Prostitution seems to have a grip on the undergraduate imagination. In the last two weeks two different parties at Haverford, my campus of a thousand
people, took "Pimps and Ho's" as their costume theme. As far as I am aware,
this was a coincidence -- both parties were planned well in advance, and
attendance at the two did not overlap much. I went to one.
I may as well confess from the outset that I am a prude and a geek. I spent several minutes puzzling over an invitation in the mailroom of the campus center, standing in the middle of the hall, bumping into people, and explaining myself confusedly: "I'm sorry ... It's an invitation ... I have to be a pimp on Saturday ... Excuse me ..." Eventually I sat down, still muttering: "I don't know ... What does this mean?"
A friend sat down next to me, by chance one of the only people I know who has actually known prostitutes. Of her adolescence, she once said to me, "We were all having fun, and the next thing I know my best friend's being sold down the shore for little to nothing!" My friend had no patience for my "ideological reservations," however.
"Would you have reservations if a bunch of people wanted to get drunk and pretend to be accountants?" she asked, exasperated. I replied that I wouldn't have reservations, but that I was confident that would never happen. "Of course not," she said, "it wouldn't be fun."
It was supposed to be fun. I knew this in some way right from the
beginning, but it still somehow seemed unethical, insensitive or at the
very least peculiar. My only reliable descriptions of actual pimps
are from a friend who comes in contact with them in her work at a needle
exchange in Philadelphia, and they seem from those descriptions to be
miserable and despicable people.
One other person -- my roommate Cassandra -- seemed to feel that the theme
required some kind of ethical exertion. She wanted to make a connection to
the reality of prostitution. She costumed herself with unwashed hair,
bruises on her arms and a black eye. For a final touch, she stuffed three
T-shirts near her belly to simulate pregnancy. When she asked me if the
bruises looked real, I said I thought so but didn't pimps more commonly beat their "sex workers" in the stomach, where the evidence would be less apparent and the retail value thus not so much degraded? My other roommate, Stephen, perfecting his own image in the mirror, shouted out that he was appalled I even knew this. That was when I realized that my friends had a highly manufactured image of "pimps and ho's" and one that I hadn't been exposed to much. I asked about its origins. Blaxploitation films, I was told. Blaxploitation films and Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G. videos. This added racial stereotyping to my list of things to be angsty about for the evening, so it didn't particularly
reassure me that I was going to have fun.
Luckily for me, Stephen added some less politically charged academic
explanations. "The pimp is a pure image of power," he said. "He controls
people, hurts people, satisfies people." I kept this in mind as I tried
out a couple of outfits: shirtless with vest (showed my scrawny upper body
too much), checked dress pants with unbuttoned shirt (too closely matched
my usual attire). I settled on black jeans and a brightly printed
synthetic top with outlandish lapels, originally intended as pajamas. I
worked on my facial hair (shaving my Trotskyite goatee down to a mustache
and a vertical dark strip under my lower lip) and tried to figure out who I
could control, who satisfy and how that would be fun. My prudishness was
starting to disintegrate. It was time to go to the party.
It was quite a scene. Most of the men were dressed more or less like me; none of the women were dressed anything like Cassandra. I was issued a bottle of malt liquor by someone sporting a mesh dress and a leash around her neck.
Trying to flirt and generally to get what I believe is called "my groove" on, I looked her up and down as seedily as I knew how and said, "I would definitely pay $25 for that." "Three hundred to get in the door," she replied dismissively, and turned to speak with someone else.
Moralizing definitely follows rejection, and I would have started to think about real prostitution in a new light again if I hadn't been distracted by a loud knot of people near the refrigerator.
A guy from another school was talking to Cassandra, convinced that her
pregnancy was real, and remonstrating with her about the drink in her hand.
He was obviously kind, concerned, insistent and a little bit
befuddled -- whether by alcohol, the surreal context or some combination of
the two, I have no idea. He looked askance at Cassandra's bruises, and
then at me when she explained I was her pimp and had created them when I
found out she'd conceived. I said it wasn't true, then agreed
with another bystander when I was contradicted, laughing all the time. We
were certainly unfair to this man in his confusion, and he looked horrified
when Cassandra offered to remove the T-shirts-cum-fetus and demonstrate
that her condition was only part of the costume.
The party was a success. The hostess appeared as a madam in an astonishing
kimono. Athletes tore away their tear-away running suits to great
applause. More people arrived; the stairway and eventually even the
bathrooms were converted into social areas.
We finally left, and Cassandra filled me in on the details of her
interlocutor's behavior. He apparently followed her around the house for
some time, trying to protect the health of her child and to find out in
some noninvasive way if it was really real. I thought of the quick shifts
between truth and imagination in the conversation around him all night, and
of his bewilderment; I remembered my own shuttling between prostitution's
"image" and "reality" all week. There was a kind of kinship between these
phenomena, and there in that man but for the grace of God went
I. I felt glad to have abandoned my inadequate and partially formed
scruples at the door.