In today’s shrill anti-trafficking culture any differences in forms of facilitating prostitution/ sex work are practically erased. I’m not talking about whether anything is fair or gender-equal or exploitative here but about the many ways humankind has evolved for making money through commercial sex. In James Lee Burke’s Cadillac Jukebox (1996) one swindle involving sex work in New Orleans is described: the Murphy scam.
Vice had identified the hooker as Brandy Grissum, a black twenty-five-year-old heroin addict who had done a one-bit in the St John the Baptist jail for sale and possession.
She worked with three or four pimps and Murphy artists out of the Quarter. The pimps were there for the long-term regular trade. The Murphy artists took down the tourists, particularly those who were drunk, married, respectable, in town on conventions, scared of cops and their employers.
It was an easy scam. Brandy would walk into a bar, well dressed, perhaps wearing a suit, sit at the end of the counter, or by herself in a booth, glance once into the john’s face, her eyes shy, her hands folded demurely in front of her, then wait quietly while her partner cut the deal.
This is the shuck: ‘My lady over there ain’t a reg’lar, know what I’m sayin’? Kind of like a schoolgirl just out on the town.’ Here he smiles. ‘She need somebody take her ’round the world, know what I’m saying’? I need sixty dollars to cover the room, we’ll all walk down to it, I ain’t goin’ nowhere on you. Then you want to give her a present or something, that’s between y’all.’ — p 24, Cadillac Jukebox
The Murphy scam is robbery by a couple who lure a client to a room to have sex (in exchange for seemingly reasonable, non-professional fees). After client and woman are in bed the other partner rushes in posing as a jealous husband (or whatever). The client leaves in a hurry and the Murphy artists collect his belongings and money.
In Burke’s description Brandy works with several pimps as well as with Murphy artists, so even though she’s an addict she is not anyone’s slave. We aren’t told what proportion of the takings she gets, so we don’t know how bad a deal she has. The scam is interesting in offering a kind of commercial sex palatable to clients who cannot see themselves as clients and thus lend themselves to being scammed. A different kind of ‘demand’ – that now over-used, less-meaningful-than-ever term. A man who can be ‘lured’ – not much of a monster. More on different kinds of pimping in Nesbø’s Blood on Snow and in my own The Three-Headed Dog.
This is part of a series of posts about sex work in fiction. The other day it was Doris Lessing’s turn.
In the popular imaginary a pimp is a mean man engaged in pushing a few prostitutes around and taking their money. Usually portrayed as black or foreign, he is made out to thrive on dressing up and showing off. Pimping is sometimes placed as part of gang business and competition, again with racist and xenophobic overtones. In these stereotypes street prostitution is usually assumed, though that is changing.
In anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking crusades and policy the word pimp is used to cover every case of a man benefiting from prostitution, whether by taking a percentage of sex workers’ earnings for work done (as a driver, or web-page tech, for example) or for living with sex workers, giving advice, providing back-up.
Some want to distinguish clearly between those genuine helpers and the bad things ‘real pimps’ do, but I have learned over decades that trying to draw that line is a futile exercise. Sometimes sex workers love the men who push them around. Sometimes women pay men back in ways not visible to outsiders bent on seeing only one thing. Often the relationship is temporarily convenient and may be fluid, drifting back and forth between desired and consensual and not.
Rarely do we get a sense of pimping as a job in an organisation, the sort of ‘organised crime’ that anti-trafficking police forces and the UN go on about. As with so many aspects of the sex industry most people know absolutely nothing about how it can work. When I suggested a field called the Cultural Study of Commercial Sex I said policy (prostitution law, sex-venue licensing, red-light districting, employment rules) would benefit from knowing more instead of staying on the ignorant outskirts. Moralising is very often a form of ignorance. This applies to the world of mediators, facilitators, agents, smugglers, madams and pimps.
The narrator of Jo Nesbø’s Blood on Snow is explaining how he came to be a fixer (hit-man) for a villain. There were various jobs available, and he tried several: driving get-away cars, robbery, drugs-dealing and pimping. In the following story he was on a low rung in the pimping business where Hoffmann is the top boss and Pine his second man. The place is Oslo.
Prostitution. I don’t have a problem with women earning money whatever way they like, and the idea that a bloke – me, for instance – should get a third of the money for sorting things out so the women can concentrate on the actual work. A good pimp is worth every krone they pay him, I’ve always thought that. The problem is that I fall in love so quickly, and then I stop seeing it in terms of business. And I can’t handle shaking, hitting or threatening the women, whether or not I’m in love with them. Something to do with my mother, maybe, what do I know? That’s probably why I can’t stand seeing other people beating up women either. Something just snaps. Take Maria, for instance. Deaf and dumb, with a limp. I don’t know what those two things have got to do with each other – nothing probably – but it’s a bit like once you get started getting bad cards, they just keep coming. Which is probably why Maria ended up with an idiot junkie boyfriend as well. He had a fancy French name, Myriel, but owed Hoffman thirteen thousand for drugs. The first time I saw her was when Pine, Hoffmann’s head pimp, pointed out a girl in a home-made coat and with her hair up in a bun, looking like she’d just left church. She was sitting on the steps in front of Ridderhallen, crying, and Pine told me she was going to have to pay back her boyfriend’s drug debt in kind. I thought it best to give her a gentle start, just hand-jobs. But she jumped out of the first car she got into after barely ten seconds. She stood there in floods of tears while Pine yelled at her. Maybe he thought she’d hear him if he shouted loud enough. Maybe that was what did it. The yelling. And my mum. Either way, something snapped, and even if I could see what Pine was trying to get into her head I ended up decking him, my own boss. Then I took Maria to a flat I knew was empty, then went to tell Hoffmann that I was no use as a pimp either. Blood on Snow, pp 6-7, Jo Nesbø
In my own The Three-Headed Dog, a strongman working for an organisation is looking for a new job. Sarac’s career has included soldiering as a very young man and a range of jobs lumped together as Security, in different parts of Europe and in the Caribbean. He is told his next job will be in West Africa, but he doesn’t want to go, feels comfortable on the Costa del Sol and is now looking for a way to stay. He is approached by a man with a job offer.
In this photo at least a man’s head and body are cut off, not only a woman’s (the usual practice).
‘You have to specialise according to what work the people travelling are going to do. You have to use contacts specific to the sector. For instance, it might sound strange, but I have no good contacts in construction on the coast, or in property development. Those are competitive areas it would be stupid to try to get into. But I do know someone with long experience in the flats. Apartments where women work. You understand. And that’s just here. In the region we can call home I have a few powerful names. The operation would be high-quality, and there are different directions to take. A wide range of businesses, no need to deal with the low end.’ He paused. Sarac betrayed no reaction. Tarts, he thought. Bloody pimp-ing. The very last thing he was looking for. The Three-Headed Dog, Laura Agustín
If you’re interested in fiction’s genre labels: Nesbø’s book is placed as Nordic Noir; the Dog as Mediterranean Noir. Noir is about moral ambiguity, as when a pimp can’t stand abusing women so becomes a hard-boiled killer instead. Sarac is looking for something else to do, and has to get there using strong arms. What else does he have, after all? When police and moral entrepreneurs rant about putting criminal men in prison I often think: What jobs do they imagine to be available for men and boys cut out of the mainstream, with no access to anything but the lowest-class, worst-paid work, no expectation of social mobility or respect? Perhaps those thinking about ‘root-causes’ of prostitution and trafficking might consider that, rather than figuring them all as evildoers to be imprisoned for long terms, in prisons that only teach them better techniques for crime.
I accepted an invitation to talk about the much-publicised US child-trafficking sweep last week that resulted in lots of arrests of adults and rescues of a small number of people under 18. I wrote about this FBI-led event the other day, and I was initially reluctant to speak on a public-radio show from Las Vegas, Nevada, that seemed to be composed exclusively of crime- and rescue-oriented people. But the producer asked me for suggestions for other speakers, and I was able to get a couple of names to her fast enough, with the result that the panel became reasonably balanced.
Child Prostitution in Nevada, an audio link to the hour-long programme, illustrates four points of view: a court defender of young people caught selling sex, a psychologist who tries to help them feel better, a harm-reduction project for teenagers in New York (Safe Horizons) and me on childhood, migration and sex.
I find the format of such programmes repressive, the taking turns and inability to converse normally with other participants. The public defender seemed to say the word pimp a dozen times, expressing frustration that the girls refuse to denounce any. How can I help them if they won’t give up their exploiters? she wails. How do you know they actually have pimps? I wanted to ask. There could be some classic pimp figures involved, but it is very possible that she is generalising lots of boyfriends, girlfriends, family members and other folk who live with or share the girls’ earnings as pimps whom the girls themselves do not see that way. I doubt that many of them look like the picture above.
A local paper’s news story about the raids illustrates clearly the police focus. Most of those picked up were adults, and they can’t all be traffickers, which makes it obvious that consenting adults carrying out sex-money exchanges are those suffering most from such operations. The article’s title even admits the operation was a sting, and the gallery of arrested faces, one crying, is enough to make one sick: National prostitution sting nets 20 locally.
There are other ways to think about young people who don’t want to stay home, or who can’t, than trafficking, prostitution and pimps: the children tag on this blog provides a few.