A pimp is commonly defined as a person who lives off the income of a prostitute. More often than not, the prostitutes are female. Pimps often lure their victims into prostitution under the pretense of a love relationship, specifically targeting adolescents who have escaped physical or sexual violence at home and are vulnerable economically, socially, and sexually. Assuming the role of a "boyfriend," a pimp might eventually suggest to his girlfriend to have sex with his friend as a favor, and eventually might resort to violence to "break her" (including beatings, death threats, rape, gang rape, false imprisonment), often also introducing her to drugs to make the person dependent on him.
Pimps might have prostitutes engage in sex work in various venues, such as brothels, escort services, massage parlors, or strip clubs. The more prestigious the establishment, the less brutal and direct is the pimp’s abuse of prostitutes. Sex workers dependent on crack tend to occupy the lowest rank of all, demanding the least pay—usually in the form of crack—and providing the most high-risk sexual services. In a way symbolic of the dependency of the prostitute on the pimp, for these prostitutes the "crack pipe is the pimp."
A pimp might secure the area in which a prostitute pursues customers. A pimp prides himself on "managing" all financial and economic matters prostitutes experience in their work, including marketing (finding customers) and workplace protection (controlling an area of the street from competition, fighting dangerous or nonpaying customers, or paying off police). He might also post bail for prostitutes who have been apprehended by police.
A pimp demands all or the majority of the money prostitutes generate through their work for himself. By having more than one prostitute, a pimp multiplies his income capabilities, and experienced pimps boast about the size of their "stables," or the number of prostitutes working for them.
Ostensibly, women "trade" part or all of their income to the pimp in exchange for protection from abusive customers or those who refuse to pay, or from other pimps who might try to force them to work for them. To what extent women actively and willingly participate in a relationship with a pimp is a point of debate. Some feminists and human-rights advocates consider any sex work as sexual oppression of women and challenge the idea that someone agrees to being managed by a pimp. Their opponents argue that sex work needs to be legalized and protected. But even advocates of prostitution often request that pimping remain illegal.
A critical psychological requirement to become a successful pimp is to "learn how to reverse the pussy game." In other words, rather than sexually desiring the prostitutes who work for him, and thus becoming sexually vulnerable if they withhold their affection from him, the pimp has to learn to subjugate his sexual desires to his financial desires. In this regard, the pimp is regarded as the ultimate hustler and manipulator.
In the social milieu of the underworld, pimps enjoy high status by exhibiting many traits of hegemonic masculinity—conspicuous consumption (fancy clothes, jewelry, accessories, cars) and other evidence of a successful economic position, control over women, and sexual access as well as opportunity. Although the pimp has enjoyed a long history as an iconic figure in certain subcultures of the United States (for example, Iceberg Slim), the pimp has become a mainstream persona only since the mid-1990s, when gangsta rappers such as Snoop Dogg made the pimp a staple of their lyrics and a persona they also try to cultivate offstage. Since then, it has become a broadly used term of approval and endearment across all youth cultures, with ever-growing appeal in commercial venues, including such popular shows as "Pimp My Ride" (Staiger 2005). But while in the racial imagination of the United States pimps are thought to be primarily African American, pimping is not limited to any particular race or ethnicity.
Notwithstanding this widespread perception of the pimp, current research reveals a more complex picture of pimps and their relationship to prostitutes. A comparative ethnographic study in Canada’s major cities found that many prostitutes do not have pimps at all, while a study of New Jersey streetwalkers found that pimps are in fact often boyfriends or husbands. Further, the emotional attachment between the pimps and prostitutes can be strong and supportive, with prostitutes sometimes lovingly referring to their pimps as "Daddy." As the New Jersey study found, prostitutes tend to consider their sexual interaction with customers not as a form of making love but merely as a sexual transaction with instant compensation, while reserving their emotions of sexual intimacy for their sexual relations with their pimps. This factor also explains why prostitutes who are meticulous about using condoms with customers often refuse to use condoms with their pimps, as the condom is equated with sex as a commercial transaction. This semantic separation of lovemaking with the pimp versus tricking the john suggests the psychological significance of the pimp as a means to "normalize" the sexual identity of the prostitute, an emotional attachment that of course can also give the pimp additional power.
The potential for violent relationships, however, is always there, and some pimp—prostitute relations have characteristics of battered-batterer relations on one hand or sadomasochistic relations on the other. According to the autobiography of Iceberg Slim, a legendary pimp from the 1930s to the 1950s, successful pimps "train" their prostitutes through the use of well-calculated torture. How realistic Iceberg Slim’s alleged autobiography is remains questionable, but following the popularity of this text in the United States and worldwide as a handbook on how to pimp and as a bible for the gangsta rap of the 1990s, it is to be expected that many imagine pimps and prostitutes in this way, if not practice pimping accordingly.
Another pressing issue is the growing phenomenon of human trafficking fueled by the increasing profitability and the growing divide between poor countries that send prostitutes and high-demand, wealthy countries that receive them. In this manifestation of pimping, the socioeconomic role of the pimp is tilted to the extreme of economic exploitation, where pimps subject prostitutes to brutal sexual, physical, and mental abuse to "condition" them into docility and resignation, before selling them again to other pimps or end users. In such contexts, pimps take on characteristics of slave traders, "buying" individuals "in bulk" and "reselling" them to other pimps/traffickers within a relatively short period of time before finally "dumping" them if they are too sick or too old to generate further profits. This form of pimping has no traces of emotional attachment between pimp and prostitute, except for the terror of physical and sexual violence. This phenomenon of pimping has been described for traffickers from eastern Europe.
Theoretically, pimps can also be women. The trend, however, has been that women who reap profits from the prostitution of another tend to do so in brothels, with greater formal security. These women are called madams. Often they are ex-prostitutes themselves, but contrary to common perceptions, a nineteenth-century case study from St. Paul, Minnesota, showed that these madams were little older than the prostitutes who worked in their establishments, enjoyed considerable wealth and influence in the community, and often engaged in friendly relationships with the women who worked for them. As a contemporary British study has found, their crime rates associated with prostitution tend to be substantially lower and their crimes substantially less violent than those of their male counterparts.
The violence caused by pimps, from sexual and physical abuse to torture, murder, drug dealing, and the like, constitute crimes significantly more dangerous than prostitution. While this is generally recognized, pimps tend to be charged much less frequently than prostitutes, with streetwalkers, who constitute the bottom of the sex-work industry, being the ones most likely to be arrested. Many self-help and advocacy groups have raised the charge that the laws and legal enforcement against prostitution victimize sex workers significantly more (and women more so than men) than the pimps, who are reaping the lion’s share of their profits. Responding to the growing movement of sex workers for their right to self-determination, and in the hope of eliminating the violence and crime associated with prostitution, several countries (for example, the Netherlands and Germany) have legalized prostitution. However, even in countries where prostitution is legal, pimping remains illegal. Whether legalizing prostitution in fact eliminates or diminishes the crimes associated with prostitution and the existence of pimps remains a hotly debated issue and awaits further study.