Researcher Tracks Illicit Sex After Quitting Commodities

Meredith Dank has a job that she admits can be a “party buzz kill” -- she spends her days delving into the often gritty and grim lives of child sex workers, prostitutes and pimps.

“As much as you think you have built up this wall of emotion, there are some horrific stories out there that are absolutely crushing, and it can leave you just speechless,” said Dank, 36, a former commodities analyst who was the lead author of a 340-page study published March 12 that examined the business side of the commercial sex trade in eight U.S. cities.

Based on interviews with scores of police officials, prostitutes and pimps, the study, funded with $499,000 from the U.S. Justice Department, will help policy makers better address the lucrative illegal sex market, several criminologists said.

Amy Farrell, an assistant professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, said Dank’s report “gives us a glimpse into the causes, the structures, the relationships within this market.”

“We are learning the basic science of how these markets operate,” Farrell said.

Though her work can be depressing, Dank says she has found it more meaningful than what she did in previous jobs. After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1999, the once-aspiring businesswoman who majored in Japanese briefly tracked steel purchases for the Tokyo-based commodities trading firm Mitsui & Co. “It was so boring I can’t even really remember what I did,” she said.

Robert Plant

She next worked in the public relations department of Sony Corp., and then in marketing for a now-defunct independent record label where she met rock musicians including former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and the members of the Allman Brothers Band. Despite her brushes with celebrities, she found the work “exciting but not that fulfilling.”

Then, in 2002, Dank had an epiphany while passing John Jay College of Criminal Justice on her way to work in New York City. Dank knew the school had a well-regarded program, and she was fan of television crime dramas, in particular the 1990s series “Twin Peaks.” Dank was soon taking classes there.

“I am a ‘go by the gut’ person,” she said. “I thought, ’Maybe this is something I could click with.’”

By 2006, she was fully immersed in a study of juveniles in the sex trade, interviewing hundreds of teens and peeling away a sad litany of stories, often hidden under tough facades.

“Some youths seem like, ‘I’m great. This is how I’m making money,’” she said. “But then you get into a room with them and they start talking about it, and they are not posturing anymore and they are telling you how they really feel, and they don’t really want to be doing this.”

Sex Trafficking

Policy makers worldwide have made it priority to combat sex trafficking, particularly of children like those studied by Dank. Almost 80 percent of the 2.5 million victims of human trafficking world-wide were being sexually exploited, according to what the United Nations called a conservative estimate. As many as 325,000 children are at risk of sexual exploitation in the U.S., according to an estimate by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dank earned her Ph.D. and in 2009 began working as a research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit study center.

After she won her Justice Department grant in 2012, Dank spent two years traveling across the U.S., visiting prisons, jails and probation offices to interview 73 pimps and three dozen prostitutes. The study chronicles in detail the little-understood sex marketplace works.

‘Cathartic Experience’

“Their stories are just terrible. From what I’ve seen there is a lot of trauma,” she said. Some of those interviewed “thanked me for talking to them. It was a cathartic experience for some of them.”

While there are few reliable statistics on the precise number of people in the illegal sex trade, the business is a sizable one, according to criminologists and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Police made more than 40,000 arrests in the U.S. in 2012 on prostitution and vice charges, FBI data show.

In her research, Dank found that the trade was lucrative. The illegal sex business in seven U.S. cities -- Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, San Diego, Miami and Denver -- totaled $975 million in 2007, or $1 billion today in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the study. Kansas City, Missouri was also examined but wasn’t included in the economic analysis.

She also discovered that the work and life of prostitutes and pimps was more nuanced than common perception.

Prostitutes’ Stories

“It is complicated,” said Dank. “There are people who are forced into it, There are people who don’t have any alternatives, and there are people who voluntarily go into it.”

She said the prostitutes’ stories were often as difficult to hear as those of juvenile victims. “A lot of them are just trying to survive,” she said. “They have no other viable work opportunities. If you have no place to sleep at night, or you can’t feed your family, and somebody offers to pay you for sex, there is a good chance you will take it.”

Dank sat across the table from pimps who seemed as charismatic as used-car salesman: cunning, entrepreneurial, ambitious. A few even took business classes at community colleges while others tried to find new ways to make money.

One unidentified pimp told her he had big dreams for the Internet and started his own website, paying the web designer “with two pounds of weed” -- marijuana -- that he said was worth $12,000. “The reason I invested so much money was that I wanted to expand,” he told her, according to the study. “I wanted it to expand to another level.”

Occasional Violence

Some pimps were brutal. Fifteen percent admitted using occasional violence against their employees, Dank found.

“There were definitely a few you would not want to meet in a dark alley,” she said.

Scholars of criminal justice say the report is an important contribution to the field because Dank combined financial research with hundreds of personal stories.

“She is very comfortable in that environment. She is able to connect with them on a human level,” said Karen Terry, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College who has worked with Dank. “This isn’t just an academic study to her. She wants to know about the people she is studying.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.