Kansas City ranks second in academic study of men looking for prostitutes online

Kansas City is teeming with unmet demand for sex with prostitutes who advertise on the Internet, according to an academic study of online sex customers released this week.

The report, prepared by researchers at the Arizona State University School of Social Work, estimated that during the study period in mid-June, 106,624 Kansas City area men were responding to commercial sex ads each day in a national website’s local section.

At 14.5 percent, the Kansas City area ranks second in the nation to Houston’s 21.4 percent in the percentage of men over the age of 18 who respond to online sex ads, according to the researchers.

In terms of total population, Kansas City ranks fourth among the cities studied, behind Houston, Miami and Boston.

But all of that comes with important qualifiers, noted Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an Arizona State professor who led the study.

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.

“In New York and San Francisco, you can purchase sex in many other venues online,” Roe-Sepowitz said. “There’s lots of other ways to purchase sex.”

The relatively few number of ads available to Kansas City commercial sex customers during the study period last spring, 98, combined with the repeat responses to the researchers’ decoy ads, 50 percent, led Roe-Sepowitz to conclude that supply has not risen to meet demand here.

“The 98 ads is very small, which is probably why we got so many calls,” she said. “You have a big demand.”

While the numbers seem large, they did not surprise a prosecutor in the Kansas City U.S. attorney’s office, which consistently has led the nation in sex and human trafficking cases.

A 2009 sting operation here, baited with Internet decoy ads offering young girls for sex, produced more than 500 calls in the first 24 hours, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Cordes.

“I absolutely was floored,” said Cordes, who will accept a national award in November for her work prosecuting sex trafficking. “When we first did that sting, part of me wanted it to be successful, but part of me didn’t because I didn’t want it to be that bad.”

Researchers conducted the study to give law enforcement, advocacy groups and policymakers more information to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation, Roe-Sepowitz said.

To gather data for the study, researchers posted two online ads, one week apart, in the 15 cities and gathered responses for 24 hours. Men making the 70 calls in Kansas City appeared to prefer the personal touch. All of the local responses came in the form of voice mails and not text messages, which also were permitted.

In every other city, between 26 and 77 percent of the responses came in as text messages, the study observed.

“I don’t know if it’s old school,” Roe-Sepowitz said. “We can’t make any conclusions out of it.”

With the data gathered, researchers arrived at their final population estimates of sex ad customers using a statistical sampling technique that previously had been used to estimate the population densities of jaguars in Brazil, tigers in India and heroin users in Australia.

The technique allows researchers to take data from small, observed populations and then estimate the larger populations from which they spring.

Sgt. Brad Dumit, a veteran Kansas City vice officer, had only skimmed the study Thursday, but he cautioned that response rates to decoy ads, both online and in print, can be unpredictable.

“I can tell you from doing this for years, I can place an ad in today and get minimal response, and place it in next week and get a gangbuster response,” Dumit said. “There’s no rhyme or reason for any of it.”

But the leader of a Kansas City nonprofit that counsels victims of commercial sexual exploitation said the study’s estimated population of men responding to online sex ads sounded low to her.

Kristy Childs, executive director of Veronica’s Voice, said that while some men may visit a prostitute only once or twice in their lives, they help sustain a sex industry and client base that can be quite large.

“They’re contributing to a bigger criminal element, and it helps keep the demand for it in place,” Childs said.

The study had the support of the Phoenix Police Department and was funded by Arizona State’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children.

Thorn is a nonprofit founded in 2009 by actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to combat child sex trafficking.