Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and President Obama recently proclaimed January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Yet when we think about trafficking, we think about it happening to children from Asia, women from the Ukraine, domestic servants brought in from Africa and Central America. All of these examples are real.
But rarely we do associate trafficking and slavery with the girls and young women that we see on HBO specials like ‘Hookers on the Point’, girls sold for sex on the streets, on Craigslist ads, girls on the pole in strip-clubs. The primary face of trafficking in this country looks like an adolescent girl of color trafficked for sex, sold by adult men to adult men.
Language matters. Calling that girl a ‘child prostitute’, or ‘teen hooker’ places all the culpability and blame on her. In fact, in most states, even if she’s not old enough to consent to sex, she will frequently be charged with an act of prostitution and sent to juvenile detention or jail.
While firm statistics on this issue are hard to find, Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section estimates that the median age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the US is between 12 and 14 years old. How is it that our American girls are bought and sold every day, right under our noses, yet we don’t see it, acknowledge it? Perhaps it’s because the girls who are bought and sold don’t fit into our neat, little box of who’s a ‘real’ victim; perhaps, because those girls are frequently low income girls, girls of color, girls who’ve been in the child welfare system, girls in the juvenile justice system – girls who aren’t high on anyone’s priority list anyway.
Language matters too when we’re talking about the adult men who seduce, kidnap, torture, brainwash and then sell girls for sex – we call them pimps, and we think they’re alternately benign, smooth, glamorous, or ‘businessmen’.
It would be easy to point to hip-hop culture as the primary culprit of this tidal wave of acceptance towards pimps. Hip-hop clearly needs to take responsibility for its ongoing misogynistic images and lyrics, but rappers could not have achieved what has become a mass acceptance of pimp culture alone. The tipping point came in 2003, when 50 Cent released his platinum selling song P.I.M.P. Several months later, Reebok rewarded him with a 50 million dollar sneaker deal. A few years later, Vitamin Water did the same. Why wouldn’t they? ‘Fiddy’ proved unequivocally that no one was objecting to his blatant degradation of women and girls when P.I.M.P went platinum three times and reached the Top 10 in 18 countries.
50 Cent isn’t alone in his corporately sponsored pimping. Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus) who is infamous for bringing two women on dog leashes to the 2003 MTV Awards, was featured on the cover of the December 2006 issue of Rolling Stone in a Santa Claus red hat and a copy line reading ‘America’s Most Lovable Pimp’. In the article, Snoop brags about his pimping which he claims he took up during his successful rap career because it was a ‘childhood dream’:
“See, that s**t was my natural calling and once I got involved with it, it became fun…Cause pimpin’ aint a job, it’s a sport.”
Snoop’s endorsement deals range from Orbit gum to Boost Mobile cell-phones and he was featured in a General Motors commercial with former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca who called him, “the ultimate pimp.” More recently he has a reality show on VH1 about his parenting skills.
Examples of pimp references permeate every aspect of popular culture. Some argue that the meaning of the word has changed and now reflects something positive. The rapper Nelly had a short-lived scholarship fund called PIMP (Positive Intellectual Motivated Person), ostensibly to promote education but more likely to promote his energy drink Pimp Juice. The word ‘pimp’ has become a verb, as in “Pimp My Ride” or a campaign by a Christian youth organization in Finland, entitled “Pimp My Bible”. Yet when MSNBC reporter, David Shuster, commented during Hillary Clinton’s campaign that it seemed as if Chelsea Clinton was being ‘pimped out’ people were aghast and Shuster, and was suspended for two weeks by the network. The connotation of the word remains the same. It’s the attitude of society towards pimps and pimping that has changed.
In 2006, the Academy Award for Best Song went to Three Six Mafia’s “Its Hard Out Here for a Pimp”, while many people cheered and felt that it was a great ‘step forward’ for hip-hop. It’s difficult to believe that the Academy would’ve awarded an Oscar to a song called ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Trafficker,’ and not only because it would’ve made for a pretty awkward rhyme.
Trafficker conjures one image, and yet in our MTV’d, BET’‘d, 50 Cent-loving, Snoop-celebrating culture, the word pimp conjures up something different. We call them by different names because it’s more about whom they’re exploiting. Selling girls from Eastern Europe or Thailand makes you a trafficker, selling American girls makes you a pimp and gets you a sneaker deal, a soft-drink endorsement, a Chrysler commercial.
Most of us would probably agree that yes, we’re against trafficking and, of course, we’re against slavery, but a quick look at the music on our iPods or the artists we support might tell a different story. It’s critical that as consumers we begin to call out ‘pimping’ for what it is – trafficking, slavery, an extreme form of violence and abuse against women and children.
As a founder and executive director of GEMS, the nation’s largest service provider to commercially sexually exploited and trafficked girls and young women, I’ve listened to thousands of stories about pimps, seen and experienced firsthand their brutality and violence, visited girls in the hospital who’ve sustained major injuries and helped support the healing of girls who’ve been left with invisible scars, memories and trauma that are simply compounded by society’s continued acceptance and glorification of the men that hurt them so badly.
Frankly, it’s hard out here for a 13-year-old girl who’s under the control of an adult man who beats her daily, tattoos, brands, his name on her body to mark her as his property, who controls her every movement and forces her to have sex nightly with dozens of adult men and then takes her money. If that’s not trafficking and slavery I don’t know what is. I wish someone would make a song about her.