In the resulting study, “Conflict and Agency Among Sex Workers and Pimps,” released in this May’s ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Marcus and Curtis (along with researchers Amber Horning, Jo Sanson, and Efram Thompson) interviewed a total of 372 sex workers (262 of whom were minors and 70 who had previously worked as minors) to present a more complicated idea of how the market for underage sex work functions, one that some well-meaning activists—and legislation like the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act, which seeks to prosecute pimps to save underage sex workers—may not fully understand. Previous research in the area, much of which relied on interviews with a handful of underage sex workers who turn up in rescue institutions, rehabilitation programs, or in jail, “paints a skewed picture of the complex environment of prostitution,” they wrote. Really, “stereotypical pimps are far less common and important to street sex markets than would be expected.” In their sample, only 14 percent of female underage sex workers in New York City (and 6 percent of the males) had a pimp. Some testified that they had recruited their friends and boyfriends to help them with their business. And “all sex workers in both Atlantic City and New York City described experiencing increasing, rather than decreasing, agency and control over their work over time.” Many of the girls and boys they interviewed “had left pimps because they were violent, mentally abusive, lazy, poor business associates, unable to protect them, extracting too much money, or no longer fun to be around,” sometimes within days or weeks of meeting. One 17-year-old sex worker in New York says her boyfriend tricked her into sex work at the age of 12. But he’s not the one keeping her on the street—she left him and began working independently less than a year later. Another 17-year-old sex worker in Atlantic City says that she was initiated into sex work by a pimp, but dropped him after her first gig. “I’d rather work for myself,” she told them. “It’s more money.”
Pimps, too, failed to fit the stereotypical mold. “We were told pimps were not approachable because they were too dangerous and didn’t want to talk,” Marcus told me. “But all they wanted to do was talk, talk, talk—that’s what they do for a living.” Many pimps referred the researchers to their sex workers if they approached them in the right way, no cuts on the face required. (In addition to interviewing pimps in Atlantic City, the researchers spoke with 85 male pimps working in New York.) One pimp told them that going after underage girls constituted “pimp suicide,” not because it makes pimps vulnerable to harsh anti-trafficking laws, but because “teenage prostitutes don’t earn enough money,” Marcus says.