Anyone trying to open a strip club or escort service may face stiff resistance from their prospective neighbors, concerned about increasing crime rates. However, if two coincidentally timed studies are to be believed, complainants should be more worried about Airbnb listings.
Fears that Airbnb listings are associated with higher crime rates have been widely expressed, but seldom tested. A team at Northeastern University investigated whether the perception was justified, and if so whether the cause was tourists causing crime, or something less direct.
In PLOS ONE they report that, at least in one city over a period of seven years, having more Airbnbs nearby was a risk factor for violent crime – but those booking the venues are not particularly prone to being perpetrators or victims
Dr Babak Heydari and co-authors tested the number of 911 calls against the density of Airbnb listings in Boston over 2011-2017 and found a definite correlation. However, the timing of changes ruled out the possibility people in more violent neighborhoods were fleeing their houses and letting them online instead. It also suggested tourists were not causing the crimes.
Instead, the authors found, there was a delay between listings going up and crimes occurring. They attribute this to transient populations breaking down the social dynamics – the neighborliness of neighborhoods one might say – that help stop crime.
"We show that it's not the number of Airbnb tourists who stay in a neighborhood that causes increase in criminal activities, but it's the creation of transient properties spread throughout a neighborhood that undermines social organization and social capital and over time and can cause disorder and criminal activities as a result,” Heydari said in a statement.
No doubt Airbnb won't like these findings. That's nothing, however, to the resistance likely to be faced by a team exploring whether the presence of sex industry venues is linked to nearby sexual crimes.
The belief that places like strip clubs and adult bookstores lead to more sexual crime is widespread and frequently used to force such businesses to the edge of town, or ban them altogether. Opponents highlighted a report claiming such a link in the London Borough of Camden, before a more rigorous analysis of the data discredited the findings.
Dr Riccardo Ciacci of Universidad Pontificia Comillas and Princeton's Dr María Micaela Sviatschi analyzed the geographic distribution of sexual violence in New York City from January 2004 to the end of June 2012, a period when sex industry premises increased almost four-fold. In The Economic Journal, they conclude that, far from increasing sexual violence, the presence of an establishment selling sexual products or services was associated with a 13 percent decrease in sexual crimes nearby. Other sorts of crimes were unchanged, undermining the hypothesis increased policing drove the reduction.
Ciacci and Sviatschi only looked at what happened in the first week after a place opened, so they may have missed lagged effects like the ones Heydari found. Nevertheless, finding a significant decrease in sexual crimes has some interesting implications if replicated.
"Sex crimes, including sexual violence, are a major public health concern," the authors write. “However, little is known about how to prevent sex crimes, including sexual abuse and rape.” That lack of knowledge should motivate efforts to see if the effect Ciacci and Sviatschi's found is lasting.