Demand for Prostitution: The Critical Role of Market Dynamics in Combating Sex Trafficking

The concepts of supply and demand are fundamental building blocks in capitalist economies. Supply represents how much of a particular product the market can offer, and demand refers to how much of a product is desired by potential buyers.[1]

When these concepts are applied to the phenomenon of prostitution, those individuals who are bought and sold for sex constitute the “supply.” Thus, prostitution renders human beings—predominantly women and children, but also men—into public sexual commodities that are sold in the prostitution marketplace.[2]

To end sex trafficking, we must focus on decreasing the demand for prostitution by influencing our culture to reject buying behaviors. #StopTheDemand Click To Tweet

In contrast, those who make up the “demand” are the individuals with the desire, along with the ability and willingness, to purchase people within that marketplace to use for sex. Their decision to buy someone for sex is a choice. As the driving force fueling the prostitution marketplace, sex buyers have been described as the “primary” level of demand. “Without them making the decision to buy sex acts, prostitution [and, ergo, sex trafficking] would not exist.”[3] Those who comprise the demand are overwhelmingly male. They buy sex acts from prostituted persons but subcontract the intimidation and violence necessary to sexually access them to others—the pimps.[4] Men who solicit and buy people for sex are often referred as “clients” and “customers.”[5] These terms normalize and obscure the harm of their behavior.[6]

Sex trafficking exists because the male demand for people in prostitution outstrips the supply of “willing” people in the prostitution marketplace. Because few people wish to be bought in exchanges of sex for money, pimps and sex traffickers (i.e., distributors of people used for prostitution) step in to provide the supply. To secure people they can sell in the prostitution marketplace, pimps engage in recruitment, transportation, harboring, provisioning and obtaining, and they utilize means of force, fraud, and coercion.[7] Such actions comprise the legal definition of sex trafficking. Thus, pimps are, by definition, functional equivalents of sex traffickers and any pimp-controlled person—whether a minor or an adult—is a victim of sex trafficking.

Global Supply Chain of Sexual Exploitation

The prostitution marketplace has an innate predatory dependence on targeting vulnerable persons in order to obtain its supply. Runaway and foster care children, racial minorities, displaced persons and refugees, the sexually abused, the learning disabled, the homeless, widows, orphans, and drug addicted persons provide ideal targets.

Numerous modalities are used as means of providing male sex buyers—“the demand”—opportunities to purchase people supplied for prostitution. These include pornography production[8] and distribution companies, strip clubs (as well as venues featuring table and lap dancing), live-sex shows, peep shows, Internet-based (i.e., “virtual”) prostitution, escort or outcall services, prostitution/sex tour operators, brothels (frequently operating behind fronts such as massage parlors, saunas, bathhouses, bars, cabarets, clubs, cinemas, beauty salons, barber shops and restaurants), as well as pimp-facilitated street-level prostitution.[9]

A wide range of other industries and enterprises support and profit from the commerce in human beings sold for sex. These include the tourism industry,[10] restaurant owners, taxi drivers, security firms, accountants, lawyers, doctors, advertisers, portions of the public health sector, and interactive computer service providers.[11] So, while the entities that comprise the prostitution marketplace may appear to be limited to the small-time operators of back alley brothels, sleazy bars, and seedy red-light districts, when one considers the wide range of financial beneficiaries in the aggregate, we find powerful corporations and interest groups as well as multinational and multifaceted “sex sectors.”[12] These sectors can be so substantial in size that they contribute significantly to the GDPs of national governments.[13]

Collectively, the operators of prostitution marketplaces and the ancillary enterprises supporting and profiting from their activities constitute the “global supply chain of sexual exploitation.”[14] They have also been described as the “secondary” level of demand.[15] This global supply chain of enterprises constructed to meet the demands of the prostitution marketplace generates robust profits for those who own, manage, or work for businesses linked to these enterprises. For instance, a study of San Diego County’s illicit sex economy in 2013 estimated that it had generated $810 million dollars.[16]

Prostitution: The Sex Trafficking Context

The industry context in which any form of exploitation takes place is of prime importance to understanding how and why the phenomenon occurs. Understanding the underlying market and its dynamics allows us to develop effective strategies for combating abuse and exploitation.

Prostitution and all the modalities by which it is made available in sex trade marketplace are the context in which sex trafficking occurs. No serious effort to abate sex trafficking can be undertaken without a critical investigation of the bedrock industry on which and in which sex trafficking occurs—the prostitution marketplace.

In other words, strategies to combat sex trafficking must take into consideration the entirety of commercial sex trade, especially demand.

This is why the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has devoted considerable effort and is working to launch new initiatives to combat the demand for prostitution. Among these new initiatives is Demand Forum provides access to information about combating prostitution and sex trafficking—particularly the criminal justice strategies and collaborative programs that have been developed to focus on deterring demand.

NCOSE plans to seek the resources needed to devote substantial time and energy to updating and improving Demand Forum. Of particular importance: new demand deterrence tactics have emerged that were not included in the original typology. We also have plans to develop “tool kits” providing practical, easy to follow guidance on developing demand deterrence programs.

Demand Forum further enforces NCOSE’s stance on demand, and the importance of addressing this root cause of systemic sexual abuse and exploitation. We believe no one has a right to buy sexual access to another person, and we know from survivors that prostitution markets are highways to abuse and exploitation. By confronting the demand for prostitution, we seek to use market dynamics to prevent sexual exploitation and trafficking before it happens.

[1] See:

[2] The prostitution marketplace is more commonly referred as “the sex trade” or “commercial sex industry. However, these terms obscure the nature of activity at the core of market, and because the later lends a sheen of normalcy and legitimacy to an inherently exploitive trade, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation advocates for use of prostitution marketplace instead.

[3] Donna M. Hughes, “Best Practices to Address the Demand Side of Sex Trafficking,” (2004), pg. 2.

[4] Joe Parker, “How Prostitution Works,” 1998,


[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defined a “severe form of sex trafficking” as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provisioning and obtaining, of a person for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, by means of force, fraud, or coercion.

[8] Pornography is prostitution—prostitution for mass consumption.

[9] Thompson, ibid.

[10] For instance, in Germany “Travel agencies offer tours to German brothels lasting up to eight days . . . Prospective customers are promised up to 100 “totally nude women” wearing nothing by heels.” See Spiegel Online, “How Legalizing Prostitution Has Failed,” May 30, 2013,

[11] Thompson, ibid.

[12] Lin Lean Lim, “The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia.” In The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia, ed. Lin Lean Lim (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1998), 1–28.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Thompson, ibid.

[15] Hughes, ibid.

[16] Ami Carpenter and Jamie Gates, “The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County,” NIJ- 2012-R2-CX-0028, April 2016,

The Numbers


NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.


The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.


NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.



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