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Relationship Between Pimps and Prostitutes

Compiled by Mark Grough and Toby Goldbach


A prostitute is defined as one who exchanges sexual favors for money, drugs, or other desirable commodities, while a pimp is one who controls the actions and lives off the proceeds of one or more prostitutes (Williamson & Cluse-Tolar, 2002; Dalla, 2002).  Pimp-controlled prostitution is ubiquitous and the most common form of prostitution in the US by many estimates; the WHISPER organization found 90% of prostituted women they interview are pimp-controlled, Williamson and Cluse-Tolar (2002) estimate that 80% of prostitutes become involved with pimps over time, and a US Department of Justice report contends that about 50% of prostitution is controlled by pimps.  And while there are an estimated 100,000 streetwalking prostitutes operating in the U.S. at any given time, the public’s knowledge about these workers and their relations to pimps is based primarily on media stereotypes (Brewer et. al., 1990).  At one extreme, we see exemplars of prostitutes with hearts of gold in movies such as Pretty Woman, Leaving Las Vegas, and Taxi Driver, while at the other extreme we are exposed to images of black fishnets, knee-length boots, and drug abuse.  Rarely does the media provide an accurate portrayal of prostitution or the pimp-prostitute relationship. 

Given the general ignorance and misperceptions about prostitution and the pimp-prostitute relationship, there is potential for social science (through expert testimony) to illuminate relevant aspects of such a relationship.  And while the Court has rarely allowed expert testimony to establish adjudicative facts about prostitutes and pimps, the Court has been amenable to allowing social framework testimony on the relationship between pimp and prostitute.  Social framework testimony seems especially appropriate in these cases as Monahan and Walker (2010) state: "[Social] frameworks often tell jurors something they do not already know, or disabuse them of common but erroneous perceptions.".

Case Studies

United States v. Williams, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77764 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 19, 2007).

Public Link:

Facts: December 8, 2005 Defendants Williams and Hayes and 14 other accused were charged with thirty-two counts alleging a mutli-year, national conspiracy to engage in interstate sex trafficking of women and girls. As part of its case, the Government proposed to call Dr. Sharon W. Cooper as an expert witness, to testify to three issues:

(1) the societal and criminal justice implications of prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women;

(2) the medical and mental-health aspects of prostitution, including general testimony on victim risk and vulnerability factors and on common methods of grooming and deterrents to escape;

(3) and the medical and mental-health impact that life as a prostitute had on certain women involved in this case

Issue: (I) Whether Dr. Cooper’s testimony should be excluded pursuant to Rules 403 and 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence as irrelevant, unduly prejudicial and not of assistance to the trier of fact; (II) whether evidence should be excluded because the notice of intent to call the expert violated the Court’s scheduling order and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

Holding: Motion to exclude expert testimony of Dr Sharon W Cooper, granted in part (1, 3), denied in part (2).

Rationale: Daubert Analysis

Overall the court found that Dr. Cooper had specialized knowledge:

Dr. Cooper submitted curriculum vitae and during the Daubert hearing Dr. Cooper’s qualifications were explored. Dr. Cooper is board-certified, has practiced for more than two decades, both as a civilian and military doctor; Dr. Cooper is faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and at the University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland; Dr. Cooper has evaluated and treated individuals who have been sexually exploited, is familiar with relevant literature, lectures internationally on the subject, and has co-authored two books.

(1) Testimony regarding societal and criminal justice implications of prostitution was considered irrelevant and therefore inadmissible.

Dr. Cooper’s testimony would have spoken to the social costs of commercial sexual exploitation, including the multiple arrests, homelessness and transient lifestyle associated with trafficking; women who are trafficked receive inadequate health care and are at a higher risk for certain medical conditions.

The court found that this evidence was not probative as to whether the defendants engaged in the criminal conspiracy to traffic women; it would not aid the jury in assessing whether the crime was committed. It was irrelevant and would unduly prejudice the defendants. The court wrote that "While such testimony is well suited for congressional hearings on appropriate penalties, it would not aid a juror in assessing whether a crime was committed."

(2) Testimony regarding the medical and mental health aspects of prostitution generally was admissible.

(i) The methodology with respect to medical and mental health aspects of prostitution generally was reliable.

The court recognized that the criteria normally used to guide reliability as identified by the Supreme Court was not applicable in this case. The court found, however, that the general information that Dr. Cooper intended to proffer was already subjected to peer review, that her conclusions were generally accepted in the field and that Dr. Cooper was familiar with the body of literature addressing prostitution.
(ii) Fit - the testimony was relevant and would assist the trier of fact

Dr. Cooper would be providing information on the dynamics of the typical pimp-prostitute relationship, the methods of grooming prostitutes and the deterrents to escaping. Dr. Cooper would also testify about syndromes related to young women in prostitution, specifically commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth syndrome "CSECY". The court found that this evidence could help explain why women did not leave their pimps and could address the vulnerability and enticement of women. Generally, it would help to "demystify the relationship between pimp and prostitute" and would "provide a framework … which … [will] enable the jury to more meaningfully evaluate whether the element of coercion has been established by the Government beyond a reasonable doubt."

(3) Testimony about the specific women in the case was not admissible.

(ii) The methodology used to understand the medical and mental health of the women involved in the specific case was not reliable.

The court noted that Dr. Cooper did not locate the medical records of the women and that Dr. Cooper diagnosed the women based on telephone conversations that lasted 1 hour, which even Dr. Cooper admitted was unusual absent a pre-existing doctor/patient relationship. For example, during the course of one of the 1-hour conversation, Dr. Cooper diagnosed one woman with seven types of physical injuries and eight different mental health conditions.

(iii) Testimony is not relevant to the charges being brought against the defendants

The court felt that the testimony was not relevant because Dr. Cooper did not elicit information from the women about what happened to them or their victimization, nor about their willingness to become a prostitute or desire to leave.

(II) Procedural Issues regarding Dr. Cooper’s opinion about the specific women in the case:

Two weeks before trial the Government disclosed an incomplete report form Dr. Cooper regarding her conversations with the women in the case and providing her diagnosis of 5 of 10 of the women. The Government also sought to introduce evidence regarding one witness Dr. Cooper interviewed the morning of the trial. The court held that this would prevent defense counsel from investigating the reasoning and information in the opinion and was therefore inadmissible, contrary to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

US v. King, 703 F.Supp.2d 1063 (US District Crt, Hawaii, 2010)

Defendant filed a motion to preclude the testimony of Dr. Cooper at trial. Part of what the government needed to prove is that the victims prostituted themselves on behalf of the Defendant as their pimp because of force, fraud and coercion. The government intended to call Dr. Cooper to testify about (1) the typical means of targeting and recruiting prostitutes (2) information about the ways that pediatric development, family dysfunction, and the use of drugs can make adult and adolescent minor victims more susceptible to influence by sex traffickers, and (3) common ways that sex traffickers use force and coercion to maintain control over the victims' actions and to prevent them from leaving the relationship.

On March 16, 2010, the Court conducted a Daubert hearing on the motion. The Defendant argued that Dr. Cooper was not "the right expert to provide profiling testimony on pimps and sex trafficking organizations". Among other aspects of Dr. Cooper’s qualifications, the court noted that Dr. Cooper has been qualified as an expert in court more than 300 times, qualified as an expert in federal courts fifteen to twenty times, and twice qualified in federal court as an expert regarding pimp-prostitute relationship dynamic.

The court found Dr. Cooper’s methodology to be reliable. Dr. Cooper testified that her methodologies in developing her expertise were based on her medical practice, including personal interviews, reviewing the work of other researchers, clinical case analyses and investigative intelligence from law enforcement professionals, which include under-cover officers.

The Court found that Dr. Cooper’s testimony was relevant but only with respect to evidence about how pimps use fraud, force or coercion over their victims. Testimony regarding the effects of prostitution rings on society at large or discussion about the violence used by pimps was irrelevant. The court would allow testimony that would assist the jury in assessing the credibility of the prostitutes, in understanding the circumstances that make certain persons susceptible to prostitution, the reasons to stay with a pimp even when beaten and why victims may minimize the culpability of pimps. The court felt that without Dr. Cooper’s testimony, "jurors might presume that the victims did not want to escape from Defendant's alleged operation because they failed to run away on the occasions when they were beyond his physical grasp."

United States v. Anderson, 851 F.2d 384 (US Court of Appeals, D.C. Cir. 1988)

Appellant Eddie Lee Anderson (aka "Fast Eddie") was convicted of a total of 19 violations of the Mann Act, for interstate transportation of females for prostitution and interstate transportation of minors for prostitution. One of the issues in Anderson's appeal was whether it was "reversible error for the district court to admit the ‘expert’ testimony of Dr. Lois Lee, a government witness, on the modus operandi of pimps and on the pimp-prostitute relationship."  The appellant objected to Dr. Lee’s testimony on the grounds that it was A) not relevant and, even if it was relevant, B) was unduly prejudicial.

Dr. Lee’s testimony:

Dr. Lois Lee, the government's expert witness, testified on the modus operandi of pimps and on the nature of the relationship between pimps and prostitutes. Specifically, Dr. Lee testified:

1)       "Sophisticated pimps usually travel in an intercity circuit with a group of ten to forty girls working for them"

2)       "Recruits are usually vulnerable young women, often runaways who have been abused or neglected by their families"

3)       "[A] pimp will encourage his prostitutes to compete for his affection by earning money, and will beat his prostitutes if they fail to adhere to his rules"

4)       "Prostitutes are often so financially and psychologically dependent on their pimps that they are unable to leave even when they are beaten"

5)       "Pimps usually spend the money earned by their prostitutes on drugs, clothes, and jewelry, since the ability to support a "flashy" lifestyle is a source of status in their subculture"

6)       "On several ways in which the pimp-prostitute relationship ends-the prostitute becomes pregnant, goes on welfare, turns to more serious kinds of crime, commits suicide, or dies at the hands of a customer"

A. Relevance

Anderson claimed Dr. Lee’s expert testimony was not relevant in the case and, therefore, should not have been admitted. The court, however, ruled that Lee’s testimony on pimping and the pimp-prostitute relationship was relevant and helped illuminate critical issues in the case such as:

1)       "Whether the appellant was in fact a pimp or rather, as Anderson claims, merely a gambler with a flashy lifestyle and a penchant for travel"

2)       "Whether the government's young witnesses travelled with him quite independently, or as part of a pimp-prostitute relationship"

3)       "The credibility of the government's prostitute-witnesses and reasons why they stayed with Anderson despite mistreatment"

B. Undue Prejudice

Anderson contended that even if Dr. Lee's testimony were relevant, it should have been excluded because "its probative value [was] substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice." Appellant claimed that Dr. Lee’s following testimony was prejudicial:

1)       "testimony that ‘flashy clothes, flashy expensive jewelry, and big expensive cars’ are ‘the tools of the pimp's trade,’ when combined with previously admitted evidence that appellant owned such items"

2)       "testimony about pimp brutality, and in particular her description of the ways in which the pimp-prostitute relationship usually ends, should have been suppressed because it was ‘grossly prejudicial’ and of ‘absolutely no probative value.’"

The Court declined to rule on the prejudicial aspect of the above evidence, stating that the government presented a "heavy serving" of alternative evidence showing that Anderson was, in fact, engaged in criminal prostitution operations.

United States v. Taylor, 239 F.3d 994 (Court of Appeals, 9th Cir. 2001)

On appeal of conviction of four counts of transporting a minor for the purposes of prostitution and two counts of money laundering, the appellants main challenge was to the admission of testimony by Dr Lee about the relationship between prostitutes and pimps. The court held that the testimony was properly admitted because it assisted the jury in evaluating the credibility of the prostitute, a minor, who worked for Lavon Taylor. Counsel for the appellant had sought to undermine the prostitute-witness on cross examination. Dr. Lee testified about the relationship between prostitutes and pimps, and in particular why a person in the witness’ position might not have testified truthfully in previous proceedings.

The court stated that: "By and large, the relationship between prostitutes and pimps is not the subject of common knowledge. See generally Note, "Men Who Own Women: A Thirteenth Amendment Critique of Forced Prostitution," 103 Yale L.J. 791, 793-96 (1993) (citing research on the abuse of prostitutes by pimps and noting that the full extent of such abuse remains unknown); Ann M. Coughlin, "Of White Slaves and Domestic Hostages," 1 Buff. Crim. L. Rev. 108, 120-21, 124-25 (1997) (discussing how people puzzle over why a prostitute does not leave an abusive relationship with a pimp). A trier of fact who is in the dark about that relationship may be unprepared to assess the veracity of an alleged pimp, prostitute, or other witness testifying about prostitution."

United States v. Winters, 729 F.2d 602 (9th Cir. 1984)

In trial, defendant alleged that victims consented to whatever sexual activity occurred because they failed to take advantage of opportunities to escape or call for help. Court allowed expert testimony from psychiatrist Dr. Wait Griswold about the defendant’s complete domination over the victims and their lack of sufficient ego-strength, and self confidence that would be necessary in order to try to escape. The court also allowed testimony from forensic psychologist Raymond Cameron who had worked with police vice unites. Dr. Cameron testified about pimps’ conditioning process of prostitutes, which would include food and sleep deprivation, and that following a period of abuse, only subtle threats would be required to maintain control.

United States v. Evans,  272 F.3d 1069 (8th Cir. 2001).

District court allowed testimony of Sergeant Andrew Schmidt, a Minneapolis police officer, without holding a Daubert hearing. Sergeant Schmidt testified regarding the operation of prostitution ring, including recruitment of prostitutes and the relationship between pimps and prostitutes, and regarding jargon used in such rings. Appellate court held that the District Court does not always have to hold a Daubert hearing prior to qualifying an expert witness.

For Further Study:

Dr. Sharon Cooper

Dr. Lois Lee

Pimp-Controlled Prostitution Still an Integral Part of Street Life by Celcia Williamson and Terry Cluse-Tolar, available at 

US Department of Justice, Special Report, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, What do we know and what do we do about it? available at

May 2010 NPR Radio Clip "Human Trafficking A Problem Within U.S. Borders," on Tell Me More Former prostitute and sex traffic survivor discusses relationship with pimps

Inaccurate portrayal of prostitution in the media:;

"Prostitution: Factsheet on Human Rights Violations", by Melissa Farley PhD, available at

Sylvia A. Law, "Commercial Sex: Beyond Decriminalization" (2000) 73 Southern California Law Review 523

Lisa E. Sanchez, "Boundaries of Legitimacy: Sex, Violence, Citizenship, and Community in a Local Sexual Economy." Law & Social Inquiry : Journal of the American Bar Foundation. 22.3 (1997): 543.