Earlier this month the Village Voice made public the findings of a study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which looked to define the most vulnerable population of sex workers: underage prostitutes. According to the study, “The typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp.” The study found that 45% were boys, 45% got into the business through friends, 90% were U.S. born, most serviced white, wealthy men and struck deals on the street (as opposed to the Internet). Importantly, 95% of respondents—70% of whom had sought assistance through a child service agency within the past year—said they exchanged sex for money “because it was the surest way to support themselves.” According to these researchers, even the most at-risk segment of the sex worker population—underage sex workers—are going it alone, selling sex on their own volition, and perceive themselves as making a choice given their circumstances. Only 10% were involved with what the researchers labelled a “market facilitator” (aka pimp).
For some, including the children met by the researchers behind the John Jay study, prostitution is a symptom of another problem that can take many forms: joblessness and poverty, lack of affordable housing, sexual abuse, mental abuse and trauma—problems more daunting than a boogeyman in a pimp hat. Yet, the myth that all sex workers are victims of traffickers or under the control of pimps still hijacks society’s imagination. Sadly, this myth misunderstands not only the “victims” of prostitution but its “victimizers” as well—people who, as research reveals, are oftentimes one in the same.
The origins of the word “pimp” reach back to the 17th century. It is believed to have come from the French infinitive “pimper” meaning to dress up elegantly and from the present participle “pimpant” meaning alluring in dress, or seductive. According to Slate, the term was introduced to mean, literally, “a person who arranges opportunities for sexual intercourse with a prostitute” and figuratively “a person who panders to an undesirable or immoral impulse.” In Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class Robin Kelley recounts the subtle and not-so-subtle but conscious acts of rebellion and resistance among a black working class, including the reclamation of the word “pimp” as a positive identity. Although African-American male culture is accredited with reclaiming the word in the 1970s, Kelley traces the celebration of the pimp to the zoot suiters and hipsters of the World War II era and the black male youth who sought alternatives to wage work and pleasure in music, clothing, and dance. Due to the unequal job market and lack of opportunities for men of color, some black men wholly rejected the work ethic of the era, favoring instead “a privilege of leisure and an emphasis on ‘fast money’ with little or no physical labor”—an ethic, Kelley writes, which “frequently meant increased oppression and exploitation of women, particularly black women.”
According to Kelley, the connotations of sexism and exploitation in the movement obscure its oppositional potential, which are embedded, in part, in what Malcolm X deemed its “ghetto adornments”—zoot suits, flashes of wealth, and conspicuous consumption—visual protests adapted by a people struggling for economic power, and generational and ethnic identity. In the 1990s came a resurgence of the word amidst hip hop culture. The word came to represent a look and lifestyle of ease and privilege specifically available to the African American male, described as “living large.” While the sexist overtones continued—the availability and exchangability of women meant one was “pimpin”—the origins of the movement remained legitimate. Pimpin’ is a celebration of earning power, respect, and high social status available to young, black men. A pimp was well-appreciated and financially secure, qualities sometimes seemingly out of grasp for too many young black males. The rapper, Nelly, began to claim pimp as an acronym for “positive, intellectual, motivated person.” He even created a college scholarship with the name “P.I.M.P. Juice Scholarship,” a move that was met with controversy.
“My mother doesn’t understand how the word ‘pimp’ could ever be a compliment,” Genie Leslie recently wrote on feministing.com, “but for many of us under 60, we know that pimp is often used to describe something as cool, and when applied to a person (usually a man), it means that they’ve got game, they’re good with the ladies, they date/hook up/have sex a lot.”
Without historical and geopolitical context, it is, indeed, hard to see what any words mean—particularly the word “pimp,” which has been re-appropriated by young, white, middle-class men to embolden their manhood without them having endured any of the discrimination and criminalization historically suffered by men of color. Co-opted in this way, the word feels like an assault to women. It becomes a part of the white lexicon, an instrument of our further misunderstanding. Genie’s piece, for example, was in response to a radio show host celebrating Republican candidate Herman Cain as a “pimp.” At the risk of defending Herman Cain, a cursory Internet search reveals how Cain was characterized as a pimp well before any charges of sexual harassment came to light. White America’s obsession with the hat he wears and conversations over whether he is more “authentically black” than President Obama demonstrate our country’s anxiety with the black male and our sad lacking of narratives describing black men in power other than with the label, pimp. Cain’s anti-intellectualism and hyper-masculinization—not to mention being the former CEO of a company whose name references organized crime—make him an even more perfect target for the moniker. Sexual harassment charges only reinforce the stereotype, reaffirming what we already seek to know about black men.
When we slow down to study our complex reality—particularly, when we begin acknowledging the intersectionality of race, class, gender and geopolitical location in the formation of identity, we see that “evil” and “innocence” are not so “black” and “white.” In a 2010 study conducted by DePaul College of Law, researchers interviewed 25 ex-pimps in the Chicago area, giving words and faces to the “sleazy subhumans” we call pimps. Over 75 percent of respondents were nonwhite. Interestingly, 28% were female. The sample reported having survived similar household characteristics typically ascribed to sex workers, leading the researchers to name their study From Victims to Victimizers. Many of the self-identified former pimps had experienced physical abuse while growing up, including childhood sexual assault and domestic violence, and had witnessed drug and alcohol abuse in the home. Most described having grown up in neighborhoods where the sex industry was one of the only means of socioeconomic opportunities. For this reason, sex work was described by the researchers as a “family business.” 68% had sold sex prior to themselves becoming a pimp.
Like the children involved in the John Jay study—who reported sex work as an alternative to homelessness or to dangerous foster care or shelter situations, and who cited economic desperation caused by no sources of income for the underaged—the ex-pimps in DePaul’s study cited pimping as a means for survival. One man’s story, according to researchers, illustrated a typical survival scenario. Having lived in four abusive foster care situatons, at age 16 he ran away from yet another a foster home to live on the street. “We [runaways] all hung out together,” he said. “When [the girls] needed someone to watch their back or hold money for them it would be me. The next thing you know I was letting them live with me. Then I got involved with setting up the dates …and checking out the johns… It was just business. It was a way of never being broke or poor again.”
According to Emi, while a pimp/worker relationship may be controlling, abusive and violent, it is more useful to consider its resemblance to marriages or other romantic relationships than to assume the old captive/captor trope. Sex workers are reluctant to leave violent or abusive relationships for the same reasons other victims of domestic violence stay. While this is sometimes because of fear, more often it is because the victim receives something from the relationship that her/his network or our greater society is otherwise failing to provide them. This includes material needs such as food and housing as well as emotional needs (when the abuse is in remission) such as protection, affection, validation and support. Also, notes Emi, like other victims of abuse, sex workers do not always leave abusive relationships because they love their abusers.
To quote Emi:
I do not think that these relationships are unproblematic, or that violence and abuse should be tolerated just because the victims do when they can’t control it. But there is a huge policy implication to recognizing agency and resilience among people who stay with their pimps instead of treating them as passive, powerless victims or “sex slaves.” Efforts to unilaterally “rescue” these individuals take away their security and support, leaving them worse off than before (and still having to engage in sex trade to survive under less desirable circumstances).
For some, it is a radical leap to think of sex workers as subjects that are in relationships with others. It is even more radical to begin to envision these “others” as human beings as well. When advocates are willing to do this, they will have caught up with sex workers, the population they are purporting to help. In my own experience as a researcher, I interviewed just one woman willing to say that she’d worked with a pimp. She described him first as a former boyfriend, whom she relied on for for financial guidance and protection, for which she compensated him monetarily. He was controlling, she said, and when he started to hit her she left him. “He’s my ex-boyfriend now,” she said. On afterthought she added, “I guess you could call him a pimp.”