Filling the lack of a concentration in "pimp and ho" studies, students learned a lesson about the sex industry last Friday when a pair of peddlers described the trade.
A mass of students and faculty crowded inside the Center for Gender Studies (CGS) on Friday afternoon for "Demystifying Pimps and Hos: A View from the Inside." Homer King, a former pimp from the West Side of Chicago and Sasha Simovitch, a former prostitute now involved with advocacy work in Chicago, talked about substance abuse, prostitution, sexual violence, race, and gender.
Sponsored by the University of Chicago's Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) and CGS, the talk was part of a lecture series commemorating April as Sexual Violence Prevention Month.
King began his discussion by describing the events of his life, which led to his decision to pimp women. "I was brought into the game by a lady when I was 16 years old," he said. "At home, my mother and father were not the kind of parents to say I love you,' and I wanted to feel loved and powerful. I was educated by the streets, by men already in the business, and I made my own decisions."
King said he found "jolts of happiness" in the lifestyle of pimping over the next 25 years, adding that at first it was "glamorous and beautiful," and then a way to avoid prison.
The women King pimped lived together in apartments commonly referred to as "stables," he said, noting that many pimps "considered these women as the equals of cattle."
"My job was to provide food, clothes, shelter, and a way out from their abuses at home, which often included sexual molestation by the parents," he said.
Eventually, ties between drugs and prostitution became overwhelming, King said, citing the use of cocaine as an extraordinary impact on daily life. "If drugs didn't kill you, your lifestyle would," he said. "Crack has now become the new pimp."
After the murder of King's best friend in Los Angeles in 1979 and his own suicide attempt, King decided he had to leave the business. He completed a 12-step program that rid him of his drug habit.
"This has been a cleansing process for me and I am not asking for forgiveness, but I am trying to make amends," he said. "We all have monsters in the closet, I am just willing to reveal mine."
The next speaker, Simovitch, worked for an escort service for 10 years. Now she works for a Chicago advocacy network that focuses on homelessness.
After experiencing domestic abuse at home, she ran away at the age of 15, cycling in and out of group homes until she decided to become a prostitute. She said it began as "survival sex" and then "became a way to get power and controlI don't ever want to go back to that."
Simovitch said that many girls begin prostituting at a very young age, between 12 and 14 years old. Additionally, a recent report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless claimed that 84 percent of prostitutes have experienced homelessness, with 50,000 people prostituting in the city of Chicago at any given time.
Describing her addiction to drugs, Simovitch said it was easier to cope with the sexual violence associated with prostitution if she was high.
King added that racial discrimination was also prominent within the industry, as many preferences for women were determined by their ethnicity. "Jobs paid more for white women than black women most of the time," he said.
Simovitch explained how the crackdown on street crime and prostitution by the Chicago Police Department was not solving the problem. "After serving 24 hours in prison, they'd drop the girl off on the corner of a street, in the middle of the night with no money, and simply say Don't do it again,'" she said.
In recent years, many women have been incarcerated on prostitution-related charges, which are often connected to drug possession or usage. Upon release, many of these women are homeless and quickly become prostitutes again, King said.
"What we need are mentorship programs for these women," King said. "All they've ever dealt with is cash and it is a culture shock for them because they have never opened a bank account or know what a résumé is."
Both speakers stressed that programs for educating youth and opening the lines of communication within the family are crucial for decreasing prostitution. Transitional housing, counseling services, and substance abuse treatment supported by the community have all been suggested as possible solutions.
Stressing the importance of reaching out to those affected by domestic violence and prostitution, King said that prostitution is "everywhere, even in this fine institution, where at night a student will meet ends by dancing or stripping to pay for higher education."
As a part of Sexual Violence Prevention Month, the University of Chicago's RSVP will sponsor an upcoming panel on pornographic representation on April 28, as well as an ongoing peer-education program on campus.
The next CGS brownbag lunch will be held on April 30, covering contemporary feminism, journalism, and sex trafficking.