Saturday, May 2, 2009

Of Pimps, Running Partners and Other Bogeymen and Bad Boyfriends--Relationships In The Context of Criminalization

(This will be part one of a series.)

On my escorts' listserv, we had an exchange about pimps that started me thinking. Two of us spoke up to deconstruct the concept, another woman and me. Here's what she said:

I imagine many girls who have pimps view it like THIS-

In the past they have had a crappy family/friend structure. In their current pimp/ho network they have people to talk to and cuddle in bed with after a long day and tiring day of seeing clients. They have other people to drive them to sessions if they feel unsafe or if their car breaks down. They have other people to share bills, living space, meals, and social activities with... It's something of a sex work version of intra-personal communism/fascism... But if you envisioned your whole life as a never ending expanse of wage slavery... working 40 or 50 hours a weeks for minimum wage, only to have $20 extra dollars to yourself after paying all the bills and getting gas and groceries every month...? Maybe having companionship and a "higher class" lifestyle are worth giving up many personal freedoms to some people...? If we look at American society at large, it would seem so!

I said:
Many "pimps" really are just
manager/bodyguards/clientprocurer/boyfriends, who do split their
earnings with their girlfriends evenly. Others are abusive. *Many*
probably are. But I think that there a class culture clash which
doesn't allow us to totally understand it.

Remember, the *legal* definition of a pimp in this state is someone who receives
money knowingly from a prostitute. If you were working and your
husband was taking care of your kids, he'd be your pimp. If you had a
friend staying with you to escape a domestic violence situation and
she wasn't paying rent (as I have, now) *she'd* be a pimp. If you have
*ever* given money to anyone, expecting nothing in return, they are a
pimp, if they know what you do.

I think we should judge every working relationship, every personal
relationship, and every relationship which straddles these two categories
on a case by case basis--not assume what they're like based on class and race
(remember, all the evil pimps of the media imagination are usually
black), based on labels. I've had a boyfriend who's taken care of my
by hook or by crook when I've been too depressed to work, and I've
also taken care of him--while he did a bunch of work driving me,
protecting me, and all sorts of other stuff. I decided where our money
went, but some of it did go to him. I have never thought of him as a

The guys on craigslist who are trying to look for us to "manage" us
are evil b/c they're trying to exploit us, not b/c they're "pimps".

I want to say further that to survive criminalization, people team up to conquer
odds with those they trust most. In a heterosexual context, this can often mean a husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend team. Women make the most in the adult industry, and certainly someone working on the black market makes more than someone who doesn't, so the woman ends up being the main wage earner (especially since most couples realize that having *two* people work on the black market in the same household is too risky). Often rather than having their male partners work in the legitimate marketplace while they have to hire some stranger to do call in checks, to drive them to outcalls and do bodyguard work, or worse, have an agency that provides these services take a huge cut out of their earnings, they prefer to have their partner do this backup work for them. And as the other escort on my listserv implied, it's hard to work in a profession so beset by criminalization and stigma all alone.

Why is this so shocking? Is it because many libertarian or leftists accept and respect the sex work that independent, single indie escorts do,but when we talk about a man in a couple who accepts and abets his partner's work in the industry, they fall back to old sexist knee jerk responses? Like a "real" man would never accept having his partner do sex work, and would certainly never actively back her up in the business? And if he is doing so, then he must be a batterer? If we were talking about the woman being the main wage earner because she had a high paying straight job, we'd never hear a peep about the man in the relationship, even if he did work for the woman--and if you understand sex work as "real" work, there should be no difference between a woman doctor paying the household bills and a woman escort doing the same thing.

Maybe it's because "pimps" are most often associated with street work, and poor women *must* be the object of exploitation? I would argue that street workers are more in need of security backup work than sex workers in other venues, and while networks of street workers can certainly watch each others' backs, what's wrong with a street worker having an agreement with her intimate male partner to do more intensive security for her?

I'm not saying that these relationships can't be abusive or exploitative. But I don't think they are *inherently* so because the woman is working in sex work and her partner receives some of her profits, and may work for/with her. In fact, criminalization protects the abusive partner in these relationships when things turn sour. A woman who is intimidated into giving a man all of her income from prostitution is less likely to report that kind of abuse than a woman who suffer the same kind of treatment who earns money through legal means. And because criminalization makes it hard for women to protect themselves, especially on the streets--most prostitutes do not feel comfortable calling the police when a client physically or sexually assaults them (given how this U Michigan law school student was treated, for example, when she reported being assaulted in the context of a call, it's easy to see why). So when they have protection, they are reluctant to strike out on their own, even when the person who protects them physically and sexually assaults them and exploits them for their income.

So, yes, certainly, the manipulative, controlling pimp of the Iceberg Slim variety, with his "stable", his wirehanger beatings, and his brainwashed women vying for the position of "bottom bitch" certainly existed, and in some places may still be alive and well. But I think that the way these men treated women had more to do with the era than with these women's professions--can one really say that women outside prostitution were treated much better in the forties, fifties, and early sixties? And now that women don't really need such a pimp to procure customers (not with so many venues available to advertise prostitutes' services--even former street workers often use craigslist) and with the option of hiring a security guard/driver, plus the effects of the feminist movement in general on women's sense of independence, this sort of arrangement is dying out.

I'm really surprised that in all the coverage of the Craigslist murderer, more has not been made of the husband who saved his erotic masseuse/exotic dancer wife's life from this monster. The husband obviously knew what his wife was doing for a living, and it seems like he was providing security for her. This is a "pimp" as hero. But we don't get much about this story--no one has followed up with an interview with the husband or the wife--but whenever we hear about an abusive prostitute/intimate partner relationship, we're sure to get a comprehensive account.

As for "pimp" interpreted simply as an escort's manager, outside of any romantic relationship between the two of them, what's wrong with *that*? Not everyone wants to work as an independent, taking on all the tasks of running an escort business by themselves--working the phones and screening clients can be some of the most exhausting parts of the job. Other workers aren't criticized for having managers or bosses. Sex workers should be free to choose to work for themselves or someone else. As Stella, a community organization that provides support and information to sex-workers, informs and sensitizes the general public about the topic, lobbies for decriminalization, fights discrimination and lobbies for decriminalization states in a booklet which defuses preconceived notions about the issue:

According to stereotypes, a pimp is a man who controls a sex workers’ work and income. The reality is that many sex workers work independently. Some choose to associate with colleagues to share their resources, such as a workplace. Some prefer working for various employers, particularly women or men who own escort agencies or massage parlours. Some associate with partners to ensure that they get help and protection in case of need. The stereotypical image of the pimp does not correspond with the different contexts for sex work. Sex work may, indeed, require maintaining professional relationships with third parties such as employers, managers, drivers or receptionists, for economical or security reasons, or to make sure that the initial agreement is respected. The criminalization of pimps (employers or third party) makes it difficult to perform sex work safely. Once again, this criminalization is seldom used to protect women against violence.

Sex workers who are under the control of another person are most often in a situation of conjugal violence within their working context. This situation results from the intimate ties that sex workers may have with the employer or third party. When sex workers want to file a complaint and break the cycle of conjugal violence, their efforts are difficult because they are criminalized.

I'd also like to talk about another sort of relationship formed in the context of criminalization: "running partners". Unlike "pimp", this term is relatively unknown in the straight world, but most people know what "running partners" are, even if they don't recognize the term. It is a phrase mostly used in heroin circles, but the concept applies to people who use other physically addictive drugs as well. Running partners are two or more people who help each other score drugs every day, and share their spoils with each other. Given the artificially inflated cost of drugs in the black market and the danger of getting caught and arrested while obtaining the drugs, it is often easier and safer to team up and pool funds,and delegate tasks, assigning each part of the process to the person who is most capable in that particular task . For example, maybe one person is better at making money, and another has more street smarts and is more likely to be able to cop drugs in bad neighborhoods without getting caught. The outside world often looks down on these kinds of partnerships.

I remember when I was still using heroin daily, an ex-boyfriend accused my relationship with my new boyfriend of consisting only of using each other to obtain drugs. Again, nothing could be further from the truth---the reason that I worked with my boyfriend to obtain drugs for each other is *because* I trusted and loved him. In the dangerous world of criminalization, I trusted him to care about protecting me from the police and other people who might want to take advantage of me, I trusted him with the money I gave over to him, trusted that he would split the spoils with me fairly, and trusted that he would watch over me and care about my safety when we injected together. He lived up to these implicit promises, and my trust in him as a driver/bodyguard/running partner was vindicated the one day that I did have a problem with a sex work client--he scared away a client that approached me aggressively, got between me and the violent person with no hesitation, wielding a tire iron and getting the man to back down. I didn't choose him as a lover because he was handy to me in terms of scoring drugs, I chose him as a running partner, driver, and bodyguard *because* I loved and trusted him. In an environment in which drug users and sex workers are reviled and criminalized and their safety is not a concern for most people, it only makes sense to team up with good friends and intimate partners, people who actually do care what happens to you. To paint all these relationships as exploitative and abusive by definition does a huge disservice to the people involved---many of whom are trying to take care of each other in an environment that cares nothing about their welfare.


  1. I had no idea about any of this before reading it. Thanks, this gives me a lot to think about. My family gave me a fairly whore/porn-phobic version of feminism that never considered a lot of these questions.

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  3. What an interesting read!

    The projected image of gays, drug addicts, prostitutes etc. is often based on stereotypical myths to keep it from being normalised. This gives support to the ideology of conservatives, politicians, the religious right etc. that a lack of "family values" is the root cause of societies problems. It also feeds the hysterical media and keeps them busy filling newspapers.

    Getting into the nitty-gritty details like you have must make their heads explode ... friendships between sex workers and non sex workers, forming small groups to support each other, accepting your partner is a sex workers, the use of partners as security etc.

    Well done.

  4. Exactly, Terry--the idea that sex workers create families does boggle their minds.

  5. I want to point out that there is most likely no legal definition of "pimp" because legal statutes tend to use other terms and are also not consistent from state to state.

    Moreover, I think that pimps are villified because in order for society to continue to view prostitution as a crime, someone has to be the bad guy and for some people, the image of a controlling, abusive pimp makes the idea of sex work in general more understandable.

  6. Okay, I'll edit this, but there certainly is a legal definition for pimp in Mass.

  7. And it's true, Masha, people can't imagine that women would voluntarily enter into prostitution, so they have to make up a racist, classist stereotype of an evil black man that forces these poor victimized women into it.

  8. Well said, and good on you for broaching these topics.