Seattle's Underground Sex Economy Explained, In Five Points

Mar 13, 2014

Seattle’s underground sex economy more than doubled between 2003 and 2007, when the industry shrunk in other U.S. cities, according to a study by the Urban Institute released Wednesday.

The in-depth study on the economics of the underground commercial sex trade focused on eight U.S. cities, including Seattle, through national data sets and interviews with hundreds of sex workers and law enforcement officials.

Here are five characteristics the study unveiled about the Seattle’s sex trade.

1. 123 Percent Growth In Five Years

Seattle’s sex economy more than doubled between 2003 and 2007, from $50.3 million to $112 million, according to the study led by researcher Meredith Dank. It’s hard to know why the industry ballooned; the study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, only set out to examine the size and the structure of the underground economy.

Atlanta was the only other city included in the study to experience growth during the same period, from $238 million to $290 million. The other cities — Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City and Washington, D.C. — all saw declines.

2. Massage Parlors And Home Brothels > Online Business

In Seattle, online prostitution is big, but massage parlors and home brothels are bigger, the study found. The city has seen an increase in the number of both businesses in the past five to 10 years.

“The proliferation of Asian massage parlors and Asian home brothels is unique to Seattle and involves individuals from China, Vietnam and Korea,” the study said. “Home brothels tend to be highly organized and generate a great deal of money in the UCSE (underground commercial sex economy), much of which goes back to the operators’ home country.”

3. Johns, Sex Workers Have Social Networking Events

This is a practice unique to Seattle, researchers found.

Arranged through local message boards, “at these events, johns and sex workers socialize with one another at an undisclosed venue and in some cases, celebrate holidays with one another,” the study said.

Here’s how one federal law enforcement official described the events to researchers: “They had a Halloween party and a Christmas party, where the people on the message board would actually get together — it'd be invite only for people that are active on the message board — they’d receive an invitation. And they would go to a local restaurant where they would actually be able to interact and meet each other."

Researchers found the message boards prove especially valuable for high-end escorts, who are few in number but earn big profits, charging, on average, $250 per hour — more than other sex workers.  

4.  ‘Old School Pimping’ Is Out; More Gangster-Turned Pimps

It used to be that pimps in the Seattle area became involved in the sex trade through family members or friends, according to the study's description of so-called "old school pimping."

But in the past five to 10 years, the city began seeing “more gangster turned pimps, than original pimps,” researchers found.

“A lot of these gang members are getting into the commercial exploitation of children because it is very low risk very high return,” one local law enforcement official told researchers, adding a prostitution charge can be easier to beat than a drug charge or a theft charge. “People, women, children, they are a reusable commodity. And most of these girls, they’ve [the pimps have] got them so brainwashed, they say, ‘Hey, this is just a friend of mine. I’m taking her down to her cousin’s house,’ and the girl confirms it. And if she says, ‘Yeah, he is pimping me out,’ 97 percent they go back to that person.”

Each Seattle pimp typically has two to three girls working for him with a daily earning quota between $500 to $800, the study found. However, the amount can be increased to $1,000 to $1,500 as punishment, and the failure to meet the quota can result in abuse or even torture.

5. Seattle Is Part Of A Circuit

Seattle is part of both a local circuit and a national circuit through which sex workers frequently relocate, researchers found. The local circuit between Everett and Tacoma, and sometimes as far south as Portland.

For street and online sex workers, the national circuit primarily includes San Francisco and Las Vegas. Los Angeles is off-limits, as “the pimps there don’t play and are very territorial,” one law enforcement official told researchers.

Massage parlor workers often rotate to and from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, researchers found, and brothel workers have ties to California’s Orange County, Santa Ana and Anaheim.