Last month, news broke that relief workers for international charitable consortium Oxfam hired young women in Haiti and Chad to serve as sex workers and demanded sex in exchange for aid.
Oxfam leadership conceded it had been aware of the abusive situation and that it failed to notify other relief organizations looking to hire its former workers that had been involved in the illicit sex trade.
To some, this news may have come as a shock, but as researchers of the sex industry, we were not surprised. We’ve found that illicit prostitution businesses are thriving in a surprising place: the legitimate corporate world. And, we’ve found that the inequities of that world ― where women experience sexual harassment, a gender wage gap and a glass ceiling ― contribute to that sex trade.
To learn about the illicit prostitution trade, we interviewed 44 pimps, men who facilitate and profit from the earnings of sex workers, in Chicago. Of the men we spoke with a third were black, half were poor and didn’t have a good job, and fewer than half were involved in other crimes. These men fit the pop culture stereotype of a pimp. The other half did not: a full third had four-year college degrees, primarily in business administration, two had MBAs and most of these men were white. In addition to their pimping work, nearly half worked in legitimate companies, not in massage parlors or erotica businesses.
“A third of the pimps had four-year college degrees, primarily in business administration. Two had MBAs and most of them were white.”
These college-educated men told us about working as managers and executives in corporate finance, marketing, retail and sales. They work their white-collar jobs and manage the illicit trade as a side gig, averaging 8 years in pimping. On average, they began pimping at the age of 39. As pimps, they advertise, negotiate with clients, arrange hookups, serve as protection and provide transportation while taking between 20 percent to 60 percent of the earnings.
We found that these illegal businesses grew directly from the misogynistic culture of the legitimate ones that housed them. Some became pimps after learning of demand for paid sex through informal bantering about sexual conquests over lunch or beers with the bros. Half of the pimps started out as customers of sex workers, and several arranged “entertainment” for business clients as part of their job. For example, one CEO we interviewed started pimping during business trips, as clients requested hookups with sex workers. He now takes 60 percent of the earnings of twelve women who service his wealthy overseas clients when they visit Chicago. Other pimps started in college, and one inherited a high-end prostitution business from his uncle, who was a lawyer. One enterprising man approached women co-workers and offered them extra money to provide sexual services to their company’s clients.
“One enterprising man approached women co-workers and offered them extra money to provide sexual services to their company’s clients.”
That male executives employ prostitutes is not news. Recent reports suggest the practice is rampant in Silicon Valley. Sex trade researchers Christine Milrod and Martin Monto’s 2012 paper found that most clients of high-end escorts on the website The Erotic Review are white, college-educated men in professional jobs; half made six-figure salaries.
Many of the men we interviewed didn’t see their activities as wrong. One man in his fifties told us matter-of-factly that he started pimping to obtain free sex – a privilege of management. He claimed that his six providers enjoy having sex with him. He finds clients by scanning personal ad sections of men seeking women, then he asks those men if they are interested in paying for sex. Pimps often rationalized their actions by insisting that they are helping the women they employ. One explained, that he knew two of his sex workers needed help making ends meet because he got to know them when they worked for him part time in his legitimate business. “They lost their other job,” he said. “They couldn’t afford things.” Another pimp declared: “I don’t like violence and I don’t like exploiting young girls… I have morals… I mean, I’m an MBA.”
We didn’t interview the women who work for these pimps, so we can’t speak for them. But clients treat sex workers as products, rating their physical attractiveness, personality and sexual prowess on multiple websites. The pimps told us that many women have “regular jobs,” but cannot make ends meet or are paying college tuition. One pimp revealed that his five “girls” had regular clerical jobs and did sex work because they “had no raise or promotion in sight.” They earn their raises by taking a night shift of sex work arranged by a man for other men’s pleasure. While sex work provides much-needed cash in the short term, in the long run it is disempowering to women. Blurring the lines between women’s contributions to legitimate work and their sexual attractiveness only reinforces work practices where women are underpaid and unappreciated.
““I don’t like violence and I don’t like exploiting young girls… I have morals… I mean, I’m an MBA.””
That these illicit businesses flourish within legitimate ones is symptomatic of workplace cultures that see women as creating “distractions,” overstress women’s appearance and downplay sexual and gender harassment. Before she blew the whistle on her former bosses, ex-Oxfam employee Helen Evans conducted confidential surveys with 120 Oxfam staff. She reported to Oxfam leaders that 1 in 10 staff members said they had experienced forced sexual contact or assault from other staff. She wonders why Oxfam leaders canceled the meeting to discuss her report. We do too. Ignoring evidence of sexual and gender harassment undercuts women’s participation in the workforce: In this case, it undermines their participation in legal work, thus contributing to the illicit sex trade.
Our research also reveals that business schools should consider changing curricula to emphasize the importance of gender equity and respect in the workplace. Male employees need to speak up against practices that disrespect women in ways subtle and blatant. Women leaders are indirectly challenged with sexist language such as “you have some balls.” Those who complain about sexual harassment risk being labeled “too sensitive,” and most experience retaliation. Companies must end the practice of silencing women who speak out about harassment and demand that the men they employ do not treat their women colleagues like playthings.
Loretta Stalans, Ph.D. is a professor of criminal justice and criminology, psychology at Loyola University Chicago and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. Mary Finn, Ph.D. is director and professor of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.