The XX Factor

“I Don’t Believe in the Word Pimp”: Sex-Work Bosses Attempt to Rebrand

“Pimp is like the tooth fairy, from the old ’70s movies with big hats and big ol’ chains. That’s not me.”

Photo by sokolovsky/

In major American cities like Seattle, Miami, and Atlanta, the local underground sex economy can rake in upward of $100 million a year. But the business leaders running these lucrative local industries are often obscured from view, publicly represented only by crude cultural stereotypes. So who are they? “I’m not a pimp,” one 27-year-old man imprisoned for pimping and pandering-related offenses told researchers at the Urban Institute when they interviewed him for a new sweeping report on the criminalized portion of the American sex economy. “I don’t believe in the word pimp. Pimp is like the tooth fairy, from the old ‘70s movies with big hats and big ol’ chains. That’s not me.” 

The Urban Institute’s report, released this week, draws on interviews with dozens of child pornographers, sex workers, pimps, traffickers, and local law enforcement officials in a bid to outline the inner workings of the business in eight American cities. The role of pimps, in particular, has been underinvestigated by social scientists. The Urban Institute begins to correct that oversight by speaking with 73 incarcerated pimps and traffickers, many of whom seemed eager to challenge cultural assumptions about pimping, starting with the word itself. Most of the Urban Institute’s subjects preferred to identify as business managers, businessmen, or madams. “I never considered myself to be a pimp. I just considered myself to be a part of the urban lifestyle,” one man told them. Said another, “A pimp has the hat, the cane. Those are pimps.” As one incarcerated woman put it: “I am a madam. I am not a pimp. Pimps are bitches.”

Many of the convicted pimps didn’t identify as pimps because they claimed not to engage in some of the behavior typically associated with the profession, like confiscating money, beating sex workers, or trafficking women. The madam insisted that she took smaller cuts of her workers’ fees than many assumed. And a male manager said: “The old school cats would talk about how the girls would hide money, not give it all up, and in the old days they would beat the girls if they didn’t get it all. Now, I know the girls come to me and will stash some around the corner before they come in, but I’m just as happy if they give me any of it, as long as they bring me something, because they’re the ones doing all the work.” The media representation of a pimp “is kind of cartoony,” another said. “If you think so little of yourself that you are willing to take a woman and break her down—break her and make her totally dependent on you for every want and need and at the same time her neediness is feeding your ego—that’s a joke.” One pimp drew a hard moral distinction between domestic pimping and international trafficking. “I know a [Mexican] girl who was locked in someone’s house for a whole year, couldn’t leave, just had johns coming in and going,” he said. “None of the [johns] had a big enough heart to see you were trapped and don’t do nothing?”

Those interviewed project the image of a kinder, gentler pimp. One even said that he turned to pimping from selling drugs in part because he perceived it as less “evil.” (“To be honest,” he said, “I was psyched thinking I was doing the right thing.”) But the researchers are quick to note that “while pimps in this study stressed their role protecting employee safety,” past studies have shown that sex workers suffer more violence from pimps than they do from clients. The sex workers interviewed for the report agreed that the popular image of pimps needed an upgrade: “Things have changed drastically from the times of the flashy pimps to the tennis shoe pimps,” one said. But most also said that pimps’ propensity for violence had not changed. “They’ll snatch you up and put you in the trunk if you don’t watch yourself,” one sex worker told researchers. “Don’t make eye contact.” The pimps interviewed in the survey also utilized softer forms of coercion, like “feigning romantic interest, emphasizing mutual dependency between pimp and employee, discouraging women from ‘having sex for free,’ and promising material comforts.” One pimp said he started managing sex workers after spending his teen years “[j]ust being the dude that can talk a female into having sex with me and a couple of buddies. … Seeing what I could talk a female into doing.” Another insisted that he confiscated pay for the good of his workers: “Of course, we get 100 percent. With the 100 percent, you make sure [they have] clothing, food, and medical. If you give these girls who come from low-income housing $5,000 to $6,000, they’ll be broke in a week. Spend it on foolishness.” (Pimps in Atlanta pull in an average of $33,000 a week.) A third said that he’d employ a female “bottom bitch” to administer punishment to his workers instead of doing it himself: “A chick will buck on you because she wants you to hit her; she knows she can get you locked up,” he said. “A female-on-female fight is not as serious as a male-on-female.”

Urban Institute researchers weren’t just chatting with pimps to better understand how they feel about themselves. They also leveraged the interviews to attempt to calculate the size of the underground sex economy around the country, using pimps’ reported earnings and their willingness to travel to other markets to estimate the relative strength of the industry in different cities. (They estimated that in 2007, Atlanta had a $290 million criminal sex industry, while Denver’s brought in $40 million.) Interviews were also used to report on how people entered the sex industry—pimps and sex workers alike reported family influence, lack of job prospects, and neighborhood dynamics—and to investigate how the sex trade is evolving online. Pimps use the Internet to socially network with other pimps, to recruit new women to the business, and to advertise their services (so if a john finds an escort advertising herself online, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not being pimped out). Perhaps the most interesting finding was that while pimps are gunning for a rebrand, their services are becoming less and less relevant to the industry. Unlike sex workers who operated in the 1990s and early 2000s, most current sex workers said they don’t work under pimps, preferring to work independently, pocket their own earnings, and evade the business manager’s violence and control. As one sex worker put it: “[Pimps] can’t do anything I can’t do for myself.”