In 2019, the pimp is back. Just ask Doja Cat.
On her recently released sophomore album, Hot Pink, the 24-year-old artist leaves her psychedelic R&B behind for a steadfastly trap sound and a familiar persona. “Ooh, that’s my trick / I’m her pimp / She my flip,” she leads on “Bottom Bitch,” continuing: “She don’t create no problems / That’s why the bitch my bottom.” The album’s accompanying videos embrace the iconography as well: In “Rules,” Doja Cat romps through the desert in a purple outfit clutching a briefcase full of cash; in “Cyber Sex,” she plays a camgirl and Rocky Horror Picture Show-style mad scientist bent on alchemizing pleasure. It all amounts to a gender-flipped inversion of one of hip-hop’s oldest traditions — rappers explicitly pointing to pimping, and the overall objectification of women, as an aspiration on par with wealth and status.
It’s not just music. Pimp culture has popped up all across entertainment. Queen & Slim features Bokeem Woodbine as Uncle Earl, a New Orleans pimp who gives the titular couple shelter and assistance. September saw the arrival of Dolemite Is My Name, a Rudy Ray Moore biopic starring Eddie Murphy as the comedian behind the blaxploitation film Dolemite. Zola, a tale of hustling gone wrong based on an infamous 2015 Twitter thread, wrapped production last year, making a 2020 release likely. In fact, from ’70s blaxploitation though Big Daddy Kane’s “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” and to the present day, the pimp-as-superhero motif has never truly gone away.
Yet, the world surrounding that motif has changed in significant ways. As we close out a decade in which intersectional feminism and social justice went from buzzwords to dogma, how does pimping fit into current culture? And more importantly, why is there no such conversation around the other half of the pimp-sex worker equation?
The remarkable thing about the pimp’s reascension in the zeitgeist is that sex trafficking — the coercive side of the sex-work industry, and one that pimping sometimes overlaps with — has become one of the current moment’s favorite moral panics. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has turned the dramatization of sex crimes into the longest-running live-action show on prime time television. In 2018, Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), allegedly to make sex trafficking more difficult for traffickers. According to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the laws represented “a major step toward keeping women and children across America safe.” (In reality, FOSTA-SESTA had immediate chilling effects across nontrafficking sex work, as popular platforms scrambled to cover their legal liability: Federal authorities shut down online sex portal Backpage, Craigslist squashed its personals section, and Tumblr introduced a controversial ban of pornographic images.)
Even outside of legislative momentum, sex trafficking has taken on new urgency. One recent Twitter thread highlighted an alleged kidnapping attempt through Lyft, garnering hundreds of thousands of impressions. The same day, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it has awarded over $100 million to combat human trafficking and provide services and restitution for trafficked persons. People who conduct or appear to enable coercive sex trafficking even marginally get called out. In 2015, Drake received flak online for celebrating the release of Travis Savoury, also known as Baka Not Nice. Savoury had been imprisoned on human trafficking charges in 2014. (That didn’t stop Drake from signing Savoury to his OVO Sound label in 2017.) R. Kelly’s long-chronicled history of forcibly exploiting women reached a flashpoint this year only after a long legacy of whispers throughout the industry. After the Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly brought renewed attention to the case, the renewed investigation resulted in the singer being arrested and charged with various crimes in July.
Yet, the pimp remains revered as an anti-establishment symbol. Doja Cat’s whiskered mob boss in “Rules,” like rap contemporaries City Girls and Asian Doll, upend the gender dynamic to turn hustling into a feminist tool, taking control of their sexuality and income at the same time. The same goes for madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) on HBO’s Westworld. And in a time when American society sees racial and socioeconomic gaps widening instead of closing, what is pimping but a version of the same bootstrapping that tech culture valorizes? As Lisa Richardson described in a 2000 Los Angeles Times story during an earlier wave of cultural fascination with pimping: “A real pimp is a businessman, not a junkie.”
What’s missing from all this, of course, are the actual people involved in the hustle of sexual labor, whether formerly trafficked women or gainfully employed sex workers. Sex workers who rely on the internet to conduct business have spoken out about how FOSTA-SESTA has damaged their livelihoods without necessarily stopping traffickers — yet there are precious few popular narratives about the realities faced by the targets and survivors of sex trafficking and/or pimping.
There’s fascination, to be sure. “There’s good parts of being a hoe, and there’s bad parts of being a hoe,” said comedian Luenell in an interview with VladTV earlier this year. “Especially back in the day, hoes… in my area of Oakland, California — them bitches were like movie stars.” The interview, interspersed with clips of real-life Oakland pimps Fillmore Slim and Don “Magic” Juan, is unapologetic and brash, portrays pimping as a neutral free-market phenomenon. A commenter seems to sum up the underlying attitude succinctly: “Its [sic] a fine line between pimping and sex trafficking. Consent is a must.”
Amidst all this, you might think critics would find Doja Cat’s dive into pimp imagery to be in bad taste. Not the case: Pitchfork’s Lakin Starling praised the artist’s versatility, stating that Doja Cat is “giving us her kinky, soulful, pop queen, and not-to-be-fucked with sides all at once.” The same review casually mentions that multiple songs on Hot Pink were co-written with pop auteur Dr. Luke. The producer, née Lukasz Gottwald, is six short years away from pop singer Kesha’s accusations of multiple instances of sexual abuse — yet he maintains a record imprint on RCA, to which he signed Doja Cat. In that murky light, Doja Cat’s choice of pimp imagery takes on new weight; is it the result of artistic license, or is she is being guided toward it by a man who stands to profit off the makeover?
One of the rare exceptions, and a possible corrective to the victimless view of pimping, is a video Buzzfeed released in 2017. “I Survived Sex Trafficking” presents the story of Tika, from her abduction at the age of 12 to her working under her pimp, to her freedom and current occupation as a crisis response case manager for trafficked women. Over the span of four minutes, Tika narrates her own story, looking directly at the viewer; there’s no room for pity or media sensationalizing.
Sex sells. We know this. Maybe it’s time we uncoupled pimping from sex, and see it for what it is: an exercise in power and control as well as an occupation. To dress up as a pimp for Halloween or a music video is perhaps no more sinister than dressing up as a cop or a predatory loan officer. But to foster an entertainment industry where pimps have platforms and sex-trafficking survivors don’t? That’s just patriarchy with a purple fedora.