Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


Valli Rajah

Committee Members

Ric Curtis

Jana Arsovska

Subject Categories

Criminology | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Sociology


Masculinity; Narratives; Pimps; Risk; Sex trafficking; Third parties


This dissertation examines how third-party labor is socially constructed by pimps or third parties. Pimps and their labor are investigated using sociological paradigms of risk. Risk is defined as exposure to danger (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991) and can produce negative or positive feelings and outcomes (Lupton, 1999). I explore how third-party labor is connected to risk with the following research questions: 1) How does the U.S. media portray third parties as risky, and how does this influence proposed remedies to this social problem? 2) How do third parties' at-risk status impact their role in illicit and licit economies? 3) How do third parties' social networks influence their business practices, and how do these nexuses impact the riskiness of the work? and 4) How do third parties perceive their voluntary, work-related risk-taking as positive?

I chose this population of lower-echelon pimps because they are present in the public imagination in two ways. First, since the 1970s the "ghetto pimp" has been depicted through Blaxploitation films such as SuperFly and The Mack and by the news media as flashy, dangerous predators within "ghetto" landscapes. Second, since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) (2000), many pimps legally qualify as sex traffickers. This legal conflation, combined with the policy agenda of abolitionists and anti-traffickers, shapes a cultural image of pimps as a new, global danger. Because these lower-echelon pimps have been written and are being re-written into the history of the sex trade, their overlooked stories are more important than ever.

The findings show that the U.S. news media portrays third parties as predatory, omnipresent, and organized. This is likely to reflect the kind of risk knowledge, or public idea about who is at-risk and who is risky (Douglas, 1985), in commercial sex markets. Overall, pimps are branded as quite dangerous -- not only in "ghetto" landscapes, but also on Main Street. The proposed remedies to this social problem are generally punitive solutions, which do not address the roots of this problem, such as poverty.

The social context of this sample of pimps is akin to Loic Wacquant's description of advanced marginalization, where due to poverty and being relegated to "ghettos," this group experiences extreme deprivation at the margins. Third parties' social constructivist accounts of their labor shows how they view their at-risk status in relation to social and economic boundaries. Younger third parties (18 to 23 years old) move more seamlessly across licit and illicit boundaries in line with David Matza's (1964) theory of drift, whereas older pimps are more confined to illicit spheres and speak from subcultural positions. This is further reflected in how their accounts differ: while older pimps tend to use at-risk discourse to explain their motivation to pimp, younger pimps have a bicultural discourse in which they use not only at-risk discourse, but also discourse about mastering both worlds.

In terms of the dangers of their work in illicit sectors, pimps' existing social networks play a role in how they perform this labor. This is especially true of younger pimps, who tend to work with friends or family. More insular work networks make this work less risky. Compared to older pimps, younger third parties tend to use less violence with sex workers and clients, and they are not as controlling about their businesses. In contrast, older pimps more commonly work outdoors and with stranger clients, so they have to embody violence and control. They do, however, have more close-knit social relationships with sex workers. Working with stranger clients and having pseudo-family work networks may play a role in older pimps' more lucrative economic returns, but some of these differences may be attributed to differences in age, such as maturity, youth's reliance on technology for communication, and their insular social networks based on homophily (sameness).

Pimping involves voluntary risk-taking that can produce positive feelings and outcomes. In line with Stephen Lyng's idea of edgework, pimps engage in risk and its successful navigation, which results in feelings of control through mastering danger or escaping from social controls. Older pimps more often successfully run dangerous businesses, whereas younger third parties more often suspend social controls through "carnivalesque" or "worlds turned upside down" (derived from Bakhtin, 1984) parties. Because of their at-risk status and gender, race, and class positions, third parties approach risk differently than more traditional edgeworkers. Some marginalized males flirt with the edge from a subcultural position. Yet edgework can facilitate a form of hegemonic masculinity, but with simultaneous resistance to raced and classed positions. This connects to "hustler embodiment," where slickness and abilities with money and girls are exaggerated. This brand of "hypermasculinity" may be the result of being at the margins and wanting to outperform those at the center. Unlike traditional edgework, which results in feelings of authenticity, pimps' outperformance is a way of resisting mainstream culture.

This dissertation is one of the first empirical studies of third parties to explore how they not only perceive the dangers of their work, but also how they interpret the meaning of their work from marginalized socio-structural positions and risk orientations.