A new study by the Arizona State University School of Social Work examined how many customers in select U.S. cities are responding to online sex advertisements. Researchers at the college teamed up with the Phoenix Police Department in an effort to examine escort and sex ads that are prevalent in 15 urban areas — and the results are stunning.
The research, entitled, “Invisible Offenders: A Study of Online Sex Customers,” was conducted by the school’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. Experts, faced with some unique challenges pertaining to privacy and criminal behavior, had to come up with a viable method of collecting data, so they decided to create and deploy decoy sex ads online.
These dummy ads were placed on Backpage.com, a popular classifieds website. The cities that were included are as follows: Atlantic City, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Salt Lake City.
The press release announcing the research details how it was conducted:
The ads received 677 contacts, calls and texts and the researchers collected distinct phone numbers of 451 online sex ad customers. Population estimates were created for all 15 cities with Phoenix having an estimated 78,412 online sex ad buyers with a range from Houston with 169,920 to San Francisco with 9,594. The researchers created a probability estimate for each city using this number and found that on average, approximately one out of every 20 males over the age of 18 in a metropolitan city area is potentially soliciting online sex ads. The findings ranged from approximately one out of every five males in Houston, (21.4%) or using a more conservative estimate of 13.8%, one out of every seven males, to less than one of 166 males in San Francisco (.6%). […]
The researchers used an ecological sampling technique called capture/recapture, which has been used for sixty years to estimate the density of wildlife populations and more recently for drug use and diabetes rates in specific geographic areas. Using this sampling and modeling method, the study created a probability estimate for the total size of the online sex ad customer population based on the exposed male population in 15 U.S. cities.
Researchers’ stated goal in conducting the study was to assess the demand for prostitutes so that key stakeholders — police, advocacy groups and political leaders — can better understand to what extent this illegal activity is unfolding. Understanding the demand, researchers argue, truly helps to frame and break down the issue.
“This research will assist law enforcement to address gaps in operational knowledge as to the scope of demand, the increasingly technological nature of solicitation, and the impact of demand as a driving force in the sex trafficking culture,” said Lieutenant Gallagher of the Phoenix Police Department’s Vice Enforcement Unit.
“As a tool to facilitate greater understanding for law enforcement, knowledge such as this will prove to be essential as we continue to provide victim centered services through proactive investigations and strive to hold all victimizers, both traffickers and john’s, accountable,” he added.
Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz was joined by Gallagher to conduct the study. While Phoenix authorities were directly involved in its implementation, police departments in all of the cities that were included were notified about the researchers’ activities.
As noted, the rate in Houston was the highest, with San Francisco coming in at the lowest. As for the highest proportion of men, after Houston comes Kansas City (14.5 percent), Las Vegas (13.5 percent), and Boston (7.6 percent). The below chart shows the stunning estimates that emerged for all 15 cities during the study:
The study may not be conclusive, considering that it relies solely upon ads being placed on one website. The size of each city also matters, particularly when it comes to the diversity of websites that are available in larger localities like New York City.
If there are more options than just Backpage.com, it’s likely that the rate of men responding to ads will be lower on that particular site, since there are other websites for use in finding prostitutes as well. The Kansas City Star further explains this dynamic:
The study focused on 15 U.S. cities served by a national website that allowed commercial sex ads for individual metropolitan areas. Kansas City’s results probably were magnified in the study because that particular website, where the researchers placed decoy ads to attract responses, is one of the few local venues for such ads.
Cities with much larger populations, such as New York and Chicago, have many more options for local online sex ads. So, Roe-Sepowitz said, Kansas City’s population for commercial sex ads isn’t likely to be five times that of New York’s 21,514.
That said, it is a starting point to understanding the demand that exists on the Internet for escorts. You can read more about “Invisible Offenders: A Study of Online Sex Customers” here.
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