Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., M.H.S

Modern Day Slavery

Pimp Culture Glorification and Sex Trafficking

How the glorification of pimp culture contributes to sex trafficking in the U.S.

Posted Apr 28, 2017

Sex sells. The underground sex industry notoriously eludes any efforts to officially measure its size, but those of us who study it can say one thing for sure: It’s a booming industry in the U.S. and it’s bigger than you think. The sex trafficking industry generates staggering profits: Human trafficking is believed to be the third-largest criminal activity in the world, after the drug and arms trades. A landmark study by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center published in 2014 researched illegal sex trafficking in seven major U.S. cities – San Diego, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Miami – and estimated that in those cities alone, the size of the underground commercial sex economy in 2007 ranged from $39.9 million in Denver to $290 million in Atlanta. Seventy-three pimps and traffickers interviewed for the study stated that they perceived the underground sex economy as a low-risk, high-reward enterprise. Pimps and traffickers reported incomes from $5,000 to $32,833 a week.

The researchers sought to understand what lured pimps into an illegal industry premised on abuse, coercion, and selling women’s bodies. In addition to systematic pressures, like a lack of legal job opportunities, nearly one-third of the pimps interviewed reported that they were influenced by people they grew up with at home and in their neighborhoods who were engaged in the illegal sex trade. This important finding highlights how growing up in an environment in which people profit from the sexual exploitation of women normalizes such activity. But people who grow up around a family member or neighbor who works as a pimp aren’t the only ones developing positive associations with that role. Millions of others are absorbing those associations through the disconcerting veneration of pimps in our language and pop culture. It is crucial for us to take the reverence of pimps in pop culture seriously—and to work together to make it a thing of the past.

The MTV show “Pimp My Ride” enhanced cars with painted flames, installed TVs and mini-fridges, and leather massage seats. “Pimp My Gun” is online game with a similar premise. Jay-Z made the song called “Big Pimpin” famous in a whole generation of young people (and now says he regrets it). The song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from the 2005 movie Hustle & Flow, which told the story of a Memphis pimp played by Terrence Howard, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Other artists such as 50 Cent, Nelly, and Snoop Dogg have also romanticized this industry in their song lyrics. Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline launched an advertising campaign for its new Upper Class airport clubhouse last year with the slogan, "Pimp My Lounge." We all know that there are many other examples of the word “pimp” being used as synonymous with “cool” and “top-of-his-game.” This language legitimizes an industry that is violent and dehumanizing, making it harder to combat sex trafficking.

There is a continuum of sexual violence against women, from making lewd comments or jokes all the way up to sexual assault. When we accept the “less offensive” behaviors, such as jokes about sexual violence, it opens the door to the more aggressive behaviors and dynamics, like selling women for sex, becoming acceptable as well.

The same social norms that can make sex trafficking so hard to combat also strengthen our society’s dangerous rape culture. Social norms tell us that it’s just typical for men to be sexual aggressors. This is the assumption underlying the “boys with be boys” attitude we all know all too well. Normalizing these assumptions of men’s uncontrollable sexuality contributes to rape myths, which are widespread stereotypical beliefs about a rape victim, perpetrator, or the rape itself. Rape myth acceptance is an important predictor of the prevalence of sexual violence. Some rape myths are related to male gender roles, such as “he just couldn’t control himself,” and just as many relate to women: Women who don’t conform to traditional assumptions about how they should act are more likely to be blamed in the case of rape. Rape myths about women may justify acts of sexual violence or coercion by rationalizing that the female victim did something wrong and therefore is at fault.

We live in a society in which sexual violence towards women has been normalized. As with other types of sexual violence, conversations surrounding sex trafficking also tend to focus on the culpability of the victims, as Jillian LaBranche points out in a recent post on the Human Trafficking Center website. “Questions surface: 'Was he illegal?' or, 'Did she ever use drugs?'” she writes. “As with rape culture, these questions ignore systemic causes of trafficking and instead focus on the actions of the victim.”

What can be done? One place to start is accepting that positive portrayals of pimps, and the sexual stereotypes that perpetuate them, are not harmless. We must go further in equipping everyone with the skills and ability to see the clues of sex trafficking and other types of sexual violence, including the language that we use to speak about this form of modern-day slavery.

Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California

About the Author

Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., MHS, is an associate professor at the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. 

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