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When ‘Pimp’ and ‘Boyfriend’ Become Interchangeable

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.

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Street-level prostitution is comprised of both pimp-controlled prostitution and independent entrepreneurial prostitution. Although much of the more recent research has focused on the latter group, this work reports on a qualitative study designed to understand pimp-related violence to women involved in pimp-controlled prostitution. In addition, this work contributes to the understanding of the relationships between pimps and prostitutes, the roles that each play, and the social rules of the business. Because these women constitute a significant number of those involved in street-level prostitution, more research is called for that focuses on pimp-controlled prostitution.¹


Beauty, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Beauty ran down the street towards the current love of her life saying “don’t hit me, don’t hit me.” Her sweatpants almost fell, and walking became more like tripping. She flailed her arms like a kid.

Her statement came with laughter. Being hit by this man was not so serious.

This one would not strike her in front of other people, on the street where they relaxed, where neighborhood kids played in a ballpark and she worked to pick up dates. In public, this boyfriend smoked K2 and liked to chill.

They were homeless, she and Gary, without ownership of private space beyond an occasional couch. Circumstantially, a hitting likely would be forgotten.

And so, her manner of apology was a humorous one.

She ran towards her boyfriend in apology for dealing with her pimp. Gary was half-boyfriend, half-pimp but she called him boyfriend.

The other guy was only called pimp, and she had vowed to stay away from him as of earlier that day.

The pimp was after her, sort-of. Once, he had bought her black-and-white Nikes and a cell phone. Then, before the span of a couple of weeks, he started taking away things: her cell phone, the privilege to go outside when she wanted, the freedom to shop with the money she earned without asking.

She left him, seeking better treatment and protection in Gary, a man she met in the shelter.

Beauty only wanted to retain enough of a relationship with her pimp to make the man suffer a little. To that end, she threatened to tell the pimp’s wife about sex in their house, in their bed. She also made motions to pee on his car, but others said she was being ridiculous.

Beauty held the small power of talk and truth, and so spread flares of noise and gossip. Everyone at the shelter knew.

Because his means of making money was gone and his wife was close to informed, the pimp was pissed, enough to go after Beauty if she fell into sight but only just. The pimp was lame: Beauty was his only girl and his sole income. His wife had the main job, a reasonable, real-world thing, blind to her husband’s owning of a woman and the sex between them.

For reasons of self-protection, the pimp went about his business, back to the past threads of life with his wife in their apartment, home-bound, making no money, while she worked.

For reasons of ego, he imagined his actions if he were to pass Beauty on the street. The talk was bloody and bitter. If he sees her alone, she’ll get hers, or so it was agreed upon by bystanders.

Talk of harm, aggressive physicality, all he could retain until he found the next thing, the next woman.

To leave these things with romance, Beauty planned to marry Gary, the one she ran towards, the one she looked for, in some way, to save her:

Gary put up with her through pimp dealings and did K2 with her, understood her need to relax and tilt reality this way. He would not choose the glass crack pipe over her, like H, her last boyfriend-pimp in Harlem.

This man was different. He called 911 and tried not to let her bite her tongue when she had a seizure. He was good, like nobody had been. He said thank you, shook hands, had a state ID and did not hit her in public. But mostly, he took her to the beach once, rode the subway to Coney Island and back.

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The marriage was planned 72 hours beforehand and fell through 24 hours after that. There was a disagreement and Gary owed people, so he left the neighborhood, and Beauty no longer loved him with her life.

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More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
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Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jgrosay 4:51 pm 08/25/2014

    The kind of affective relationship between pimps and their women is complex, is not uniform, but may end in something like the: ‘Stockholm syndrome’, the victim identifies with the values, proposals and goals of their offender; it’s human nature, and everybody, or almost everyone will succumb under the right amount and nature of pressure.
    What are the pleasures left for somebody in an activity as prostitution?

    Link to this
  2. 2. llirbo 12:47 am 08/29/2014

    @jgrosay
    What are the pleasures left for somebody in an activity as prostitution?

    Crack, meth, heroin, delusional hope that anyone actually cares.

    Link to this

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