The Blog

Redefining 'Pimp'

Danielle tells me how she came to organise a campaign against the Merriam-Webster dictionary's definition of the word 'pimp': 'I am a survivor of sex trafficking and I used to tell people that they should know what the word means before they use it in their vocabulary. So I went to look it up and found the definition was absurd.' The definition currently reads: 'A man who solicits clients for a prostitute.' Danielle tells me how in English language cultures this word is used with a certain amount of levity, even wit with television shows such as Pimp My Ride to more casual references to this word which elide any kind of truth about what a pimp really is. Danielle recounts, 'I was angered by the fact that people use this word without any knowledge of what a pimp is and does.' In our current cultural climate words are politically weighted and even changed such that exchanging 'prostitute' for 'sex worker' attempts to lend empowerment for jobs that are often dehumanising. Danielle views demystifying language as essential for deconstructing what she deems to be the true violence behind these words: 'I feel like vocabulary is a very big piece of sex trafficking, as it can completely change the way people view those involved. For example, if there is an article about a 'teenage prostitute' people automatically lose empathy for that person and consider that person having a choice, maybe even looking down on them. But if the article uses the vocabulary, 'sexually exploited child,' that person is viewed entirely differently.'

Danielle explains her own experienced of being trafficked within the United States: 'I went away to college in Boston and I was invited to a party. When I got there, no one was there except the owner of the apartment. I apologised and was about to leave but he convinced me to go to dinner with him and within two weeks, he was forcing me to work the track and doing escorting. I was under pimp control for two years, brought to other states as well and lived with other women that were also under his control. I had to stay because of the situation. He had all my information, address where my family lived, social security card, driver's license, etc. I was afraid for my life. If I thought I could have left without any repercussions, I would have.' Danielle eventually was able to leave prostitution.

Then a few months ago Danielle stumbled upon the definition of the word pimp in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and was disturbed that the definition of pimp made no mention of violence and instead sounded more like businessman, explaining, 'It makes it sound like the pimp is doing all the work, when in fact, the pimp does none of the work. I definitely feel like society has no idea how violent sex trafficking is.' Certainly since the rise of 'sex-positive' feminism there has been disagreement as to how to deal with prostitution as 'empowering', especially when there is much anecdotal information to demonstrate that it is not. When I ask Danielle why this push by some to claim prostitution as empowering she states: 'I think that there are many women who claim to enjoy their 'job' as a 'prostitute' when in reality, they are just trying to convince themselves of that.' She goes on to explain what she regards as a life and death business: 'Human trafficking is made of three parts: fear, force, and coercion. It is detrimental to a person both mentally and physically. You are never in control of yourself when you are in the presence of a complete stranger. The johns are just as violent if not more than the pimp sometimes. I think that selling sex is very exploitive. Many people look at prostitution as something easy and quick, which it may be sometimes, but not all the time. And that one time can cost you your life.'

Danielle discusses the stigma of prostitution that follows women while noting that men are virtually unaffected by their roles in prostitution: 'Most people think that pimps are just like rappers, wearing interesting clothes, have a lot of money, are are really "cool", totally accepted in our society today. As you saw Snoop Lion AKA Snoop Dog went public many times that he was a pimp and never had any repercussions.' Noting that women are stigmatised by prostitution Danielle underscores the hypocrisy of how our society views differently men's and women's involvement in prostitution: 'I think people like to blame the women because they do not want to stop the prostitution. The people who buy sex are men in all places--especially the high ones. They want prostitution to continue because they themselves indulge in it: men partake in it so of course they don't want it to stop. They feel that they are still in charge and so they diminish the woman's role.'

I read of Danielle's project on to petition Merriam-Webster to change its definition of the word 'pimp' and I wrote them: 'As someone who has worked extensively on ethnographies of child traffickers, I can assure you that pimps are not men who wear pink fedoras and who smoke cigarettes in bamboo cigarette holders. These people--mostly men--are nasty individuals who use violence, rape and extortion to force women and children into sexual acts.' Eventually Danielle's efforts paid off: over 21,000 people signed the petition and Merriam-Webster wrote Danielle to say that the current definition is indeed no longer relevant and they agreed to modernise the definition of pimp to reflect the violence that pimps embody.