December 18-24, 2003

Tracy Quan

Pimps are people too

They have a bad rep, says one former prosty

The Green River Killer has finally been identified and captured, and his peculiar ideas about the women he murdered have been revealed for us to ponder. Some of Gary Ridgway¹s attitudes are recognized as repulsive, but when he opines about the prostitutes who were his victims he sounds disturbingly conventional. One reporter writes: "To Ridgway, they were faceless, nameless females who wouldn¹t be missed. And in some ways, he was right."

Actually, in most ways, he was wrong. Prostitutes are missed and their deaths noted, sometimes with acute sorrow, by their families, friends, colleagues, lovers, spouses and customers. Shortly after Ridgway's arrest, an International Memorial Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was proposed. On Dec. 17, sex workers in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere held public memorials for the many prostitutes who have died as a result of violence.

Why is it so hard to solve the murder of a prostitute? The people who care about prostitutes are often marginalized or trapped by the law. If a friend is killed, a prostitute's first thought may be to hide from the police because she fears arrest, abuse, physical harassment or extortion. Prostitutes who try to help may be ignored because they have criminal records themselves. Our families also care when we go missing, but do not always have the connections or resources that make it easier to pursue justice in the real world.

And how about the men in our private lives — the boyfriends and husbands we choose to be with when we're not working? If a man knows that his female partner is a prostitute and continues to live with her, he is viewed with suspicion by the law and by polite society.

I was shocked to learn that in two separate cases a victim's boyfriend led the police to Ridgway, yet the police dismissed what was plainly apparent to these men and allowed Ridgway to continue killing. Were these men ignored because they were seen as pimps? What is really going on here? It's not that prostitutes lack for personal contacts who will miss them. It's something else: Our closest friends are tainted by association and often powerless in relation to the criminal justice system.

A man who is the romantic or domestic partner of a sex worker always runs the risk of being demonized or ridiculed. The closer that relationship is to the street, the more blatant the demonization. If you are the educated white boyfriend of a middle-class girl who is stripping her way through grad school you might be viewed in a more kindly light, especially if you lace your acceptance with feminist cliches. But men who live with street prostitutes are labeled as pimps and viewed as losers or villains. We have reason to believe that when such a man tries to stop a dangerous criminal, his efforts are not respected by the police. The word "pimp," invoked carelessly, seems to cancel out every decent, normal or humane thing a man might have done.

An important message radiating from the prostitutes' rights movement over three decades has been that "prostitutes are people too." What is harder to discuss is the role and image of the so-called pimp or the male companion of a prostitute. He may be the guy she comes home to at night for affection and a late-night supper. (Some "pimps" are good cooks.) If he's a tout, a manager or a lookout, reactions are complicated and not always rational.

Many people think you can defend the humanity of the female sex worker without recognizing that her chosen companion is a person, too. This double standard is also an insult to the prostitute who may feel appreciated and helped by a man you regard as disreputable. Are her values, desires and preferences meaningless? Whatever label you apply, it's wrong to assume that the men who accept us are abusive, two-dimensional monsters. In fact, they cover a full range of personalities.

Browsing for Christmas decorations in a candle-scented boutique, I recently stumbled across some irreverent hand towels. Instead of His and Hers, they were monogrammed Pimp and Ho. Poor taste? I was touched. Humor can be a mask for complex ideas; if conventional couples can identify with a prostitute's domestic life, I think we're making progress.

If we dismiss the concerns of a man who is the companion of a prostitute simply because he is labeled a pimp, we are making a huge mistake. If those two boyfriends had been taken seriously, Ridgway might have been stopped. In the aftermath of his arrest, we must ask: Did a serial killer remain free because he looked like a more upstanding citizen than the men who fingered him?

— Tracy Quan is author of the novel Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl (Three Rivers).

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Created: January 8, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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