- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

Rap star Nas, who proclaims the glories of the pimp life in his song “Street Dreams,” isn’t the only rapper rhyming about the allure of the streets.

Hip-hop culture is alive with celebrations of pimps and prostitution.

From Nelly’s song “Pimp Juice” to 50 Cent’s “P-I-M-P” to Columbia Pictures’ upcoming film “Lil’ Pimp,” the world’s oldest profession appears to have shed its sense of shame and risen to take its proper place among the hypersexed images competing for the minds — and bodies — of young people.

The entertainment industry is “just selling a false dream to people,” says Julie, a 19-year-old former prostitute who resides in San Francisco. “And it’s hard because I listen to the music, too. But it’s just so glamorized … and that’s not reality.”

Life on the streets, says a group of young ex-prostitutes, is far different from those portrayed in films like “Pretty Woman” or music videos on MTV. In a society that worships the sexuality of youth, the national average age of entry into prostitution has fallen to 12 or 13, says the U.S. Campaign Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Youth.

The Department of Justice has no specific data on the child-prostitution industry, but the numbers submitted by various organizations can be surprising.

Much coverage of child prostitution focuses on the sex trade in Thailand or American tourists seeking voyeuristic thrills in other exotic locales, but researchers say the industry in the United States is largely overlooked.

The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 American children are at high risk for commercial sexual exploitation, but some organizations working with youths say that is the tip of the iceberg. Depending on the study, 35 percent to 50 percent of those children are male.

A syphilis outbreak among children as young as 12 in suburban Rockdale County, Ga. — portrayed in a critically acclaimed PBS documentary — showed teen promiscuity is not confined to urban enclaves. Pimps are moving in on the action. Last year, the FBI arrested 12 in Atlanta for prostituting minors.

“The commercial sexual exploitation of youth is an issue that’s been ignored, it’s been glamorized, it’s been vilified” over the years, says Rachel Lloyd of New York, the founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), a nonprofit faith-based organization that provides preventive and transitional services to girls and young women at risk for, or involved in, sexual exploitation and violence.

Ms. Lloyd, a survivor of youth prostitution herself, was one of the organizers of the first national summit for commercially and sexually exploited youth that took place in Washington July 14-17.

“Survivors of commercial sexual exploitation are put into boxes and made to feel like we don’t have a right to speak,” Ms. Lloyd says. “This is our opportunity to say how we feel.”

The conference brought 22 victims of teen prostitution to speak out. The girls’ backgrounds are varied, but their stories are remarkably similar. They speak of a desire to escape from their homes or group homes; pimps who served as both father figures and lovers; physical abuse; corrupt cops; and multiple arrests while their customers and handlers often evaded punishment.

It’s not the glamorous world portrayed in popular culture, the girls say.

“All these movies they be showing, they glamorize and make the life seem so great,” says Kim, a former prostitute from New York. “They don’t show the harsh reality of the beatings, what you go through when you’re in a hot situation. You come home and [the pimp] is like, ‘Black eye? I don’t care. Put some makeup on it and get out.’”

Many prostitutes “have nervous breakdowns, some of them die, some of them just shut down completely,” she said.

From the proliferation of pimpin’ rap songs to clothing lines such as Phat Pimp to an online entity titled PimpWar.com, it is clear that the word “pimp” has acquired a positive connotation among many young people. The verdict is still out on just how this cultural evolution has taken place.

“The media to a certain extent reflects but also leads the public opinion, and the attitudes towards pimps and prostitution has changed considerably in the last 100 years,” says Ray B. Browne, professor emeritus of pop culture studies at Bowling Green State University and the founder of pop-culture studies as an academic phenomenon 25 years ago.

Feminism has removed sexual social taboos for women, and the media are full of sexualized images of young women, Mr. Browne says.

“The media, meaning People magazine and other flashy mags, are picturing young pubescent girls as having all the power in the world. The young girls are saying, ‘I want to be rich and I want to be beautiful and I want to expose my skin, and I don’t care and if anybody wants to go further than that — fine.’”

But to Bishop Don “Magic” Juan, an ex-pimp, the whole thing comes down to the bottom line: “Green is for the money and gold is for the honeys.”

Mr. Juan is a notorious ex-pimp. Though he says he gave up “the life” after a 1985 religious experience, he remains chairman of the board of the Famous Players Association, traveling throughout the country hosting Players Balls, which will be in Washington next weekend. Promoters would not confirm a venue.

Fresh from touring the country with Snoop Dogg on the “Roc the Mic” tour, Bishop Don Juan has appeared in music videos with Nelly and 50 Cent, and signed a multialbum deal with Avatar Records. He has just signed a contract to do a show with the William Morris agency.

The celebration of pimps and prostitutes may be fueling a backlash against hip-hop. A June survey by Black America’s Political Action Committee (Bampac) found that 52 percent of black voters say rap music is a negative influence on children, and 60 percent would support prohibiting minors from buying sexually explicit music.

But Mr. Juan is unashamed of his reputation.

“Pimps are marketable now,” he says.

“Now mainstream understands that pimpin’ and hoin’, the prostitute thing, has been going on since the beginning of time and it’s out of all of our hands,” says Mr. Juan. “Now that they see it’s like that, it’s not as bad as they thought it was, now they cashing in on it. So it’s almost a good thing to be a pimp today because that’s what’s happening, that’s who the public wants to see.”


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