In America, damaging stereotypes of pimps and prostitutes make it difficult to understand the dynamics of their relationship and the violence that many women experience. Upon first look, a man who forces a woman to prostitute herself out on the street has nothing to do with a man who beats his wife behind closed doors. But drawing the comparison between these two types of men reveals that we can’t talk about prostitution without understanding the dynamics of domestic violence.
Mainstream media presents sex work as either sexy or deplorable—think Eliot Spitzer’s $5,000-an-hour escort, or any episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit where violence against women and girls is fetishized. Americans make the assumption that because of the negative social connotations of prostitution, women who choose sex work are also deserving of violence. The stereotypical prostitute may have other options, but she picks prostitution because it is her right to sell her body if she wishes to. She is shunned and demonized for making this decision, and is thus unable to get help if she finds herself in a dangerous situation.
Prostitution is rarely a fair exchange of services for money between consenting adults. The misunderstanding that many Americans have about sex work revolves around another stereotypical character: the pimp. Contrary to popular belief, pimps and prostitutes are not business partners. In her article “An Analysis of Individual, Institutional, and Cultural Pimping”, Evelina Giobbe discusses how their relationship is closer to that of a batterer and his intimate partner. Just as batterers exhibit certain behaviors to ensure that their intimate partners will remain submissive, pimps employ standard rules to trap women in the sex industry.
Giobbe points to several power and control tactics used by pimps and batterers alike to abuse women.
Both groups isolate women, controlling where they go and who they see, in order to ensure that they will not be held accountable for their actions. A pimp or a batterer will minimize and deny his abuse to manipulate his women into feeling helpless. A pimp will claim that all women are prostitutes, but that some give sex away for free while others make money off of it. In the same way, batterers want their partners to doubt the severity of, or even the existence of, their abuse so that they remain complacent to the violence exhibited by their abuser.
Prostitutes are required to give most, if not all, of their earnings to their pimps. They receive “non-negotiable goods” in return, such as clothing or jewelry, to ensure that they aren’t able to save money for a better future. Prostitutes are thus financially dependent on their pimps, just as spouses of batterers may be financially unable to escape their abuse.
Exertion of male privilege, displayed through statements like “I’m a man. Don’t question me…” controls women by depriving a woman of her agency. Pimps and batterers view women as property (Giobbe, 1993). A pimp can buy a prostitute from another pimp, and prostitutes without pimps are considered “outlaws” and are in danger of abuse from all other pimps. These women are therefore reliant on their pimps for “protection”—choosing an abuser seems less dangerous than being an outlaw.
Pimps will abandon subtle tactics of power and control for blatant forms of physical and sexual violence because violence against prostitutes is permitted if not glorified in popular culture. Physical violence allows a pimp to instill fear in his women to make them obedient to his will. Pimps may force prostitutes into producing pornography (sometimes by photographing them against their will) and use this as blackmail or punishment by threatening to send it to the prostitute’s family.
Staying silent about the mistreatment of women in the sex industry is as lethal as refusing to speak up about violence happening at home. Domestic abuse is an epidemic that affects people regardless of how and why they are together in the first place. By dispelling the myths of abusers and survivors of abuse, we can work to prevent and put an end to violence in all parts of our community.
Giobbe, E. (1993). A comparison of pimps and batterers. Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, 1,
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For more information on sex trafficking in the United States please visit the Polaris Project, a non-profit organization that is combating modern day slavery.