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Harlem Pimps’ Accounts of Their Economic Pathways and Feelings of Insiderness and Outsiderness

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Published onApr 01, 2019
Harlem Pimps’ Accounts of Their Economic Pathways and Feelings of Insiderness and Outsiderness


This study analyzes semi-structured interviews with 85 pimps in New York City to explore how pimps discuss their economic pathways – i.e., how their pimping leads to distinct types of work outcomes and how they discuss their associated feelings and attitudes. We compare younger (18-23) to older (24-67) pimps, anticipating that younger participants would be more adaptive and produce discourse less entrenched in outsider thinking. Pimps’ movements between licit and illicit work worlds mirror those of drifters (Matza, 1964) and align with Murphy and Robinson’s (2008) concept of maximizers (i.e., economically benefiting from both work worlds simultaneously). Younger pimps, despite their at-risk status, boast of several distinct advantages in moving between worlds, such as flexibility and technological savvy. How pimps’ experiences in both worlds connect to insider (mainstream orientation) or outsider discourse (oppositional orientation) is also examined. Many older pimps who identify as ‘hustlers’ express oppositional discourse that aligns with Sandberg’s (2009) ‘gangster’ discourse. Those pimping to survive tend to express ‘oppression’ discourse. Despite their at-risk statuses, many younger pimps demonstrate a hybrid (insider/outsider) orientation, which is one of versatility where participants describe an ability to master both illicit and licit worlds or at least maximize their opportunities by participating in both worlds.


Underlying the dominant narrative about pimps1 is that they predominantly exist in a deviant, subterranean underworld and that their social identities are entrenched in pimp counter-culture (Slim, 2009; Milner & Milner, 1973; Quinn, 2000). We know, based on existing desistance and criminal social identification research, that criminal behavior often represents only a small fraction of offenders’ behaviors (e.g., Sampson, 2009), and it does not necessarily correspond to lasting pathways (Maruna & Roy, 2007). Sykes and Matza (1957) suggest that all offenders absorb mainstream cultural orientations despite high levels of criminal activity. Subsequent studies testing neutralization theory, or the ways that offenders justify or excuse engagement in crime, suggests that many types of offenders have mainstream orientations (Maruna & Copes, 2005). We explore how exposure to licit and illicit economic worlds shapes pimps’ pathways towards licit work, to continuing in illicit work, or to being in both illicit and licit worlds, and how this relates to their mainstream (insider), oppositional (outsider), or hybrid (interdiscursive) discourse.

We focus on variation in how younger (18-23) and older (24-67) pimps interact with the economy and how they feel about this. The participants of this study are mostly lower socioeconomic status African-American and Latino males, with the primary source of variation being age. In general, younger people are more economically disadvantaged, and we expect the same of younger pimps; however, they potentially have experienced less negative contact in licit spheres due to their limited life experiences. They may traverse worlds more readily because they are less entrenched in pimping, and therefore may have more flexible accounts. The ways that pimps experience the U.S. economy may provide important information about these criminal entrepreneurs and how their experiences in licit and illicit economies correspond to their accounts of insiderness, outsiderness or both. 

Theoretical frameworks: Strain and neutralization

There is a useful body of research on offenders’ experiences in licit and illicit economies and how this can shape their pathways away from crime or toward continuing in crime. Generalizations about the division between licit and illicit worlds are evident based on the popularity of the “dual-city” hypothesis, or the idea that there is 1) a licit world and 2) a distinct alien, subterranean underworld (see Bauman, 1998). In Urban Outcasts, Wacquant (2008) compares American ‘ghettos’ and French ‘banlieues’ to understand urban marginality in advanced capitalist countries. His work supports the ‘dual-city hypothesis,’ finding that in these contexts there are firm spatial, social, cultural and economic boundaries between insiders and outsiders, and even ‘cities within cities.’ These dual cities are not just about separation in physical space, but also mental or ideological structures. Wacquant analyzes the mental structures of marginality, and he is able to draw links between social and spatial boundaries and what ‘ghetto’ residents feel is possible.

Related to these mental structures of marginality, there is a long history of criminologists who explore whether offenders express mainstream or oppositional orientations (Becker, 2008; Presser, 2004; Sykes & Matza, 1957; Sandberg, 2009; Topalli, 2005). In the 1960s, the notion of a firm boundary between worlds was challenged by Matza in his seminal work Delinquency and Drift, where he argues that people drift back and forth from non-criminal to criminal activities, including labor.

Historically, lower-echelon pimping was more street-based and therefore more public. Matza rightly emphasizes that a component of oppositional crime is its publicness. From the 1970s through the early 1990s (end of the crack era), street-based pimping was common in some New York City boroughs, such as Harlem and the Bronx. The publicness of the pimp “hustler” originated from resistance to white culture and subverting existing power structures (Cleaver, 1968; X & Haley, 1965). The street pimp of this era is imagined as being the embodiment of extreme oppositional masculinity or performing masculinity by inverting or subverting mainstream values (Messerschmidt, 1997). Yet many studies show that pimping in the 21st century has been moving off the street (Dank et al., 2014; Musto 2014; Venkatesh 2011). Unless publicness is similarly reconfigured online or inside, pimps may lose some of this historical style of public oppositionality or outsiderness.

In his research, Sandberg (2009) challenges the dichotomy that both Wacquant and Matza present, showing that it is difficult to imagine ‘deviant’ actors fully embodying an oppositional or mainstream orientation. In accounts, oppositional and neutralization discourse can be readily performed within a single narrative (Sandberg, 2009). Sandberg interviewed minority drug dealers in Norway and found a ‘bilingual' discursive practice. What he called ‘gangster discourse' focuses on being ‘hard, sexy, and smart,' and importantly is in relation to garnering the respect of other outsiders engaged in street life. In this type of scenario, gangster discourse can be seen as an expression of oppositional masculinity. Sandberg also identified ‘oppression discourse,' which focuses on unemployment, racism, and lack of assistance, and is used by respondents to justify crime. Sandberg surmised that these supposedly opposing positions are rarely traced simultaneously because recognizing the co-existence of these positions threatens prevalent criminological models like Matza’s or Wacquant’s. Sandberg challenges the dominant binary distinction on methodological grounds by arguing ‘deviant actors’ relationship to culture should not be construed in either/or terms. Both ‘oppression’ and ‘gangster’ discourses are ‘at-risk’ discourse, but oppression discourse is used to justify crime (a mainstream orientation), whereas gangster discourse is oppositional.

Pimping is an activity where the goal of money-making is inherent (see Goines, 2012; Slim, 2009). The more general American cultural emphasis on profit motive has been explored in many studies addressing the American Dream, including its underbelly (Merton, 1938; Messner & Rosenfeld, 1995). Merton’s (1938) classical strain theory explores how people position themselves to the U.S. economy. He explores ‘American dream’ goals/means discrepancies. People who accept the U.S. cultural goal of money-making and the institutionalized means of attaining money, i.e., licit work, are ‘conformists,’ and ‘innovators’ are those who accept the cultural goal, but who are barred from opportunity and instead generate money in creative “off-the-books” ways. Murphy and Robinson (2008) expand upon Merton’s typology and add a more flexible category of ‘maximizer’ or someone who is simultaneously a conformist and an innovator. A maximizer as compared to Matza’s drifter has more intentionality in moving between illicit and licit spheres because he/she seeks to generate the most economic return. One’s marginality, which is often dictated by intersectionality between factors like race, class, gender, and age, may dictate one’s ability to conform or to maximize by operating in both illicit and licit worlds.

Intersectionality and economic marginality: Gangster and oppression discourses

Intersectionality across race, class, gender, and age is tied to opportunity in the U.S. economy and also to feelings of insiderness and outsiderness. In terms of job opportunities, employment rates broken down by race show the differential impact of race on joblessness. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016), black males aged 16 to 19 had a 33.3% unemployment rate in the third quarter of 2016, whereas the unemployment rate for their white counterparts was 13.9% and for Latinos 19%. The realities of young black joblessness and other economic, cultural, and socio-political marginalization provide the context for our analysis.

For black youth who enter the licit economy, prospects of success remain risky as they enter middle age (Hulme & Shepherd, 2003; Larson & Mohanty, 1999; Shulman, 1996). As the U.S. labor market has moved away from manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs toward service-sector jobs, black adults (especially males) increasingly suffer from disproportionate unemployment and underemployment (Larson & Mohanty, 1999; Shulman, 1996; Wacquant, 2008; Wilson, 2011). For African-Americans, educational credentials like a high school diploma have become more and more necessary but less and less sufficient to overcome various barriers to entry in the job market – even for entry-level jobs, which increasingly require college degrees at minimum (McDaniel & Kuehn, 2013). Even within predominantly black neighborhoods, black businesses are less likely to receive loans and support from banks, making licit entrepreneurship unattainable for most (Immergluck, 2002). Thus, the unregulated illicit markets may present risk but also present greater opportunities to advance economically compared to the risky, less lucrative licit markets. Paradoxically, the illicit market may be perceived as a less risky option for young people, at least in the short term.

Age is an important component of intersectionality, with some critical social scientists arguing that the U.S extension of a lengthy period of adolescence may be explained through the political economy model (Côté and Allahar, 1996). For instance, governmental policies about legal age requirements for entering the labor force, the low standards for minimum wage, and business practices requiring more educational credentials for jobs for technical or professional work are beneficial to middle-aged workers (Côté & Allahar, 1996; Dornbusch, 1989; Hynes & Hirsch, 2012; Shanahan, 2000; Shanahan et al, 2005; Vondracek et al, 2003). The result is that the ever-widening category of youth can be construed as relegated to a disenfranchised class (Arnett, 2002; Côté & Allahar, 1996; Hertz, 2005). Youth are often excluded from positions of power, as they often work in part-time, service sector jobs with no benefits (Wacquant, 2008). While many young people in the U.S. may choose to be cheap, surplus labor, some entrepreneurial youth, especially people of color living in housing projects who have historically been barred even from these lowly positions, may develop illicit means of income such as drug dealing or pimping (Wacquant, 2008).

Offenders’ interpretations of barriers or openings to more economic return can be explained by Merton’s ideas of opportunity, and life course theorists’ emphasis on ‘turning points’ or changes that alter pathways (Sampson & Laub, 1995). They are both theories attuned to human adaptation, and lower echelon pimps' interpretations of barriers and openings will allow for an understanding of their different perceptions of their economic pathways as driven by adaptation. We expand on Matza’s idea of drift to explore how pimps interpret their engagement in both worlds, with some experiencing both economic worlds simultaneously. Younger as compared to older pimps are more ‘at-risk' due to their position in the U.S. economy, but because they are young, they may produce accounts that are less entrenched in oppositional or outsider thinking. These illicit experiences may provide them with more power as compared to their counterparts who work in the licit sector, but as youth in the overall economy, they should be more disenfranchised in both worlds. While they are technically more marginalized due to reasons outlined in the ‘political economy of youth' model, they may be less committed to this type of work and the social identifications that go along with it. Also, they may be more optimistic about their opportunities due to not yet having had disappointing or alienating experiences within the licit U.S. economy (Kirschenman & Neckerman, 1991). However, their disenfranchised status in both worlds may loosen their attachment to both insider and outsider positions and corresponding ideologies.

In general, pimping involves both an economic motivation and the feelings associated with higher status, such as neighborhood level status and feeling more independent from socio-structural constraints. Younger and older pimps may both disparage "straight" work in menial positions and focus on the hustle, the glamour, and fast money. We do expect them both to use all types of ‘at-risk’ discourse described by Sandberg, but we also expect the younger pimps to show more hybrid discursivities.

Current study

The current study explores how pimps discuss their economic pathways – i.e., how their pimping leads to distinct types of work outcomes and how they discuss their associated feelings and attitudes. We compare younger (18-23) to older (24-67) pimps, anticipating that younger participants would be more adaptive and produce discourse less entrenched in outsider thinking.

First, we examine pimps’ movements between licit and illicit work worlds. Our research questions explore the main pathways between pimping and these work worlds: how do these pimps understand their pimping as part of a movement toward or away from licit work, and what does that tell us about the motivations behind their pimping? How do other factors such as age and education opportunities influence how they understand those pathways?

Second, we analyze their stories to see how their experiences in both worlds connect to insider or outsider discourse. Insider discourse in this context reflects a more mainstream orientation, and outsider discourse a more oppositional orientation. How do certain types of pimps use a more oppositional, outsider discourse that aligns with Sandberg’s ‘gangster’ discourse, versus others using a more insider, mainstream discourse that aligns with Sandberg’s ‘oppression’ discourse? What else do these discursive patterns tell us about how pimps make sense of their movements between work worlds?


Sample and data collection

To investigate how pimps feel about their position in the U.S. economy and the ‘dual-city’ dichotomy, 85 male pimps were recruited from housing projects in Harlem for qualitative interviews. We used the term “pimp” during recruitment because other academic terms, like “third-party,” are unfamiliar to this population. To qualify for this study, participants had to have played at least an ancillary role in commercial sex, such as connecting sex workers and clients and/or facilitating sex work through providing resources or other aid (Davis, 2013). These inclusion and exclusion criteria were expressed in clear language to make sure that participants had actually procured, facilitated, managed, or otherwise contributed to commercial sex.

The majority of the interviews took place in open courtyards in three housing projects in East Harlem, New York, with people from these communities. East Harlem has one of the largest concentrations of low-income housing in the country and has more than 16 public housing developments with over 16,000 residents (Harlem Community Justice Center, 2011). The first and primary location was Taino Towers in East Harlem. The complex spans one city block and has over 3,000 residents. Other research sites for this study included the George Washington Carver House. People living in these housing projects are at high risk for family poverty, under-employment, and high rates of juvenile delinquency (Harlem Community Justice Center, 2011). East Harlem is one of the nation’s poorest communities. According to census data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Harlem is rated 10 out of 10 on the community disadvantage index, which means that it is poorer than 99% of communities nationally (as cited in Harlem Community Justice Center, 2011).

Harlem residents fit Wacquant’s categorization of those experiencing new kinds of exclusion at the margins, or advanced marginalization. Wacquant identifies distinctive properties of the rise of marginality, including de-socialization of wage labor; mass joblessness; concentrated advanced marginalization in bounded territories, such as housing projects; and the alienation and deteriorating sense of community in these spaces (Wacquant, 2008). The levels of deprivation experienced by those relegated to American ghettos influences how they connect to licit sectors and how they operate in the overall commercial sex market. The participants in this study operated in the ground-floor tier of the market, and historically their work is street-based.

Our sample was not representative, which is typical of most studies conducted on this hidden population. Snowball sampling was the intended strategy because it typically is used in non-probability fieldwork studies, particularly when participants are active offenders (Flick, 2009). In this sampling technique, initial research participants (or gatekeepers) refer similar participants in a chain of referrals. One limitation of snowball sampling is selection bias because the pool of participants is derived through a few initial contacts or seeds. With this hard-to-reach population, the initial gatekeepers remained the primary sources of referral.

The study shifted to a convenience sample and an agora sample, or a sample obtained from public open space (Horning & Sriken, 2017; Horning et al., 2018). Interviews took place in housing project courtyards that are akin to a town square. Residents and their friends and acquaintances socialize in these spaces. Participants witness the on-site interviews and ask about the study. Participants who are actively offending may feel more comfortable because they can see that other participants safely complete interviews without being arrested.

Two gatekeepers facilitated access to these communities. They both lived in these housing projects and formerly worked as pimps within families who sold sex. The gatekeepers escorted the team through security at different housing projects (since only residents or those with permission were allowed entrance). During the winter months, we moved indoors to two nonprofit organizations in Harlem.

Interviews and ethics

The interviews were semi-structured and lasted from 30 to 90 minutes. Pimps were paid $30 for participation. Pimps were asked about how they conduct work on a daily basis and about their relationships with sex workers and clients. Interviews were confidential and tape-recorded, and verbal consent was given for participation. We received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for participants in the study to waive written documentation of their informed consent because the main threat to these participants would be the existence of written documentation of their participation in the study. There are no identifiers, and participants gave pseudonyms. Participants were warned about the potential risks and benefits of participation. Participants were given the option to do interviews inside or in public space.

Analytic approach

Initially, each interview was analyzed using the Listening Guide (Doucet & Mauthner, 2008). This was followed by several readings of the interviews using queries such as, “How do participants speak about themselves and their social worlds?” and “What are the structured power relations?” Based on this initial exploration of the data, the sensitizing concepts of their positions within illicit and licit economies arose. These sensitizing concepts or general guides (Blumer, 1954) helped us formulate research questions around economic pathways (that support and challenge the dual-city hypothesis, Merton’s deviance typology and Matza’s idea of ‘drift’). Then, we explored how participants used outsider discourse identified by Sandberg, that is, gangster discourse. Gangster discourse is about being hard, respected and “street smart,” thereby bypassing the need to be included in the licit sector economy (derived from Sandberg, 2009). Oppression discourse involves personal narratives of unemployment and racism used to describe why one is precluded from the licit sector economy (derived from Sandberg, 2009). Those who use this are coming from positions of exclusion, but they are aligned with a mainstream orientation because they feel compelled to justify ‘bad’ behavior. Insider discourse is where participants express alignment with mainstream goals of licit working or traditional education. Based on Murphy and Robinson’s concept of a maximizer, we included a third discourse, one of versatility that is more of a hybrid orientation (outsider and insider). Versatility discourse involves talk of being adept at navigating both illicit and licit sector economies. Pimps’ relationship to illicit and licit economies will be explored with flexibility in positions and accounts in mind.

In all, 85 pimps were interviewed for this study. Most of the participants are racial minorities: African-American, (n=63, 74.1%); Latino (n=13, 25.3%); Other (n=9, 0.6%). The prevalence of African-American participants is higher, and the percent of Latinos is lower as compared to the local population. All participants are male. The average number of sex workers a pimp manages is six (1-63 workers). The average time spent pimping is six years (1-30 years). Most pimps started this labor when they were young, with the average starting at age 17 (9-37 years old). The mean average current age is 27 years old (range 18 – 67 years old; median=23).

There were 40 younger pimps (18-23) and 45 older pimps (24-67). We categorized those from 18-23 as younger pimps because those in this age bracket encompasses those who experience the most disenfranchisement in the U.S. economy (Côté & Allahar, 1996). They have more recently attended high school and have had parental guardianship. Those from 18-23 are often relegated to menial labor in the licit economy, and after college-age, they are expected to be credentialed if they plan on escaping low-paying and degrading work.

Several study participants work in both the illicit and licit economies. At the time this research was conducted, 16.5% (n=14) worked in the licit economy. Generally, they perform service jobs at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores or do manual labor jobs, such as delivering packages for the United Postal Service. Other participants have a history of legal employment. Over one-fourth, or 28.2% (n=24), formerly worked in the legal economy. 15.3% (n=13) of the participants would like to have licit work, but they more often aspire to higher-level positions, such as being managers or owning their own business in the formal sector. Overall, 60% of study participants had some relationship to the legal economy, 35.3% (n=38) never had licit work, and many did not express interest in this type of work, and 4.7% (n=4) did not provide responses to these questions. For the majority of their pimping careers, n=31, (36.5%) operated in the licit and illicit worlds simultaneously.

Pimps’ pathways towards licit, illicit economies or both

Based on age and socio-structural factors, many pimps encounter barriers to crossing the boundary between the licit and illicit work world, while others find opportunities in licit worlds or both. We explore different pathways garnered through pimping and the various barriers or gains that pimps encounter that shape their trajectories.

Table 1. Pathways to licit and illicit work

Pimping toward illicit work (n=32, 37.6%)

Pimping —> prison and check the box —> illicit work only

Pimping —> bad experience in the licit sector —> illicit work only

Pimping —> hustler identity —> illicit work only

Pimping toward licit work (n=21, 25.9%)

Pimping —> prison —> licit work

Pimping —> developed human capital in other ways —> licit work

Pimping —> bad experience in illicit sector —> licit work

Pimping toward mastery of both worlds of work (n=31, 36.5%)

Pimping —> college and pimping —> licit and illicit work

Pimping —> maximizing licit and illicit work     

We asked participants about their positions in relation to illicit and licit work, and several types of pathways emerged (see Table 1). The first pathway is Pimping and Continuing Illicit Work (n=32, 37.6%), in which pimps were blocked from opportunities due to being labeled as felons, so they had bad experiences in the licit market and/or they continued pimping to survive and/or to maintain their dignity. The second type of pathway is Pimping Toward Licit Work (n=22, 25.9%), in which pimps experience a change in human capital, and legal work and/or college become more attainable. The third pathway is Pimping Toward Mastery of Both Worlds of Work (n=31, 36.5%), in which pimps are simultaneously in illicit and licit worlds.

Table 2. Relationship between pimps’ age and pathways


Younger (n=40)

Older (n=45)

Total (n= 85)

Pimping and Continuing Illicit Work

25.0% (n=10)

48.9% (n=22)

37.6% (n=32)

Pimping Toward Licit Work

37.5% (n=15)

15.6% (n=7)

25.9% (n=22)

Pimping Toward Mastery of Worlds

37.5% (n=15)

35.6% (n=16)

36.5% (n=31)

Note: Pearson Chi2=7.172, p-value=0.028.

Table 2 shows a clear quantitative difference between younger and older pimps’ types of pathways. The Chi2 test finding a statistically significant difference between the actual and expected counts of younger versus older pimps’ pathways. Of the younger pimps, 10 (25%) are pimping and plan on continuing illicit work, compared to 22 (48.9%) of older pimps. Of the younger pimps, 15 (37.5%) are pimping and are moving towards doing licit work, compared to only 7 (15.6%) of older pimps. Last, of the younger pimps, 15 (37.5%) are trying to master both worlds, and 16 (35.6%) of older pimps are doing the same thing. Older pimps are more entrenched in the purely illicit pathway as evidenced quantitatively and shown in accounts below; however, a number of younger and older pimps are within both worlds to maximize, but they perceive their positions in qualitatively different ways.

The first pathway is Pimping and Continuing Illicit Work with older pimps showing discursive themes of barriers, missed opportunities and/or humiliation in licit markets. Those with felony labels (obtained from all types of convictions) felt that this stigma precluded from joining the licit workforce. Chicago Blue discusses this real problem.

As long as I am on the earth, I can walk and breath, nobody gonna hire me. I am a convicted felon. Government ain’t gonna give me no job. Police ain’t gonna give me no job. Sanitation ain’t gonna give me no job. Construction ain’t gonna give me no job and the MTA ain’t gonna give me no job. So who gonna hire me? So what else am I gonna do? Ain’t nothing else to do.

Some older pimps (ages 24 to 67) are barred from licit work because of prior felony convictions that preclude them from holding many licit jobs. In most U.S. states, felons are required to identify their status on job applications. Many of them are bypassed as unsuitable even for menial labor (Mathias, 2015). In 2015, New York City passed a groundbreaking policy called the Fair Chance Act that means felons are no longer required to check the box on job applications that identifies them as having a prior conviction. As of 2015, similar policies had passed in 17 states and more than 100 cities (Mathias, 2015). However, these policies only apply to private-sector jobs, which is problematic because this bars felons from applying for civil service positions that historically have been accessible to racial minorities (Rubio, 2010). Also, in some states don’t check the box policies only hide the felony during the initial screening; background checks can be done on serious candidates. If this type of “fair chance” policy remains intact, improves and gains traction in other states and/or expands to public-sector positions, then this pathway may become obsolete.

Many older pimps have missed important milestones such as first jobs, training, college, and licit job histories. They feel too old to get college degrees and are unable to get jobs requiring technological skills. Many older pimps also have a disadvantage in licit markets because they are not native to technology. Even though pimping has moved online and technology is more readily used for this kind of work, many describe lacking the technological savvy required for jobs other than menial labor. Chicago Blue ponders the idea of returning to college to update his knowledge of technology, but he reflects on the impossibility of actually becoming proficient enough, even with training.

Can't go back to school. I'm forty-something years old. Go back to school and learn what? Technology? Computers? What that gonna do for me? Nothing. What's it gonna do? Everything changes. They got the iPads, and you know, the iPhones. All them technologies, for what? I remember Total Recall, remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger back in the day? That's the same shit they're doing now. Have you ever noticed, all the movies that came out, that has something to do with technology, it's coming. It's a cycle; everything changes.

Early on in life, some pimps foray into licit jobs and quickly realize that minimum wage jobs do not allow for a basic living wage and they are humiliating. These early bad experiences repel them from pursuing licit work. The economic returns from customer service positions do not amount to enough. For instance, Baby Sean, 26, reflects on the low wages he once received at McDonald’s and compares this to the fast economic returns from pimping.

I wouldn't give up this for no McDonald's. No, not anymore. I mean I’m making a little minimum wage, 7.25 or 7 dollars an hour. Back then, uh, it wasn’t doing nothing compared to what this is doing for me right now. No way. I can make that in about a couple minutes you know (through pimping).

Both younger and older pimps showed the theme of pimping to survive. However, younger pimps are in a different position having recently been underage and often coming from at-risk families. For some of these pimps, earning money to help their struggling families was evident. They typically have parents who are unable to support them. Moreover, many of them use their income to support family members by paying rent and buying food, clothes, and even schoolbooks. For instance, Buddy Love, 21, talks about the “bigger picture,” or how he uses his income to help his family, especially his siblings.

I’m looking at the bigger picture. I don’t wanna live with my parents for the rest of my life. The majority of them (my family) work, but I feed them too, so it’s like I make sure they good. I have two more older brothers. They in school (college). I pay for them to get they books. (---) Send ’em they checks they can just do whatever they want with it so like. I’m the type I give you money. I don’t want it back.

Due to their young age, younger pimps demonstrating this theme in accounts often reflects disruptive family environments. For instance, many respondents describe how they and other at-risk teens ban together in order to get money. The need for this cooperative activity stems from an array of problems, including having ill, poor, or absentee parents. Others are disconnected from their parents and meet in places such as foster care, homeless shelters, or the streets. Their disenfranchised status is magnified by the reality that they live with little to no adult guardianship. Having limited options in licit markets, they facilitate selling sex and engaging in sex work to survive. Older pimps reflected on this theme in their early lives as coming-of-age stories. For older pimps, pimping as a method of survival was normalized, or in other cases, it was no longer about survival because they acquired enough economic capital through the years of working.

Younger people have had a shorter experience with both economies, and they have a special position in the economy based on the political economy of youth paradigm. Of the 40 younger pimps, 27.5% (n=11) serve as cheap, surplus labor in the illicit marketplace; many work for older family members. Those pimps who work for family members (e.g., fathers, uncles, or cousins) either work for free or serve as apprentices for a period of time. Only half (n=20) of the younger pimps in this study qualify as cheap, surplus labor if you combine their participation in legal and illegal sectors. Although this study does not involve a statistically representative probability sample, the fact that half of the young pimps in our sample do not discuss themselves as cheap, surplus labor stands in contrast to the majority of young men of color in the legal U.S. labor market, who tend to be relegated to low-skill, low-wage jobs or unemployment (Côté & Allahar, 1996; Wilson, 2011). The young pimps’ accounts of their work suggest they feel that they are faring better than their counterparts working in legal sectors. They feel the illicit sector may give them more agency or opportunities than they could have access to in the legal economy, and their accounts reflect themes of relative empowerment. However, their accounts suggest they may also be harnessed to illegal work at least until they can afford to leave their family homes and/or leave the business without too much family conflict.

Older pimps who worked for family describe similar apprentice roles while growing up, but the majority had graduated from these lowly apprenticing positions. Only one older pimp was being exploited by older family members. If you include work in the licit and illicit sectors, (28.9%) (n=13) of the older pimps in this sample qualify as cheap, surplus labor. Both younger and older groups who straddle economies supplement their income with low-level jobs, such as cashier and sales positions or blue collar work. These jobs often have little to no benefits or limited room for upward mobility. Only a few had higher level jobs such as working for the Board of Education or mid-level positions. The older pimps who quit pimping described being content with low-level work, such as janitorial work, but they do reflect back on more exciting times in the illicit world. The older pimps were more resigned to this lower-level work, whereas the younger pimps describe their cheap, surplus labor jobs as unimportant or temporary.

The second type of pathway is Pimping Toward Licit Work and the discursive themes are openings, opportunities, and transferability of illicit skills. Tenacious, 35, discusses how access to college in prison changed his opportunities.

I caught a bid and went upstate for a couple of years and wind up going to school. I went to college. I got a college degree and got an Associates, a Bachelors, and I got into…um business wise…advertisement, you know. And did that for a while, you know and that I tell you I’m fortunate.

Although many older pimps resign themselves to criminal lifestyles, a few like Tenacious found that some rehabilitative aspects of their prison experiences helped them develop the capital necessary for the licit sector. For example, when Tenacious spent time in prison in the 1970s and 1980s, there were more educational opportunities for people who were incarcerated. These types of programs began in the 1950s and showed some positive results in reducing recidivism (Steurer & Smith, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 1994; Vacca, 2004). However, in the 1990s most educational programs in prison were discontinued, despite prison wardens on the ground supporting expanded education and vocation programs due to their perceived clinical success (Cullen et al., 1993; Phelps, 2011). Unless such programs are re-established, it is likely that this pathway will diminish.

Some pimps described gaining a lot of general knowledge about running businesses from pimping. They tried to develop and hone skills, such as marketing, negotiating, and managing workers and these are transferrable in other business contexts. A number of these business-wise pimps also sold drugs. They used the same client list, with the idea that people wanted to party with drugs and sex. They were able to transfer their skills across illicit markets and later used their flair for business in licit worlds. Jeremiah discusses how pimping not only put food on his table but also provided him with a transferable skill in the licit sector.

Shit, well I just got promoted at my job so they pushing me into management. I’m probably gonna be manager by then. More likely than you know. It’s, you know, just understood this much. I don’t know what nobody else said, but a large part of what I was doing was just survival (---). That was another business and that’s it. I’m attracted to money and that’s it. That’s another way to get money.

In this pathway, the ability to leave pimping depended on the acquisition of some kind of capital, whether it was garnered through programs, such as college or job training or through engaging in the job of pimping. This period of learning and acquiring new skills gave pimps the human capital to pursue and succeed at jobs in the licit world.

The third pathway is Pimping Toward Mastery of Both Worlds of Work, and the discursive themes are versatility, making ends meet and maximization. Some younger pimps in this sample attend school and college. Over half 22 (50.6%) of the younger pimps currently or used to attend school. Many of them feel that through college they can gain skills to improve their illicit businesses. They discuss business courses, such as marketing or communication and talk about how this gives them business ideas. For others, college is a great place for learning about business and for their business. For instance, Jason chose a large community college where he can easily expand his client base and recruit more workers. John, 22, is pimping in order to finance purchasing multiple legitimate businesses, and he claims to have already saved over $100,000 as a starting point. He drew a picture of his business plan that envisioned his owning a condo and multiple businesses, which can be interpreted as an ambitious, if not plausibly feasible, American Dream. He reported that he is currently a business major and seems to be constructing his business model based on various courses he is taking, such as online marketing. His goal is to gain enough capital through pimping to expand to licit-sector businesses, such as a limousine company, various online endeavors, and eventually ownership of a Fortune 500 company. He reported that he had already invested in the stock market and was increasing his capital. He claims to have the money to purchase a condo and to be in the process of saving for the rest. He is trying to maximize his opportunities and plans to remain in both worlds, even if some of the details of his plans might seem fanciful. This is an example of a young man who values successfully mastering both work worlds.

The border between licit and illicit spheres is not so firm for these pimps for whom skills learned in one arena can be used in the other, and who blend these spheres in creative ways. Almost none of the younger pimps describe firm boundaries between their licit and illicit lives, but many of them are not yet in long-term or higher-level positions in the licit world.

Some younger pimps are in this line of work to maximize their income in order to participate in U.S. consumer culture, which generally is important to young people (Côté & Allahar, (1996). A common theme in the accounts of the younger pimps was on spending their often meager earnings on clothes and sneakers. Many mention a need for sneakers, a symbol of status for many black teenagers (Collins, 2006). The ability to sport the latest fashion trends, despite being poor, is very important to youth in lower echelon markets (Vigil, 2003). Percy reflects on this necessity.

I told her, do you love me? She said yes. And it was like OK, the newest Jordans came out. I’m not gonna lie. The newest Jordans came out. I really wanted ’em. And a guy he wanted her. So I told her, I said, yo I really need this. It’s a dire need.

Younger pimps also talk about how these social status symbols are important to young sex workers. In some cases, youth may band together so they can successfully don symbols of social status. Javalucci, 20, and his girlfriend do not make much money in the licit market. One day, they decide to sell sex for basic living costs. Javalucci talks about saving for the future, but a portion of his earnings go to new clothing. He says, “I’m saving it for the future, of course. Like I said, it takes money, takes time to add up. You know, so I take time to buy my sneakers you know. … You know, she gets her stuff too. She wears nice clothes. Louis Vuitton, Hermes. Haha. Just adds up.” This spending of meager earnings on clothes and entertainment is typical of most youth who are disenfranchised because of their age.

Older pimps were also interested in fashion, and they do spend on their attire. Both groups were invested in masculine street performativity. The importance of attire in street culture and those engaged in illicit markets has been well-documented (Katz, 1988; Vigil, 2003). Clothing and sneakers are status symbols in more street-based markets. However, older pimps’ accounts focused on the practicality in buying sex workers clothes and how such investments would improve business. Some of them described not “spending too much” “being frugal” or even shopping at the “thrift store.” In most scenarios, the purchase of clothing for workers had a practical element that was lacking in the accounts of younger pimps.

Older pimps straddle the legal and illegal economies, yet they are more attuned to the boundary. George talks about how he works for the Board of Education during the week, but from Thursday to Saturday he works as a pimp in the evenings. He identifies with the clients who like to keep the dual worlds separate.

Like I said once in occasionally like Sundays, once in a blue moon I would get a phone call during the regular weekday or something like that. One of the guys would call me. Hey, man, what you doing? Listen, I feel like hanging out with one of the girls? You think you can set something up? But that didn’t really happen too often during the week ’cause you know they still had to maintain their regular lives, too.

Vikel, 27, has a 9-to-5 job as a salesman, as do many of his sex workers, who work during the day as sales associates but spend the evenings selling sex. He says both forms of employment are necessary because of the low wages that they receive in the shoe sales industry. Many of the older pimps who maximize through participation in both economies do so in order to make a basic living wage. Some older pimps do move across illicit and licit sectors, but this is usually because they need both to survive economically. The types of jobs they obtain in licit sectors are low-level positions. With the decline of factory work, decreasing menial labor positions and the increase in technological skills needed to work (even in service-sector positions) (Côté & Allahar, 1996), this pathway may become more infrequent.

Outsider, insider and versatility discourse

This study’s participants express different types of discourse depending on their pathway and age group. Older pimps (24 to 67 years old) who continued in illicit work in the study expressed an outsider position where ‘hustling’ constitutes a lifestyle. When asked where he sees himself in five years, Leon, 30, replies, "I am a pimp forever." Some individuals have worked in this arena and other illegal sectors for so long that they cannot even imagine themselves doing licit work. Isaac Taylor, 27, who pimped for 12 years, says, "I never worked before regular. All my life I was just selling drugs, selling ass, and robbing. Robbing and stealing." Even the ones that age-out still identify as pimps. Many of the geriatric pimps sat around the courtyard swapping pimp stories, and many still attended local Player's Balls or events showcasing successful pimps and their sex workers. These descriptions of being street savvy and therefore respected and powerful are aligned with Sandberg’s gangster discourse, which reflects oppositional masculinity.

These pimps who regularly use gangster discourse view their positions as high-status, especially in comparison to those working long hours for little return. In their remarks, they suggest that they are empowered by taking control in illicit sectors and through bypassing the degradation and low returns of menial labor. This is evident in their self-characterization of "being the boss," "having an empire," "being respected," and taking the reins in their communities within a capitalist system. Also, they are aligned with Merton’s innovator or even Murphy and Robinson’s maximizer. They are aligned with the mainstream cultural goal of money-making, but due to their socio-structural positions and the fact that they are barred from conventional opportunities, their masculine performance has more success in the illicit sector.

For those pimps who needed the money for basic survival, Sandberg’s oppression discourse is commonly used to justify their histories. These pimps frequently tell of how they have limited opportunities due to their disenfranchisement in licit sectors. The need to survive should not be downplayed as this is a community classified as one of advanced marginalization, but they are justifying their crimes through neutralization techniques, such as denial of responsibility. Wes discusses pimping for survival by imagining that he might be lacking in the most basic aspects of human needs. Many younger pimps are focused on immediate needs such as paying bills, eating, and basic survival.

I was thinking about what can I do with my life for me to get some kinda money out of it? Cause it’s like I don’t wanna walk around the streets broke. Cause when I’m hungry I’m a-be starving. When I’m thirsty … when I need something to drink, I’m a-be thirsty.

Younger pimps also discuss access to education, a topic that older pimps tend to disregard as a possibility. But some younger pimps do feel that college is out of their grasp. Some pimps believe they do not belong in college because of their marginalization, which respondents articulate through oppression and gangster discourse. A team of three pimps speaks frankly about how, for them, some things were unattainable. The team leader states, “We’re obviously not gonna be, you know, lawyers or doctors or CIA or anything.” But they also say that they are also too badass for that kind of setting. Such remarks are more aligned with gangster discourse. Even though at-risk discourses are prevalent in their accounts, they are optimistic about their idea to “make dreams come true” in the licit sector. They are rap artists who pool all of their money from pimping to record their music. Trio 2:

It’s like when we was young coming up we had dreams of doing that, but it’s like now how you see reality is like, you know, some dreams can’t come true. But it’s like that’s not gonna stop me from making it come true you know.

Steve, 19, uses oppression discourse to explain his line of work. His reason for pimping is to pay bills; he just moved out of his family home, and he could not otherwise afford to be independent. He uses oppression discourse to clarify why he uses pimping as a creative way to earn and save money, but he wishes to return to school to study business administration. He does not see an impenetrable boundary between himself and college guys.

Just made my ambition higher to get money. That’s it. Everybody’s life is not planned out for them. So everybody can’t go to college, get degrees, and make money. It’s not easy. You know what I’m saying? It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s the right way to go, but it’s not as easy living in the hood. You living through poverty. You know. You don’t got it. Whatever, you got little sisters making some money and you they need sneakers. Gotta go out and get it one way or another.

Interviewer: Not everybody is doing this though, right?

Nah, nah, everybody do they own thing. Everybody get they own type of money through they own way.

Percy, 21, started pimping at age 14. He calls pimping "straight negativity." But at the same time, he talks about the perks of being his own boss. For Percy, the independence he obtains through pimping provides a means of escaping the confines of menial labor. The traditional institutions of work do not regulate his movements, and no one has the power to fire him. Percy's feelings of control are derived from the fact that, while he is engaged in money-making endeavors (similar to mainstream accounts) along with other members of his demographic, he has freedoms that other working-class people from his demographic do not. Oppression and gangster discourses are both present in these types of accounts. Many young people talk of initially being limited to low-wage jobs. Rejecting that position, they are now badass. They are bosses who can do as they please. These accounts are about difference, but they still align with American cultural goals of money-making (Merton, 1938).

I went from being a kid with a lot of positive outlooks to straight negativity. And yes, pimping has done that. But then you gotta look at a pimp's life. Pimp nigger, do what he wanna a do. You clock in when you wanna clock in. You clock out when you wanna clock out. You pay yourself how much you wanna pay yourself. If I wake up 9 o'clock and say I wanna drink liquor, I’m gonna drink liquor. If I wake up and say I wanna smoke, I'm gonna smoke. I’m my own boss.

Interviewer: So you set your own …

I tell myself, I hire and fire myself.

The more surprising accounts are from those who describe moving seamlessly between worlds and attempting to master both. Travis discusses always knowing that he could pimp but feeling unsure of his ability to be a college man. He tells the story of how he discovers that he may excel in both arenas, but without a specific aspiration of quitting either. While he sees a boundary between them, he also sees himself as not only being able to glide across it, but also to skillfully be in control in both worlds. This is reflective of a discourse of versatility, where both licit and illicit spheres are navigated. 

In the street I hustle, go to school part time. I got to X college. I study, I’m studying communication. Like that right here (pimping), that is a part time job. That thing, lifestyle, I came into that. I already knew I could be that, that’s something that I wanted to be (college guy).

Younger pimps’ ideas about education and going to college vary. Eleven of the younger pimps (28.2%) believe that education is worth it, and they aspire to complete Associate or Bachelor’s degrees, typically in business or communications. Some believe that being credentialed will positively change their futures. Other younger pimps challenge this idea. For example, Reno is quite aware of the enormous debt incurred by his educated counterparts. He feels that social movements at the time of the interview, such as Occupy Wall Street, reflect young people’s reluctance to believe in the “American Dream.”

So many people are part of that whole Zuccotti Park and the one percent, and I think people from your school and those schools have gone and protested about that, their, you know, their tuition hundred thousand, two hundred thousand dollars in tuition. There’s not jobs. And so the American Dream has changed. … Don’t go to college anymore.

Reno’s point about the widening gap between the rich and the poor reflects a sophisticated awareness of important political debates happening at the time of the interviews. A few decades ago, his sentiments might have been considered oppositional, but in this period some of his ideas became more mainstream on the political left and right. For example, former Secretary of Education and conservative pundit William Bennett echoed Reno when he argued that a four-year higher education was not financially worthwhile or necessary for success.

Furthermore, Reno’s sentiment may apply to those in various social strata, not just those experiencing marginalization like his own. In Reno’s quote about Occupy Wall Street, his position does not align with the standard oppression discourse, where exclusion is framed through being at risk because of race and other marginalized positions. Instead, he directly references angry college students in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and specifically the protesters in Zuccotti Park on the other end of Manhattan, a socioeconomic world away. The main slogan there was about solidarity among the 99% united against the 1% who hold wealth and power. As such, Reno implicitly aligns himself with the majority of the population.

Some pimps refuse to see the difference between licit and illicit work. They appear to de-emphasize this boundary and instead see sameness between themselves and the mainstream. They view degradation and subordination as inherent in any kind of labor. They argue, moreover, that “pimp” and “ho” are merely imposed labels. For instance, Cyril believes that irrespective of race, many people operate in the pimp-and-ho paradigm, although unlike him and his workers, these other people are being paid only minimum wage.

I would say this not only a black and Spanish thing, and when you put the word pimp, ho, you limit it. You know. Because it’s much bigger than the four-letter word. And two-letter word. You know.

Interviewer: That's true.

There’s people that’s pimping people right here working at this desk, and there’s hos that’s running to the fax machine back and forth. That ain’t never gonna leave that minimum wage bracket that they working for. And at the end of the day they saying damn, I been here for three years and I ain’t going nowhere. And the boss is like, you been here for three years and you been doing a good job. Now keep on doing it and you gonna be here for another three.

Some of these younger pimps who seek to maximize and master both worlds seek a version of the American Dream. Jason reports that he has been effectively saving money and attending college, and he has elaborate, if impracticable, plans to master both, resulting in his idea of living an opulent but also sophisticated lifestyle.

Interviewer: In five years what do you see yourself doing?

I’m trying to be self-employed, man. I wanna own two businesses. And a condo.

Interviewer: You’re gonna do all of it?

That’s my goal. Man, I got enough for the store. Right now, I got a couple hundreds, hundred thousand (dollars) stacked up (saved). But for the condo, man. That’s what I wanna get first. I wanna get my main place. I want my own spot. Like I could call mines. Know what I mean? Now me I wanted to be official. I want a piano in my shit type shit, I want like carpets, cashmere carpets. Understand? I want to live good type. You know what I mean. …So, I’m not gonna quit no time soon. Know what I mean, stack, know what I mean.

Interviewer: You want some nice stuff.

Half a mill mark, something. You know.

Jason does sound like he has internalized consumerist, mainstream American values like accumulating money and status, but he yearns for an “official” life replete not only with luxury but with symbols of high culture such as a piano and fancy carpets. Although such goals may be grandiose, the details of his fantasies shed light on his values, motives, and interior emotional attachments. His main imaginings are not just about simple financial gain, but also aesthetics and something much more emotionally palpable than the process by which money is earned.

Despite their at-risk statuses, many of these young pimps pride themselves on skillfully navigating both worlds, and, in some cases, while skating over dangerous boundaries without so much as a scratch. More often, these younger pimps seem unbothered by their at-risk status and undeterred by social and cultural barriers. While their talk of economic solvency comes from positions of outsiderness based on raced and classed identities, some of these pimps could be considered insiders because they are currently college men, or at least feel they can be included by eventually becoming businessmen in formal markets.


This study is based on the lower echelon pimps who experience advanced marginalization as described by Wacquant (2008). The pathways and the discursive themes that emerged in the findings may not be applicable to pimps in higher strata of the market. Weitzer (2009) discusses how the sex market is segmented based on race, ethnicity, and class. This lower echelon sample of pimps ascribe particular meanings to their work. Their heightened emphasis on money-making may not be evident in accounts by middle to upper echelon actors in the market. Many participants in this sample straddle both markets, which was linked to themes of earning a basic living wage and maximizing, but there are also social and emotional reasons to engage in pimping that might be more common in other echelons. The accounts in this sample do highlight profit over all other motives, which reflects their advanced marginalization. Generalizations based on this sample may not be made to the overall population of pimps, whose backgrounds and contexts vary substantially.

The main demographic difference within this group is age, and variation in this sample was often based on this distinction. However, many of the older pimps in the sample reflected on their early years, and some of their experiences and sentiments were parallel to themes that came up in younger pimps’ accounts. The variation in the results by age group could be due to different stages in developmental trajectories. This could only be verified by following the group of younger pimps longitudinally. Some of the younger pimps portrayed themselves as confident and as able to access to both worlds, but this may reflect of lack of experience in licit worlds and the overconfidence of the young.


In this sample, pimps’ accounts of their economic pathways from pimping to licit, illicit, or a combination of licit and illicit work are crucial to understanding how they perceive themselves within both economies. As described, there are various reasons for pimping, which range from survival to fantasized or real economic gain. Some pimps’ motivations are aligned with mainstream consumerist agendas, including money-making in the all-encompassing economy. For others, this labor is a pathway to attaining higher status. The idea of a higher status connects to aesthetics, ranging from having teenage status symbols such as the hottest sneakers to a home replete with middle- to upper-class items. In this sample, accounts of pimping involve both an economic motivation and the feelings associated with higher status, such as being "badass" at a local level and feeling more independent from socio-structural constraints (in line with oppositional theory). This is similar to other findings about illicit laborers and how they feel outsiderness (Anderson, 2000; Bourgois, 2002). In future studies, the feelings associated with success in illicit and licit economies should be explored more in depth.

In this sample, it is evident that these pimps are aware of their presumed outsiderness and at-risk status when they talk about their positions in the U.S. economy. Many of the younger pimps describe the actual boundary between illicit and licit activities as quite eroded, in line with Matza’s idea of delinquency and drift. While some of the younger men in this study saw boundaries and even barriers between themselves and opportunity, many did not seem to feel that it was as pronounced as depicted in the ‘dual-city’ hypothesis, where there is an “underworld” that is more distinctly demarcated (physically, mentally, and ideologically). We are not proposing that there are no boundaries, but it is striking that many young pimps did not construct their accounts this way. Alternatively, older pimps who straddled worlds often sought to keep them separate, indicating that they see a bifurcation. Instead of feeling mastery, they expressed a discursive theme of struggling to survive and straddling both worlds more out of necessity.

Many of these older pimps describe feeling like outsiders with subpar possibilities outside of the illicit world, or lowly positions in the licit sector. Due to their age, many discuss already having prior felony convictions that have precluded them from good, licit job opportunities in New York City. Some were educated in prison and used these opportunities to quit pimping. Because some of them were given a free education and attained it in a correctional facility, their accounts are grounded in desistance and reform rhetoric. This style of reform discourse has been reported in studies of ex-offenders who have undergone correctional treatment (Maruna, 2001). Even though many older pimps are more invested in pimping and outsider positions, many of those who quit did so because of the removal of educational or employment barriers. In terms of future generations of lower echelon pimps, some of the current issues facing those identified as felons may change as prisoner reentry strategies change.

The street-based, public pimping that many of the older participants describe is more reflective of outsiderness and oppositional crime. In this sample, younger and older pimps disparage “straight” work in menial positions and focus on the hustle and fast-money, showing subcultural narratives or gangster discourse. However, Matza’s requirement of publicness as a criterion for subcultural crime is an important point, as counter-culture without the contrast of the mainstream may have little potency. These younger pimps rarely work in visible neighborhood areas. Based on differences in how the younger and older pimps work, the young may change the outsiderness that has historically been a part of pimping. Younger pimps, despite their at-risk status, seem to have several distinct advantages in moving between licit and illicit worlds. Among them are technological savvy and attributes such as versatility that go hand-in-hand not only with being postmodern but with being millennial or Gen Z. They try to make both worlds work for them, and their accounts may portend future trends toward fluidity and mobility between worlds.

Despite age, many pimps in this study express at-risk discourse in line with Sandberg’s oppression and gangster discourse, but with mainstream and oppositional orientations, respectively. Sandberg found that non-white, Norwegian drug dealers showed similar interdiscursivity, using both types of discourse in single accounts, which indicates conformity and oppositionality to mainstream culture. Oppression’ and ‘gangster’ discourses are at-risk discourses showing that these pimps are experiencing ‘advanced marginalization’ (Wacquant, 2008). Some of the younger pimps in this study demonstrate a third type of discourse—one of versatility and even mastery of both the illicit and licit markets. This perceived mastery differs from the Mertonian goals of achieving cultural goals such as money-making, but through illegal channels, because many of these young men also attend college and have plans to remain in the licit and illicit sectors simultaneously. It appears that the actual boundary between illicit and licit activity is not firm. While some of these young men see boundaries and even barriers between themselves and opportunity, many do not seem to feel that this is so pronounced. There are certainly real boundaries, but many do not construct their accounts this way. The actual realities of these men’s lives cannot be verified, but one purpose of this study is to understand how they narrate and socially construct these boundaries.

Versatility discourse aligns with Murphy and Robinson’s (2008) category of adaptation, where people maximize their opportunities in both illicit and licit worlds. In their conceptualization, maximizers are people who are simultaneously conformists and innovators. They both accept the U.S. cultural goal of money-making, but they simultaneously accept and reject the institutionalized means of making money—that is, they are comfortable generating in both economies. The accounts of pimps who were maximizers did not align singularly with insiderness or outsiderness. Also, they not only gave accounts of insiderness (neutralization) and outsiderness (subcultural), but they also used a ‘versatility’ discourse, which is the ability to be in the dual-city and master that position. Whether these maximizers actually yield higher economic returns or their claims are braggadocio could be tested in future studies to see how their perceptions mesh with reality.

The older pimps who occupied both illicit and licit worlds describe doing so primarily to make a basic living wage. A common theme in their accounts is that their prospects in the licit markets were so poor that they supplemented this through illicit work, including other hustles. They are maximizers, but only in the sense that they are maximizing within the boundaries that are possible for them. Their discussions of being in both worlds were not empowered or centered on versatility, but mostly reflected the inability to make a basic living wage in only one market.

For future research, younger pimps should be followed longitudinally to determine if their accounts of insiderness, outsiderness or versatility change over time. With more interactions in both the licit and illicit economies as they age, their perspectives may change. Younger pimps may find more barriers in the licit sector, or they may quit pimping for more conventional activities. More time spent in a profession such as pimping may solidify identification with a criminal lifestyle and increase outsider accounts. Also, understanding the trajectory of pimping over the life-course may yield important information about how pimps traverse, straddle or manage work in both economies, and how these changes affect their attitudes about the mainstream and foster different discursivities at various developmental ages.

The experiences and related discourse of both younger and older pimps in this study may be applied to desistance models tailored to those pimps with similar backgrounds. Many states require that those convicted of domestic sex trafficking or modern-day pimping join the sex offender registry, and some require sex offender treatment (Williamson & Marcus, 2017). Understanding how typical lower-echelon pimps interface with the economy, their motivations for getting into the work and their orientations to cultural values would help us understand their diverse motives and allow treatment providers to tailor more effective corrective interventions for this population. As of 2010, more than 60% of those prosecuted for domestic sex trafficking in the U.S. were African-American males (Banks and Kyckelhahn, 2011), so those with convictions may have similar demographics as the pimps in this sample. However, there are many distinct types of pimps and domestic sex traffickers, so this kind of discursive analysis should be tested on different types of pimps in different contexts.


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Amber Horning, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has been studying commercial sex markets and human trafficking for almost a decade. She has published in journals such as Deviant Behavior, Sociological Perspectives, and The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

Christopher Thomas is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Criminal Justice at the CUNY Graduate Center/John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. 

Sara Jordenö is a founding researcher at Fringe~Field ( and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film/Animation/Video at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her documentary KIKI won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights at the Full Frame Documentary Festival.


We also thank Dr. Maureen Thomas for insightful feedback. This work was funded by The Graduate Center, CUNY (Dissertation Fellowship and Grants DSRG #6, #8).

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