (TIME).

Sex workers typically work for a pimp, who can organize and connect them with johns and offer them physical and economic protection.  Pimps can also organize price per hour and per act, or may give deals to regular johns.  They can also set boundaries for what is allowed and what is not, for example, some pimps will not allow their sex workers to use drugs or to do work with young men, who can be more violent (The Economist).  Typically, pimps will charge between $150 and $300 per hour spent with sex worker (The Washington Post).  Pimps who employed an average of five sex workers made typically between $5,000 and $32,833 a week (TIME).  As this economy is underground, pimps also do not have to pay taxes.  Still, pimps often put percentages o their salaries back into their business, spending money on transportation, housing, clothing and accessories, food, and security.  As a result, pimps and sex workers often learn little from their earnings (TIME).  As chart delineating pimps’ business related expenses can be found here.

State by State

            From state to state, the underground sex economy comes in different forms and makes varying amounts of profit.  A study done by The Urban Institute brought together data and insight into the intricacies of this market in a few major cities throughout the United States.  Data was collected by interviewing sex workers and pimps.  In 2007, these researches discovered that the sex economy in Atlanta is usually fostered in brothels, escort services, and massage parlors, and that its market was estimated to make $290 million.  In Washington, it was $103 million, while they found the smallest market was found in Denver at $40 million (The Washington Post).

Sex Work and the Internet

As the internet and technology becomes a prevalent, if not essential part of American society, the underground sex market changes: it becomes easier for buyers and sellers and interact (The Economist).  “New suppliers will enter a trade that is becoming safer and less tawdry. New customers will find their way to prostitutes, since they can more easily find exactly the services they desire and confirm their quality.”  (The Economist).  The internet makes it easier for pimps to advertise sex workers and widens their customer base socially and geographically, and thus increases competition (WP).  The internet can increase the productivity of the market, as negotiations can be made ahead of time instead of perchance on the street.  Additionally, new applications are being created that will allow sex workers to confirm identities with their customers, and allow them to exchange sexual health information (The Economist).   For sex workers, using the internet can mean higher rates (The Washington Post).  However, there is a risk the payment will not be brought to the transaction.

Pimps should be concerned about the internet, as the internet might undermine their marketing power,” as sex workers and buyers may be able to make transactions without the middle man (The Economist).


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