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Iceberg Slim
April 2, 2009 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Robert Beck was a pimp. "I got out of it because I was old. I did not want to be teased, tormented and brutalized by young whores." While working as an insecticide salesman, one of his customers suggested he write an autobiography. "Iceberg Slim" wrote Pimp: The Story Of My Life in 3 months. It was the beginning of a literary career that made him one of the largest selling African-American authors of all time. He died on April 30, 1992 - one day after the start of the Los Angeles riots. (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (40 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dave Chapelle has used this book in his standup show to illustrate his situation at Comedy Central
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:34 AM on April 2, 2009


Traditional black pimp culture died with woman's lib of the 70s and crack cocaine of the 80s. Beck was old (school).
posted by stbalbach at 7:39 AM on April 2, 2009


"Literary" used in only the loosest sense.
posted by scratch at 7:50 AM on April 2, 2009


'Trouble?' by Joolz Denby - a response to Pimp.
posted by ninebelow at 8:00 AM on April 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


This whole thing makes me so nauseous I can't read the links.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:04 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Morbidly Joe Beese!

(This looks wonderful!)
posted by grobstein at 8:05 AM on April 2, 2009


"Literary" used in only the loosest sense.

Perhaps. Slim was no Chester Himes, but he was a better writer than Donald Goines. (Although he never wrote a book as enjoyable as Daddy Cool). Slim was pretty good for someone with the amount of education he had. His books, particularly Pimp, are invaluable to students of American criminal culture. Perhaps only the book The Big Con is responsible for bringing more criminal slang into the vernacular.

Of course his personal philosophy had some odious elements to it, and he's partially responsible for the specific language of the misogyny that pervades parts of our popular culture. I'm personally fascinated by things like this, but I acknowledge that it's an uneasy fascination. Where does one draw the line when studying bad but interesting things? To me that's a much more interesting argument than whether or not he fits some definition of "literary."
posted by Bookhouse at 8:17 AM on April 2, 2009 [7 favorites]


What does his dying the day before the LA riots have to do with anything?
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:17 AM on April 2, 2009


Unlike Iceberg Slim
And all of them be claimin' be P.I.M.P.
No, I'm not going out that way
I'm just a straight up N I double G A
*
posted by porn in the woods at 8:18 AM on April 2, 2009


I've always liked Iceberg Slim's work since I first read it as a kid. Yes, he's an amoral sociopath, but his work did have the capacity to transport you from the world that you inhabit, to a world that you previously had no knowledge of.

And he doesn't give any excuses for what he did. Explanations, perhaps. The young Beck was at least as much a victim as the girls that he pimped. But not excuses. He knew the world he'd inhabited was wrong. He knew that he was exploiting the women he was involved with. But it was a kind of mutual exploitation. It wasn't the one-sided victimization of Hollywood and the media.

And while his books might not be great art, they are still selling steadily almost 50 years after they were written -- to a global market.

Not bad for an ex-convict, imo.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:26 AM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pimps, like con men, hold few illusions about what they're doing - which is why his writings are great if you're trying to get a good insight onto the nature of human manipulation and abuse. The parallels to the tactics used by the Pickup Artist community today are pretty scary as well.

You don't always have to hit someone to break them for life. :(
posted by yeloson at 8:27 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


iceberg slim's reflections album is his greatest moment. there is no need to pay me for my advice, though, because nobody can pay a mama debt.
posted by the aloha at 8:32 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


additionally, "candy, honey!".
posted by the aloha at 8:39 AM on April 2, 2009


He knew that he was exploiting the women he was involved with. But it was a kind of mutual exploitation. It wasn't the one-sided victimization of Hollywood and the media.

Unless the women were also receiving a share of all money he earned for having sex with people, with implicit or explicit threats of force if he didn't comply, I don't see how the "mutual" exploitation is comparable.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:53 AM on April 2, 2009 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: That stink is our nasty ho asses
posted by Artw at 9:24 AM on April 2, 2009


I read Black Mama Widow from the communal shelves of free-to-read used books at a communist/anarchist bookstore in downtown Los Angeles when I was thirteen years old. Now, that's the way to learn to enjoy Iceberg Slim.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:37 AM on April 2, 2009


A film adaptation of Mama Black Widow is expected for 2009. Contrary to rumor, Rihanna is not attached.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:43 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pimp is really an exciting book to read. It's high up there in my list of favorite books, right along side You Can't Win
posted by vomitous at 9:52 AM on April 2, 2009


Holy shit, ninebelow, that was a beautiful essay that you linked to.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:28 AM on April 2, 2009


Unless the women were also receiving a share of all money he earned for having sex with people, with implicit or explicit threats of force if he didn't comply, I don't see how the "mutual" exploitation is comparable.

Mutual exploitation is the wrong term -- perhaps mutual interdependence is a more accurate one.

Having a pimp isn't obligatory in the sex work industry. Lots of women sell sex without ever having one at all. In some cities, this is true even for women who sell sex on the streets, but where that's not the case, there's always other outlets -- working in massage parlours, outcall business, etc. etc.

There's a very good Japanese film about the world of the male bar hosts. These guys work out of bars where they encourage young women to come in and spend thousands of yen on bottles of champaign and other drinks, as many nights as they possibly can. These men lavish attention on the woman, and make them feel special -- but they don't actually have sex with them. It's not unusual for a woman to spend hundreds of dollars a night on a particular man, and to do this several nights a week.

The women who pay these men are almost all employed as sex workers. They go out and sell their bodies every night, in order to turn their money over to these pretty boys in a hostess bar. So, what are they getting out deal?

Status. Companionship. A relation with a man that's organized around a nexus other than sex.

All these things apply to women who take pimps as well, but they can also add protection to that list -- both from other pimps and predators. From the other prostitutes who might beat them and rob them. And although its been many years since I last read the book, if I remember it, Slim also provides them with a sort of surrogate family -- for women who never really had any kind of family, or where their family was fucked up and abusive. The pimp becomes the daddy, and the woman becomes the mommy, or the big sister, or the little sister, depending on her place in the heirarchy.

So while it is exploitative, it's often consensually so. Women who are involved in such relationships will often leave one pimp, because he doesn't give her a fair deal in terms of attention, or her share of the money -- only to immediately hook up with another pimp who offers her a better deal in this regard.

I'm not advocating this form of relationship, or saying that it's fair or nice or anything but abusive really. I'm simply making the point that the women involved are getting something out of their end of the bargain, regardless of how exploitative it initially appears to be.

The film is called The Great Happiness Space. I found it very interesting and instructive.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:56 AM on April 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


putting aside the knowledge you gained from watching the documentary you cite (which sounds fascinating), i'm curious as to where you get your information, PeterMcDermott - for example:

Lots of women sell sex without ever having one at all. In some cities, this is true even for women who sell sex on the streets, but where that's not the case, there's always other outlets -- working in massage parlours, outcall business, etc. etc.

i'm not trying to take the piss here - i'm just curious because it is contrary to much of what i have read about the global sex trade - what you're describing sounds to me like the exception not the rule - the rule seems to be straightforward exploitation and brutality - i'm not saying that there aren't sex workers out there who are in control of their lives & work but i never thought of them as representing the majority or the norm

but mine is a knowledge mostly gained from books* - i personally haven't taken a walk on that particular wild side (nor do i ever plan to)

* Siddharth Kara's work, e.g. - or that of Kamala Kempadoo's
posted by jammy at 2:02 PM on April 2, 2009


There's a documentary being made about Iceberg Slim and his influence on hip-hop.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:05 PM on April 2, 2009


Slim also provides them with a sort of surrogate family -- for women who never really had any kind of family, or where their family was fucked up and abusive. The pimp becomes the daddy, and the woman becomes the mommy, or the big sister, or the little sister, depending on her place in the heirarchy.

The rapist, controlling daddy figure--just what every abused women needs. I'm not sure how you get more fucked up and abusive than the prostitute-pimp relationship. And I've known plenty of people with fucked up childhoods.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:01 PM on April 2, 2009


i'm curious as to where you get your information, PeterMcDermott - for example:

I did research into sex work for a couple of years. I've got friends who are sex workers, and friends who are ex-sex workers who work in health projects that provide sex workers with services.

That said, most of my experience is with relatively parochial scenes, where the sex workers were drawn from the communities that they lived in. In two of the cities I'm most intimately familiar with -- Liverpool and Edinburgh, for example -- pimps were almost totally unheard of.

What you did get though is exploitation by men who own the means of distribution -- in Edinburgh, that means control over the massage parlours, where much of the sex work happens. Rather than pimps, what you did see were boyfriends who lived off their partners earnings and were occasionally convicted for 'living off immoral earnings', but they were rarely, if ever, the brutal pimp that Iceberg Slim describes in his books.

That said, I am going back twenty years to when I did work in this area. I hear that crack cocaine has changed that to some degree, with pimps being more prevalent than they have been traditionally -- particularly in certain areas like the Midlands and parts of Yorkshire, and these pimps are taking their women 'on the road', travelling to cities that are percieved as booming. Edinburgh during the festival, for example.

But while I'm not as connected as I once was, I was talking with somebody just a couple of weeks ago -- a reporter who is doing some long term, investigative work with a project in London that provides routes out of sex work for migrant sex workers.

According to her, the picture that you see in those books and TV shows of women who are coerced into working abroad -- the whole sex slavery thing -- is totally overstated by agencies and organizations that have a particular axe to grind, and really doesn't accurately reflect the true picture. She claims that the overwhelming majority of the Eastern European sex workers in London are there voluntarily, because they can earn as much in a month in London, as they can in a year in their home town, and rather than being captive slaves, they tend to be travelling back and forth -- coming over to work for a month or two, then going back home for a few months. Often, they'll do it because they have some particular economic objective -- a medical bill to pay, or they need a new car, or whatever. Or they've got families that they need to take care of.

Which is not to say that there's never sex slavery or never coercion. Just that it isn't typical, which is what the media would have you believe. Which kind of makes sense, if you think about it. Men might be pigs, but they aren't going to feel good about paying to spend time with a woman who is beaten, brutalized and miserable. Given that there appears to be no shortage of women who appear to want to engage in the industry voluntarily, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to take on the complications of dealing with sex slaves and having to worry about keeping them locked up, preventing them from asking customers for help, running the serious risk of prison if you get caught, etc. etc. etc.

According to my friend, all these stories tend to come from a very limited number of sources, all of whom have a particular agenda. Some come from quasi-religious NGO's who disapprove of sex work completely, and so want to tar all sex work as inherently exploitative. (Which it may be, but it isn't all coerced slavery.) Others are NGO's and state-funded bureaucracies that are attempting to expand their work. Yet others are driven by a particular feminist agenda that seems to believe that it's impossible for anyone to engage in such work without being coerced. And then you've got the press, who are always happy to over-inflate a story that has some novelty value.

I think the area where there's more truth to this story is in those women who come from South East Asia and have contracted to pay back large sums of money in return for their being smuggled to the west. However, this phenomena isn't limited to sex workers. They might work as waiters, cleaners, and in a range of other menial jobs. Sex work gives them the opportunity to pay off their astronomical debts relatively quickly by comparison. I think that it is effectively slavery, even if these people enter into their contracts, knowing what they're letting themselves in for before they sign up. But I think the recent story in the NYT is a much more accurate reflection of reality for these people -- the one where the reporter bought the 'freedom' of a couple of these sex slaves in Thailand, only to find that when he went back to visit a year later, one of them had signed herself up again for another period of indentured sex work.

And while none of that's very nice, I think ultimately, you have to respect people's autonomy to make choices in their lives -- even if those choices appear to us to be bad choices. If we demand that others grant us that respect around the choices that we make, it's hard for me to see that we have any right to deny that respect to others.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:00 PM on April 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also:

The Great Happiness Space (streaming, but you need to download and install a viewer.)

It's well worth the watch.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:14 PM on April 2, 2009


The Hughes Bros.' American Pimp is on youtube.
posted by goofyfoot at 4:33 PM on April 2, 2009


(The Great Happiness Space, previously on Metafilter.)
posted by grobstein at 5:03 PM on April 2, 2009


These guys work out of bars where they … lavish attention on the woman, and make them feel special -- but they don't actually have sex with them. It's not unusual for a woman to spend hundreds of dollars a night on a particular man, and to do this several nights a week.

I want that job.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:31 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


If someone chooses sex work from many possible job options, because they enjoy sex and making other people happy, or they like the hours, or whatever, that's one thing. I have no doubt that there are many high end escort services that really do work like that, and I have no problem with it as a concept.

But the reality of sex work in the US is usually more about having no other options, or at least no other options at which one can make that kind of money. Yes, it's voluntary, in the sense that it is not slavery. But it is not voluntary in the sense that very few people would choose it if they had any other decent option.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:55 PM on April 2, 2009


There's a documentary being made about Iceberg Slim and his influence on hip-hop.

That's an interesting subject, particularly in relation to the term itself - "pimp" entering the hip hop lexicon via Iceberg Slim and the wider culture via hip hop and evolving to mean something roughly equivalent to "high roller" (more precisely "young urban male who has elevated himself from poverty via street hustling") is an interesting bit of language evolution. In the past, "pimp" was one of the worst things you could call a man, a despicable and dishonorable thing to be. At this point it's almost completely divorced from its original prostitution-related meaning.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:56 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's not unusual for a woman to spend hundreds of dollars a night on a particular man, and to do this several nights a week.

I want that job.


These guys are also developing serious health problems from the amount of drinking they do on the job. I am not kidding. I've seen some very sad documentary footage of the problem. They don't last long.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:45 PM on April 2, 2009


I'll learn to nurse my drinks.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:04 PM on April 2, 2009


With no qualifiers at all, Iceberg Slim is one of the best writers I've ever read.
posted by Bobby Bittman at 9:00 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


But the reality of sex work in the US is usually more about having no other options, or at least no other options at which one can make that kind of money.

I've no idea about women who work further up the economic spectrum. All of my experience is with street prostitutes who turn tricks for £20/40 a time. I've met a couple of part timers who worked further up the scale, but they were amateurs, who would do it occasionally for big money when the offer came in and it didn't really define them in any sense.

And I'm not sure that it's any different here in the UK to how it is in the USA, but there's a large leap between 'no other options' and 'no other options at which one can make that kind of money'.

Lots of people work fast food joints or work for minimum wage. Some people work two and three jobs at minimum wage. They have 'no other options' either, but they don't choose sex work -- primarily, I think, because it conflicts with their value system. Instead, they do without the things that they'd like, often without the things that they need.

Most people who work in the sex industry do so because they find selling sex less repellent than working long hours for a pittance. I'm not disparaging the choice that they make in that respect, but I'm struggling to see how you can characterise it as anything other than a choice.

Do you make the same arguments with regard to say, crack dealing as well? Crack dealers tend to have limited alternative opportunities, but nobody seriously makes the argument that they're somehow economically enslaved into selling crack. How do the two things differ?

I'll learn to nurse my drinks.

You won't make any money that way.

Regardless of how it sounds, it looks like a really depressing life. As with female sex workers, it appears to be very heirarchical. Presumably, the bars are owned/controlled by local Yakuza, who have a kind of 'bottom bitch' who runs the place for them and makes the most money. He might be the owner on paper as well, but I'm guessing he's not the real owner, or making more than a small proportion of his profits.

Beneath him are a hoarde of young, dumb, good looking guys who work ludicrous hours, trying to claw their way up into the big money. That means standing on the street, harrassing young women into visiting the bar, or calling your existing regulars on your cell phone, trying to persuade them to come in and spend a few thousand yen.

What pleasure they used to take in women seems to be rapidly replaced by contempt as they grow resentful of the demands that these women make of them for the thousands of dollars that they're spending. I suppose that's another way that what they do parallels female sex work.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:16 AM on April 3, 2009


* Siddharth Kara's work, e.g. - or that of Kamala Kempadoo's

In looking at Peter Landesmann's work on sex trafficking for the New York Times, Jack Shaffer unpacks some of the complex issues that some of these writers and the organisations that they are associated with tend to elide.

He does so over several pieces, and they're all worth a look.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:34 AM on April 3, 2009


Also, a sound file of Laura Maria Agustin talking about her book, Sex on the Margins, which addresses the complexities of migration and sex work and some of the problems associated with the idea of sex trafficking.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:03 AM on April 3, 2009


nobody seriously makes the argument that they're somehow economically enslaved into selling crack.

Unless I'm misunderstanding you, people make that argument all the time. It also points towards one of the major reason prostitutes aren't flipping burgers instead: addiction to heroin and crack.
posted by ninebelow at 3:51 AM on April 3, 2009


Unless I'm misunderstanding you, people make that argument all the time.

Sorry, I was talking about non-addicted people selling crack, not addicted people. I knew I should have clarified that as I wrote it.

And while I agree that many, perhaps most street prostitutes are addicted to heroin and crack, the converse isn't true: most heroin addicts/crack heads aren't prostitutes. The decision to sell sex to fund a drug habit is one that's only taken by a small minority of addicts, so while it's a factor-- and very definitely a factor in keeping people in sex work when they'd prefer to stop.

Thirty five years ago, we didn't have a significant black market in either heroin or crack in the UK. We did, however, have a significant amount of prostitution. I think it's probably fair to say that addiction acts as a driver in pushing some people into sex work who wouldn't otherwise do it. However, others regard access to large quantities of drugs as a perk of the good income that the job brings. Some people buy clothes and jewelry. Some people invest in property. And some people buy crack cocaine.

If I recall correctly, this was the kind of situation Iceberg Slim describes in his book. Addiction wasn't the driving force behind his stable. He was more motivated by Cadillacs and fur coats. But drugs were one of the luxuries that they'd spend their income on.

My own view is that growing up in the care of the local authority is probably a bigger contributory factor than drug use in our indigenous population. Many of these women start selling sex while they're still in care, long before their drug use is sufficiently entrenched to be regarded as an addiction. Why would that be? I think partly, because they've internalized the view that their wants and needs don't matter -- their parents have abandoned them or abused them and they've grown up in a culture that sees sex work as no big deal and a way to make fast, easy money. And often, the institution charged with caring for them as children has been responsible for abusing them as well.

If you've spent a lot of your teenage years servicing the needs of repulsive older men who want to take advantage of you, I think it likely that it somehow innoculates you against the repulsion that most people feel towards having sex with someone they aren't attracted to, and may well create a mind-set that sees it as reasonable to economically exploit those who would seek to sexually exploit you.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:05 AM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


wow - thank you for your detailed & thoughtful response, PeterMcDermott - i appreciate it and will dig into it all soon (but now, it's off to work)
posted by jammy at 5:09 AM on April 3, 2009


If you've spent a lot of your teenage years servicing the needs of repulsive older men who want to take advantage of you, I think it likely that it somehow innoculates you against the repulsion that most people feel towards having sex with someone they aren't attracted to, and may well create a mind-set that sees it as reasonable to economically exploit those who would seek to sexually exploit you.

Originally I interpreted your posts as saying that women were choosing prostitution freely out of all their many choices. I'm not entirely familiar with the UK system, but if growing up "in care of the local authority" is in anyway like the US fostercare system, many of those kids have never had any choices in what would happen to them.

I guess we just see that situation through different lenses. Nothing you've described in your post looks like those people ever had a choice about how their lives ended up and I think that's a problem. I still don't buy you argument that they are somehow exploiting men for money, but otherwise I guess I see where you're coming from. It is very different from where I'm coming from.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:49 PM on April 4, 2009


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