Report: Metro Atlanta’s underground sex trade is booming

Shadow economy is valued at $290 million, study says


  • Urban Institute
  • An Urban Institute study finds that Atlanta leads eight US metro areas in “value” of the underground sex industry.

An underworld of illegal sex work has resulted in hundreds of millions spent on street prostitutes, Korean massage parlors, and Mexican brothels in metro Atlanta, according to a new report.

A study published by the Urban Institute yesterday details the size and inner workings of underground sex work and child pornography in eight major U.S. metro regions, including Atlanta. The others included Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, San Diego, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Atlanta’s underground sex economy in 2007 - the last year for which key data is available - was estimated at $290 million and ranked atop the eight-metro list. Georgia’s capital was one of only two metro regions to grow rather than shrink compared to its 2003 figures and remained much higher than the region’s estimated illegal drug and gun trades.

As Atlanta debates tactics for coping with street prostitution, the report underscores some known factors while debunking others. Both pimps and human traffickers regularly control prostitutes and regularly move some of them through multi-city “circuits.” But pimps often keep prostitutes away from alcohol and most drugs and, especially in Atlanta, the sex trade has few ties to organized crime.

Based on stat analysis combined with police and convicted sex worker interviews, the report admits it used limited data, and says it surely underestimates the size of the sex trade. It relies on self-reported anecdotes, like an anonymous cop who claimed “major rappers from Atlanta” pay big bucks to prostitutes to dance in their videos, then have sex afterward.

Still, it provides many details about sex workers’ motivations. For metro Atlanta, it paints a grimy picture of sex outlets controlled by various ethnic or national groups, most serving a highly diverse array of male clients.

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Atlanta has a “significant amount of pimp-controlled prostitution on the street and online through websites such as Craigslist and Backpage,” the report says, calling the trade “highly profitable.”

Most pimps are older African-American men and most prostitutes are women, the report says. Their average cost for oral sex is between $50 and $100, while genital sex runs between $75 with rumored discounts for veterans and cops. Online prices tend to be higher. In most cases, prostitution happens in hotels, motels, or “date houses” - private homes whose owners take a cut of the fee.

Pimps often view their crime as lower-risk than drug-dealing or other illegal activities. In Atlanta, they often call themselves by euphemisms like “entrepreneur” instead of “pimp.” The report says that may in part be due to the high-profile busts a decade ago of brutal pimps Andrew “Batman” Moore and First name? “Sir Charles” Pipkins.

Prostitutes are often motivated by economic necessity, peer or family pressure, or coping with childhood trauma. The report quotes a former Atlanta prostitute as saying she and a friend, at age 17, approached a local pimp for work after seeing the money has was making.

In Massage parlors, which are largely run by Korean immigrants, clients can have sex with the workers are in a “highly organized and structured” network with nationwide locations. The workers are often older women smuggled into the country from Korea. Local parlors are concentrated in the Chamblee and Doraville area to draw truckers, the report says.

The “Latino brothels” operate as secret, unadvertised places open only to in-the-know Latino men, often from particular Mexican towns. The prostitutes are women lured from Mexico by human traffickers and forced to service up to 50 men per day.

The underground sex economy also funds a variety of mainstream, non-sexual jobs, according to the report. A quarter of the pimps interviewed said they hired drivers, security guards, and secretaries - even a nanny to take care of prostitutes’ children.

The report makes a variety of policy recommendations, including stronger laws and education campaigns. It calls for better training and diversity on police forces. The suggestions also include requiring newspapers and websites that carry classified ads to also publish human trafficking hotline numbers. It does not address pre-booking diversion programs, like activists are suggesting for Atlanta, and also makes no mention of legalizing prostitution.

The Urban Institute is a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C., that often undertakes federal studies. The sex trade report was commissioned in 2010 by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The report’s full title is “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities.”