Friday, September 30, 2011

The Problem of Pimps

The prostitutes worked for a pimp now. He was splendid and cruel. He was a god to them. He took their free will away from them, which was perfectly all right. They didn't want it anyway. It was as though they had surrendered themselves to Jesus, for instance, so they could live unselfishly and trustingly - except that they had surrendered to a pimp instead.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions 2005 Dallas Police officials realized that arrests of teen prostitutes is ineffective [sic].... Because girls will not testify against pimps, arrests stopped teen prostitution temporarily and did not lead to the prosecution of pimps. After their first, second, third and even the fourth arrests and releases from jail, teen prostitutes headed straight back to their pimps.
--Letot Girls Center, "The Problem"
There's so much desensitization that has happened, so much normalization of exploitation that has happened, so much internalization of trauma that has happened. Some of them would any day go back to their pimps or procurer than rather be with us.
--Sunita Krishnan, founder of NGO that rescues girls from the sex trade

 The problem of pimps is a problem of people. The problem is not merely that a few sociopaths exploit others for their own gain; the problem is that human beings come with built-in exploits, honed by evolution and primed by life experiences, that allow them to be exploited by sociopaths (who constitute at least 3% of the general population).

Pimping and domestic violence are strange sorts of crime - strange, in that the victims of the crimes frequently identify with, support, and eventually return to relationships with the perpetrators of the crimes. Part of each crime - the essential features that enables the crime to occur - is that the perpetrator manages to satisfy a huge part of the social belonging need of the victim.

Advocates for girls exploited by pimps often focus on drugs as a need both created by and filled by pimps, neglecting the extremely important social belonging aspect. Trafficked girls are disproportionately girls with shitty family lives - neglected and abused by their parents. They are, in a real sense, starving - for affection, structure, attention, belonging, even status. Pimps are able to exploit these needs, making themselves into superstimuli of a sort - appearing to fill these needs even better than more appropriate figures that might better fulfill trafficked girls' needs.

I have been meaning to write on this issue for a while, and fully intended to start the essay with this sentence: "The problem of pimps is a problem of women." However, while sex trafficking vastly disproportionately affects girls and women, the phenomenon of sociopaths making themselves into superstimuli and exploiting inbuilt belonging and status needs of others affects men as victims as well. A beautiful example of this process is presented in Episode 447 of the radio show This American Life, entitled "The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms." (Spoilers below, but the show is fascinating either way. See also "The Setup," the journalist's account of the story that led to the drama and inspired the show.)

The alleged sociopath in question is Chris Butler, who ran a private investigation firm that was supposed to be the subject of a reality television show on Lifetime. It appears that Butler faked several of the cases that his P.I. moms investigated, but as those frauds unraveled, he was also busted for selling drugs. But not just any drugs - drugs seized by the Contra Costa Police Department. He had an inside man in the department, Norm Wielsch, who, along with many other people involved with Butler, points to the charisma of Butler as a major contributing factor to the illegal schemes:

Norm Wielsch: Whoever has talked to Chris knows that he has the gift of gab. He could talk you into buying anything. I mean, I'm not blaming him, but he had his way of you know, kind of coercing a little bit more, you know, where if I would say, 'Hey, that's a stupid idea,' all of a sudden the golden tongue would come out, and then all of a sudden I'd be driving home thinking, that's not a bad idea, you know? ...

He always insisted on buying lunch, and pull out his credit card; he would bring some of the girls there [presumably girls from the illegal brothels he ran], and he would make sure they were dressed all pretty and stuff...there was a little theater to it. And then he would come in his black Mercedes, which, you know, and you're impressed, you're sitting there going 'wow,' you know?

Joshuah Bearman: Even now, in his lawyer's conference room, you can hear in Norm's voice that he still feels it a little bit, that Chris had some kind of hold on him, as he did on so many other people. It's obvious when you see Chris in action.

Whether we believe Wielsch and the other adult participants in this particular case or not, the charismatic, "superstimulus"-type person is an inherently believable archetype. In the excerpt above, Butler even uses the same flashy methods on his male accomplice that pimps use to attract and retain women to exploit.

The most important aspect that makes people slaves is not bad, mean slave owners. It is our inherent, inborn needs that makes us slaves - that make us willing to go back to an abusive boyfriend or a pimp even when we have other options. The problem of stuperstimulus is not the superstimulus. It is the need that the superstimulus exploits.

See also the Overcoming Bias thread "Moneyball Slavery" and comments, relating to the phenomenon of slavery in different contexts (such as baseball players).


  1. Would it be cruel, facetious and juvenile to suggest that Jesus had some of the characteristics described above? Providing a sense of belonging; providing food/miracles/comforting promises to his followers; threatening destruction to those who didn't want to follow him; a strong dose of sociopathology and so on. As well being as a bit of a troll, of course, as discussed elsewhere.

  2. It's not that far from Jesus to Jim Jones.

  3. Jesus does say you can't follow him unless you hate your family. Separating people from their social support networks like an abusive boyfriend . . . oh he also says don't worry about making money and stuff or worry where your food is coming from because God will provide. Depend on me for everything . . .

    And I'm kind of a fan of Jesus, despite this. (I'm an atheist and don't care whether he actually existed as a physical person.)

  4. Yeah, me too. Anyone who embraced social pariahs, pointed out massive hypocrisies in his social caste, advocated non-violence and despised money-lenders had a lot of good points.

    As for more contemporary pimps, new age gurus, bosses, tyrannical parents, pro-life evangelicals, Charlie Sheen, the list could be endless...

  5. I'm actually ok with these types of exploitation. If they have other options but decide to come back to the pimps each time, it means the pimps add more value to their lives than they take, compared to the alternatives. A really interesting question is, would they be happier if the pimps weren't there, assuming that the rest of the market place for need fulfillment were exactly identical? Are they better off without the pimps' status and affection? The same can be asked about children that are sexually abused in a non-coercive way by older friends or adults who give them attention and affection, combined with (non-violent) sex when no one else will. The package would be more attractive to the kids without the sex, but they often still do take it. Would they be better off without the attention and affection?

    There's a similar question regarding poverty-driven prostitution, including underage prostitution. There are young girls deciding to sell sex because they live in dismal financial situations, in poor countries or poor social contexts of rich countries. Harsh legal punishments for johns is usually seen as the answer to the problem. But absent other sources of coercion, poverty itself is a form of coercion, and it's clearly not solved by the criminalization. Instead, the law enforcement costs compete with poverty relief for tax spending. Are they better off remaining poor without the option to sell sex?

  6. Oh boy, a clarification again: When I write "I'm actually ok with these types of exploitation." I mean to say that it doesn't seem much like exploitation to me if it's consensual and the needs are there before the pimp intervenes (unlike involuntary exposure to addictive drugs). There's a possible value judgment regarding the creation of natural needs (by creating a person), to which the anti-natalist position naturally relates. I didn't mean to address that value judgment.

    1. It's probably (much) easier to say this if you aren't the one being /has been exploited? All this said, sociopaths can even fight exploitation themselves if they are following social guidelines? (according to Martha Stout - and I believe it too).

    2. Personally, I loathe the idea of being brainwashed - and I don't think that I'm the only one, so sociopathic behavior scares the H_ll out of me.

    3. Or just one other reason that sociopathic behavior scares me (losing your ability to think for yourself is pretty darn scary, imho).

  7. Given that every human relationship is essentially derived from need, lack and self-insufficiency, is there any type that doesn't fall into the pimp category?

  8. Anonymous: "If they have other options but decide to come back to the pimps each time, it means the pimps add more value to their lives than they take, compared to the alternatives."

    Revealed preference is a simplifying assumption that facilitates certain kinds of economic analysis. It is not a description of the world.

    Even if their preferences were indeed what they revealed, preferring something is no guarantee of its superior utility. See the pathetic golem, for example.

  9. Do we have a better empirical way to measure utility than to analyze revealed preferences? How do we know which golems are pathetic and which ones are happy, if they both prefer, choose and communicate essentially the same way?

  10. I don't know if we can come up with a general way of measuring utility that isn't biased and is accurate enough to work with. Revealed preference may be the minimum-variance estimator (so far that we've come up with), but just because something is the best tool for the job doesn't mean that you can perform the job with that tool -- there may be no such tool. Or perhaps using a palette of tools will give you better results even if each individual tool isn't as good on average as revealed preference.

    There are obvious cases where revealed preference fails -- I think the case of the pimps is an example. Same with various kinds of addiction. It'd be interesting to see how far one can go using revealed acceptability.

  11. But what measurable factors get us to decide that pimps are an example where revealed preference fails? And under what circumstances are they good enough to support a coercive intervention strategy? It seems to me that unless we have an empirical case for a better measuring tool (or a palette of tools), we're mostly left with emotional, gut-level reactions. (While politics is the mind-killer.)

    The flip side here is that any ideological school can arbitrarily declare that a given individual freedom has negative utility, and the contradicting revealed preferences just show that people can't handle their own freedoms. It seems to me that this type of argument can be universally abused to rationalize any coercive policy, even if the true motivations for intervention are more emotional or based on ideological dogma of some kind.

    The suicide prohibition is a clear example: A revealed preference to end your life just means you're mentally ill and can't handle your own freedoms. Ergo universal coercion.

  12. Perhaps there should be some acknowledgment that, regardless of the reality on the streets, the pimp's role can first be understood as that of a broker for a specialized class of market transaction. Prostitution is dangerous work, and pimps surely provide some measure of security against legal and physical risks faced by independent agents. To whatever unfortunate extent the pimp-prostitute relationship may be characterized by coercion and exploitative mind-fucking tactics (and to whatever extent these events may be ameliorated or otherwise complicated by psychological incentives), the underlying business relationship remains roughly analogous to that between actor and agent, investor and financial advisor, etc. Even if prostitution were decriminalized and we could somehow rest assured that all sex workers entered the profession voluntarily and could quit at will, there would still be pimps.

    I'd love to hear Sister Y's thoughts on Chester Brown's book, "Paying for It."

    1. Do you (and Jason) really think that women would go for prostitution as a lifelong dream career if they didn't have ANY other option / weren't COMPLETELY demoralized? They might like men, but they don't like them that much? So the pimp might protect her, but at what cost/psychological DAMAGE (that can't ever be "repaid"?)

  13. Anonymous: "The suicide prohibition is a clear example: A revealed preference to end your life just means you're mentally ill and can't handle your own freedoms. Ergo universal coercion."

    But it can go the other way. Helium exit bags are available for a small fee over the internet. People who claim they really would be better off dead clearly are still around and haven't opted for death, so they must really just be sympathy-seeking drama queens.

    There's a barrier to suicide, but it's not truly insurmountable. And even if barbiturates were available over the counter at neighborhood drug stores, there'd still people who'd correctly conclude that their own life was negative-utility, but that their death would so bad for others that the utility-maximizing decisions over all persons would be to continue living. So in this case, revealed preference would come to the correct conclusion.

    But what if the would-be suicide is simply wrong about how much his or her life is utile for others? People do make decisions in part based on how they think others will fare. The prostitutes in question may think that the pimps cherish them and that their leaving would devastate the pimp. So in their (mistaken) estimation, staying is utility-maximizing even if it's not utility-maximizing for them.

    Anonymous: "It seems to me that this type of argument can be universally abused to rationalize any coercive policy."

    First, I don't mean to propose any particular policy, coercive or otherwise. In fact, I'd hope to stay away from a political discussion, not because I don't like them, but because I fear we could fall into a less focused discussion (and I need to get things done today). I'm merely criticizing revealed preference as a reliable or the most reliable way to identify what's utile for a person.

    But there seems to be a tension between wanting to avoid coercion and the justification for revealed preference in the first place. If we're arguing over whether revealed preference is the best way to determine utility, then presumably we care about utility. If we care about utility, then we should be willing to coerce people now and then when it (and its second-order effects, etc.) enhances the utility people enjoy.

    Anonymous: "[W]hat measurable factors get us to decide that pimps are an example where revealed preference fails? "

    What measurable factors get us to decide that pimps are an example where revealed preference succeeds? And answering "revealed preference" doesn't cut it. Presumably we're looking for an independent measure of utility. But why should revealed preference be our default? Why should we believe we can measure utility with the precision revealed preference claims, and why should we believe that revealed preference is the best way to do it?

  14. "Why should we believe we can measure utility with the precision revealed preference claims, and why should we believe that revealed preference is the best way to do it?"

    Can you name a better one, to be used in empirical practice?

  15. Anonymous: "Can you name a better one, to be used in empirical practice?"


    Jason: The magic utilimeter I hold in my hands is the best way we have of measuring utility. You just point it at someone and it tells you their current level of utility, to infinite precision.

    Anonymous: Well that's silly. How can you possibly measure utility to infinite precision? And how do I know that it gives anything close to an accurate measurement?

    Jason: Can you name a better way to measure utility?

    You're presuming that the utility functions you get out of revealed preference map so well onto true utility functions, at least when it comes to suicide in a barrier-free world and to prostitution, that we shouldn't try to make a correction to what revealed preference tells us. You've adduced no evidence for this claim.

  16. The difference between revealed preference and a magic utilimeter is that we have at least some good reasons to assume a positive correlation between people's choices and their utility, whereas a magic utilimeter obviously doesn't exist.

    If revealed preference is a reasonable default for measuring utility (which I think it is), and in the absense of a better or at least complementary alternative, I see no reason to override revealed preference. Hence my question for the alternative. Notice that you didn't answer it. Also notice that I never claimed anything about "infinite precision" or "accurate measurement".

    "You're presuming that the utility functions you get out of revealed preference map so well onto true utility functions [...] that we shouldn't try to make a correction to what revealed preference tells us."

    A correction based on what? Other people's proclaimed preferences?

    If you have a circumstance where people behave predictably irrationally, and you can provide empirical evidence that overriding that particular irrationality yields positive utility for them, then you can make a proper case for paternalistic intervention. But again, based on what empirical method?

  17. These are pretty much exactly the directions I was hoping the discussion would go in - I will summarize and add my thoughts in a post within the next couple of days.

    In sum: measuring happiness/utility is a problem. Even comparing different states of being is a problem. When we start asking questions about happy ENOUGH to be born, it gets to be even more of a problem.

    But if antinatalists are criticized for making blanket statements about life not being worth creating, this uncertainty must make it equally inappropriate for pronatalists to make blanket statements about life being worth creating.

    The problem is the problem. Making a baby seems like the kind of action that would require a lot of certainty. But then again, so is human extinction.

  18.'s probably good to be aware that social isolation (or ostracism) may make one more vulnerable to the effects of sociopaths.

    It puts "the Lonely American" and the (possible) effects of regular usage of Facebook (allegedly) in a whole new light?

    And, if watching television makes me feel less alone, then maybe it's not so bad (provided that I am still able to change channels during the commercials and am not so sucked into the feeling of connection that the programs provide that I want to buy EVERYTHING the advertisers are selling? (ie:brainwashed)?)


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