Today the Urban Institute released an exciting report with a somewhat less-than-exciting title: "Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities." And man, is it a fascinating read.
The remarkable thing about the report is the extent to which it quotes directly from the mouths of those involved in the trade. More than 140 sex traffickers/pimps, child pornographers, and sex workers were interviewed here, and they are quoted at length. Which is amazing, because sex worker activists have been pointing out—perhaps "shouting" is a more accurate term—for decades that the debate about sex work is usually conducted by people who have no direct experience of sex work, either as pimps, johns, or sex workers themselves. What we have here is evidence that feels way less abstract than say, pure statistics would.
I'm still going through the report—there are over 350 densely packed pages. So far I've been learning a great deal about the status of the modern pimp, as told by the modern pimp. This is what I've learned:
Pimps feel misrepresented.
In fact, a lot of pimps hate that you even call them pimps. "In my mind, pimp is a derogatory word," one pimp tells his interviewer. It seems that the image "pimp" calls up strikes most as antiquated: "Pimp is like the tooth fairy, from the old '70s movies with big hats and big ol' chains. That's not me." Another suggests a different title altogether for those who might formerly have been described as, right, "pimps":
What's happening now, it's nothing like what it is supposed to be like. It is just money for habits … I don't know if you heard of renegades. I think most are renegades now.
Of course, we have to account for some self-reporting bias from these... renegades. Or you know, people-formerly-known-as-pimps. (Should I call them PFKAPs? I have this old leftist habit of trying to respect nomenclature here but maybe I will just keep calling them pimps and you, the audience, will understand that they object to the term. Or, some of them do. You get the idea.) But the consistent upshot is that things do not quite so closely resemble the Hollywood idea of a pimp as they once did, if ever they did.
Pimps don't think they're as bad as sex traffickers.
There is a lot of disdain for "the international shit, holding bitches hostage." One pimp in fact evinces what sounds like sincere concern about those women who do not even nominally choose the profession:
Mexico is a different story. Those girls are being forced. Took from their country, don't know the language. I know a girl who was locked in someone's house for a whole year, couldn't leave, just had johns coming in and going. How did they get there? [Was the] dude going out and finding them? None of the [johns] had a big enough heart to see you were trapped and don't do nothing?
That said, the pimp in question expresses this concern after more self-servedly claiming that most people are not forced into sex work:
I watched an MSNBC show, and some of the things girls say on there is so disturbing to me, it makes my blood bubble. No girl is forced to prostitute. I am telling you guys the truth.
Other interview subjects echoed this view: "If you want to get away, you always can."
Pimps say that women sometimes recruit them to be pimps...
Several pimps told their interviewers that they sort of fell ass-backward into pimping when aspiring sex workers approached them, usually looking for protection:
She asked, "Will you be my pimp?" I said, "I ain't no pimp, but I'll look out for you though."
This type of recruitment seems to happen as early as... high school.
One day I was leaving football practice, and my school was right there on the blade. This girl I go to school with approaches me and says, "You know. I'm from your neck of the woods, I see how you handle these dudes. I've been doing this since before junior high and I think you got something in you." She was 13 or 14 [years old].
...but also admit that they often "abusively" manipulate sex workers.
Only about fifteen percent of the pimps and sex traffickers interviewed here would cop to using violence to control their workers. To its credit, the Urban Institute points out, outright, that there's probably some self-reporting bias there again. But there are also plenty of confessions of psychological manipulation. One pimp identifies it as a skill he long had:
It started in high school, middle school really. [It was] 8th grade. Just being the dude that can talk a female into having sex with me and a couple of buddies. Always having the gift of the gab, always being able to talk to convince a female to see my point of view. It's like challenging yourself. Seeing how far you can get a female to go. That's how it started. Seeing what I could talk a female into doing.
That said it seems the gift of manipulation can also be learned:
I learned these techniques being involved with sales and marketing. [I learned] how to influence people. All of those books, tapes, and CDs. They were all in my library.
And while some pimps continue to insist it's a choice, others are more direct:
Interviewer: Is there a certain type of girl who can be manipulated?
Respondent: I believe any female is doable to change, by that I mean going to make money. I have seen girls that come from college, that come from money, who have been changed by this process.
Interviewer: How long does that change take?
Respondent: It can take anywhere from a day to a few months.
Interviewer: Do you think that it's a difference between a day and month if they come from a better family?
Some explain they target bus stations for runaways; others outline techniques for "easing women" into the business. You even get at least one pimp outright admitting that the
The sex trade is like the rest of America: racist.
It turns out, for example, to be a widespread attitude among the pimps in this study that an African-American sex worker is seen as having less value than a white woman, as being unable to charge as much. Quoth one pimp:
They have a saying in the pimp game, 'If it ain't white, it ain't right. If it ain't snowing, I ain't going'"
Another pimp adds that he himself prefers to employ a lot of African-American sex workers because it makes it easier for him when he runs into law enforcement, because law enforcement is racist too:
If I am going through a certain kind of state and the Cadillac has only blacks, police just let me through. White girls—doesn't look right. If one of them come back as a known prostitute, they say they already know what you're doing, you're a pimp…
Adding to the charm of all this is is the testimony of several pimps that they also forbid their sex workers to speak to black men, out of a suspicion that the black men are themselves necessarily just looking to pimp these girls out. "It's basically no black men. Most of the time the other black men were other guys who were trying to pimp on them or take advantage of them. Try to rape them or something like that," said one.
Finally, pimps have standards and ethics. (Even if they sometimes seem a little arbitrary.)
For the record, younger men are also apparently verboten customers to some pimps, so it's not just black men they discriminate against. Pimps also point out in the study that they often implement safety procedures for their employees, sometimes provide services like advertising, and often refer to themselves as "business managers."
And often enough, they even sound like business managers. Said one, "I'd fire her for drugs … Just like they would do at a McDonalds."
[photographs via Getty]