Are Pimp Films Too Instructive?

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In the hit movie "Hustle & Flow," the life of a fictional pimp became mainstream entertainment. In several other movies about pimps, their real-life exploits are serving a more dismaying purpose: as vocational instruction, according to detectives and prosecutors in several U.S. cities. The law-enforcement officials say that pimps are using widely available movies to teach minors how to be prostitutes. The documentaries — available online and in video stores — explain the vocabulary and rules of pimping in the words of real people in the trade. Produced to give the public a window into an illegal and degrading business, the films are now serving the unintended function of instructing vulnerable juveniles how to work with a pimp and indoctrinating them into the world's oldest profession. "We see this across the board in terms of pimps using videos to glamorize and glorify the profession," says FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.

When Washington, D.C., pimp Jaron Brice recruited a 14-year-old Maryland girl, he first took her to the back of his purple Chevrolet Caprice and played the 1998 HBO documentary "Pimps Up, Ho's Down," according to prosecutor Sharon Marcus-Kurn, who got Brice convicted in federal court earlier this month for sex trafficking of a minor and other related charges. The film, testified the girl, taught her the terms of her new relationship with her pimp: she would have sex with men ("tricks") at a specific block ("the track") and hand over all the money she made ("break bread"), and the pimp would pay her rent, buy her clothes and bail her out of jail if she got caught. Court documents in other cities like Chicago and Atlanta reveal a similar practice.

So-called pimpumentaries vary in quality from mainstream productions like the Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society") film "American Pimp," which was nominated for the 1999 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, to roughly edited DVDs available online like "Really Really Pimpin' in da South," which was released last year. Brent Owens, the director of several films on prostitution for HBO including "Pimps Up, Ho's Down," says he makes such films to "shed light on a subculture"and is "not condoning it or glorifying it." Nonetheless, Las Vegas vice detective Aaron Stanton says that every juvenile victim he has interviewed in sex trafficking cases in the past five years has seen one of the films that pimps are using to teach minors the rules: never to look at another pimp, always walk behind a pimp, and always get the money up front from customers.

While no one is advocating that such documentaries be censored, activists working against prostitution are upset to see pimps glorified or affirmed as authority figures, whether intentionally or not. In pop culture, pimps have become cool. Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, an organization that aims to take prostitutes off the street, was dismayed to see Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from "Hustle & Flow," win best song at the Oscars. Songs and videos about pimping "make it look like it's O.K.," argues Lee, who has known thousands of prostitutes and hundreds of pimps in her career. Alas, the power of the video screen can often overcome even the grim message of the story being told.