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OTI Online
Summer 1995

Pimping: The World's Oldest Profession
by Kathleen Barry


Across nation-states, pimping, "living off the earnings of a prostitute," is illegal. But proprostitution movements in the West now propose to decriminalize pimping so that pimps can be treated as lovers or husbands, not enslavers of prostitute women. But it is a fact of prostitution that once a woman "tricks" for a man, she is never again not his "whore." He thinks of her as such, whether or not he is otherwise known to her as husband, lover, brother or father.

In all the world regions, estimates from organizations addressing the exploitation of women in prostitution, including some prostitution groups, show that 80 to 95 percent of all prostitution is pimp-controlled. To analyze pimping in prostitution from a feminist perspective, it is necessary to determine whether or not women in prostitution are in situations they can leave. As I found, pimping is a condition of female sexual slavery.

Female sexual slavery is present in ALL situations where women and girls cannot change the immediate conditions of their existence; where regardless of how they got into those conditions they cannot get out; and where they are subject to sexual violence and exploitation.

Some women who willingly try out prostitution do not realize until later that they cannot leave. When they try to leave they learn that they must escape their pimps. Rape, kidnapping, and other forms of physical abuse and torture are often systematically practiced as forms of control over women in prostitution. The Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland, Oregon, reported that almost half of the 234 women who sought help from them in 1990 reported being raped by pimps, on an average of 16 times per year. Likewise, 49 percent of the women had been kidnapped by pimps. Of 55 women in their program in 1990-91, 63 percent "were horribly beaten by pimps an average of 58 times per year."

Female sexual slavery includes not only women in prostitution who are controlled by pimps, but wives in marriages who are controlled by husbands and daughters who are incestuously assaulted by fathers. My definition of female sexual slavery breaks away from traditional distinctions between "forced" and "free" prostitution and between wives and whores. When women and/or girls are held over time, for sexual use, they are in conditions of slavery. Specifically, female sexual slavery is not an illusive condition; the word "slavery" is not merely rhetorical. Slavery is an objective social condition that requires escape in order for the victim to get out of it. Slavery is one aspect of the violation of women and children in prostitution, in marriage, and in families.

However, prostitution that is not pimp-controlled is not slavery. It is another form of sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation and female sexual slavery are each different aspects or dimensions of the sexual relations of power in the patriarchal oppression of women.

Love, Loyalty, and Obedience

According to Melinda, a former San Francisco prostitute,

Once a woman starts hoing [whoring] for a man, there's no way out--unless she runs. Once I started, my man wasn't going to let it stop.
Pimps have two ways of holding on to women. One is verbal abuse, psychological beatings where they make you feel like you are worthless, like you're trash. Beatings are the other way he'll keep her because by having so much fear in her heart she is afraid to leave him. Yet by that time I was so much in love with him it really didn't matter as long as he was there. When he put his arms around me nothing could hurt me.

Melinda recounted some of the "escape" valves she devised to relieve the pressure temporarily. She considered long evening dinners and drinks with her girlfriends before they would start working the streets together to be an "escape," a time when she was away from it all. Prison was also an escape. But these escapes were temporary as long as she was emotionally dependent on him.

According to anthropologists Christina and Richard Milner, "A pimp wants his woman's mind more than her body. It is love, loyalty, and obedience he requires as well as a capacity for self-discipline." Brock, a pimp, put it to the Milners this way: "You create a different environment. It's a brainwashing process; the whole thing is creativity."

Some pimps will allow a woman to buy back her freedom for an arbitrary amount of money that she must raise and pay him. In some cases women have been able to walk out of the life after paying the required fine. But most often the "fine" is just like the sweet talk; it is part of the game the pimp has been running, another fraudulent means of holding on with no intention of letting go. Some women manage to elude their pimps and escape into another town or state, taking on a new identity and the enormous task of putting their lives back together. Others, overwhelmed emotionally as well as physically, escape through suicide.

Hollywood Glamour

Regardless of their race, and regardless of whether they operate on the streets, from a house, or in higher levels of organized gangs, all pimps have a clear rundown on the pimping rules. They see themselves as players running a game.

A favored pimp philosophy likens the game to movies. The pimp is the producer and director and he runs everything according to his own will, notorious pimp Iceberg Slim explains. This movie-set analogy appears in a contract confiscated from a pimp in a Washington, D.C. raid in 1977. The terms of the contract read,

You are reading this because you have passed one of the requirements to become a member of the illustrious family of __________. This life is just like a large-scale movie production with me as the producer and you as the star. The world is your audience for the entire universe is your stage.

Usually the pimp's approach fulfills all the star-studded romantic images that popular magazines, television, and movies have promoted. Pimps exploit girls' boredom that results from traditional female socialization, which leaves many young girls looking for excitement and glamour in their lives. When Officer Mary Christenson went undercover for the San Francisco Police Department to arrest pimps for pandering, some of the opening lines she heard were, "You are going to be my star lady," or "I'm going to make you my foxy lady," or "my sportin' lady," or, as one pimp put it, "you are going to be my hope-to-die woman... 'cause that's how long we going to be together."

Pimps look for and target young girls or women who appear to be naive, lonely, and bitter and rebellious. Such women are often runaways from sexual abuse in their homes or from violent marriages. On the street, they are likely to be broke and without job skills.

The following pimp procuring scenario is typical: suddenly he appears, he is friendly, he offers to buy her a meal and later, he gives her a place to spend the night. She hears compliments for the first time in ages, as well as promises that he will buy her new clothes and have her hair done. This romantic-movie scenario is played out. But it may be days, weeks, or even months before she figures out what has happened to her. After his initial come-on, a pimp follows the strategy that most likely will win her over. For many girls it is attention and apparent affection that draws them in. Ultimately the appeal is to glamour: lots of money, new cars, travel, the best clothes, and flash are the promises. Some pimps explain that tricking would only be necessary until he got a big settlement from an insurance company on an accident. This, according to vice officers, is a frequent procuring line used by street pimps, who often represent themselves as about to come into some big money.

When a pimp hits on a woman or teenager who is resistant, "prudish," or scared, he usually does not introduce prostitution immediately. He'll just be a nice guy who buys her a meal and offers her a place to stay. Then he makes his play for her as a lover. When a sexual relationship between them is established and he is sure she loves him, his next move is to set her up to prostitute herself as a condition of her love for him, with lines like, "If you love me, you'll do anything for me." If she resists or refuses, he will likely pout, create a scene, and insist that she does not truly love him. To restore his affection, she finally agrees to do what he asks, telling herself that "one time won't hurt," or "what does it matter." This rationale, used by women faced with unwanted sex from husbands, fathers, lovers, and rapists alike, is an entry into prostitution too. When she concedes to it, he has her hooked. When she turns one trick, he starts pimping her. He gives her nightly quotas, takes the money she earns, and begins to treat her as the slut he intends to make her think she is. He tells her, "You are nothing but a goddamn whore," and makes her believe that only out of the goodness of his heart will he have anything to do with such a despicable creature. She knows that is what society thinks of her. She knows she is a criminal. And most likely, she has nowhere else to turn.

All the promises made in the first meeting -- glamour, travel, money, affection, protection, even child care if she is on her own with a small child -- turn out to be means of enslavement. When the pimp controls his woman's body and soul, then she is set up to bring other women to him. And the cycle of loving her, seasoning her, and pimping her starts all over again.

Denial of Bondage

Eleanor Miller, in her book Street Woman (1986), based on Deviant Street Networks: Prostitution in New York (1980) by Bernard Cohen, differentiates among men who control women in prostitution. She distinguishes between a "man" and a pimp according to the number of prostitutes they have: a "man" has one prostitute while a pimp may have many. The "man" is said to provide protection and to watch over "his woman" while the pimp considers himself more like a manager.

Most of prostitution is pimp-controlled, and most women are in emotionally entangled relationships with pimps. As Cecilie Hoigard and Liv Finstad have shown in Backstreets: Prostitution, Money and Love (1992), the tendency is for women to deny that they are controlled by pimps. "Denying you have a pimp thus becomes a way of expressing that your own experience does not coincide with the stereotypical pimp-prostitute relationship."

This is not significantly different from women's experience of abuse in marriage. As long as women remain in the abusive relationship, they tend to deny that their husbands abuse them. However, the difference, which at times may be slight, between prostitution and marriage is that the former is only sexual exploitation while marriage or a marital-like relationship may or may not be sexually exploitative. But all prostitution is sexual exploitation, and so every relationship that sustains it is abusive.

The parallel to marriage is important here because as the sexuality of prostitution has been transformed into the prostitution of sexuality, sexual exploitation has increasingly become the normative condition of private relationships.

The proprostitution lobby objects to laws against pimping on the grounds that such laws deny women in prostitution a boyfriend, a lover, a real relationship, a genuine connection to another. This objective ignores the exploitation of women by pimps -- the violence and abuse characteristic of pimps and the fact that pimps earn their living off the sexual exploitation of women as commodities. It ignores the issue that faces all women in sexual relationships today -- the question of whether or not their relationships are based on sexual exploitation or intimacy and love. A lover, husband, or boyfriend who promotes the sexual exploitation and commodification of a woman is a pimp, and together, pimping and procuring are among the most ruthless practices of male power and sexual dominance.

These practices go far beyond the merchandising of women's bodies for the market that demands them; they crystallize misogyny in acts of male hatred of femaleness, as rendered into a commodity for whom the marketer and the purchaser have contempt. Procuring today involves "convincing" a woman to be a prostitute through cunning, fraud, and/or physical force, taking her against her will or knowledge and putting her into prostitution. Procuring involves tactics for acquiring women and turning them into prostitution; pimping keeps them there. That some women, by their definition, choose to prostitute and choose to be with pimps as lovers or husbands is no more a defense of pimping than is a woman's choice to remain in a marriage with a man who abuses her a defense of that marriage.


The author of the acclaimed biography Susan B. Anthony, Kathleen Barry, a sociologist and an international feminist activist, is professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is also a founder of The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.


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