“Suitcase Pimps” in the Adult Industry: an informational essay

I’ve been thinking about what happened to Christy Mack, particularly with regard to what obviously turned into a toxic relationship with her ex-boyfriend/”suitcase pimp,” War Machine. I never met Christy Mack or War Machine, so I can’t speak personally about the nature of their relationship. However, some observations Aurora Snow made in her Daily Beast article about it got me pondering the little-known and rarely discussed phenomenon of the “suitcase pimp” in the mainstream adult industry.

First of all, please understand that I am NOT in any way suggesting that a suitcase pimp is synonymous with violence or abuse. I’m sure that there are as many variations on the relationship between adult star and suitcase pimp as there are individual relationships. But I want to just talk about how this all works, and how this might have happened, for those of you who don’t know about “suitcase pimps.”

Imagine for a moment that you are an actress in mainstream pornographic films. That you make most or all of your living on your adult film work. It’s a demanding job. As often as possible, you book shoots with directors and performers and crew members, some of whom you know and some of whom you don’t. Most of them are friendly and fun to work with; some are probably not. Most producers will pay you in a timely fashion and take your health and safety seriously; some may not.

At each shoot, you arrive at a pre-specifided location with a large suitcase full of clothing and shoes from which you will choose your outfit. You get dressed, have your makeup and hair done (if you haven’t already done it yourself), shoot some photos and pre-sex tease video, and then have sex with someone, or multiple someones, for a half hour to several hours in front of hot lights, with every action you perform subject to the scrutiny of the director, crew, and costar(s). It’s exhausting.

You also probably attend public appearances frequently: red carpets, industry parties, feature dancing gigs at strip clubs, DVD signings at adult stores, industry conventions. At these events, camera flashes accompany your every step and you are expected to stay poised, pleasant, and beautiful while interacting with the press and thronging fans… while collecting money for signed photos and any appearance fee you charge before you leave. It’s grueling to all but the very most outgoing of extroverted exhibitionist, and I’m sure even they get tired sometimes.

You may have an agent book shoots and appearances for you and to negotiate what you’ll be doing on camera or at an event, along with your rate, but sometimes things change unexpectedly and you may find yourself tossed into a very different situation than the one you were expecting. In any other entertainment industry, you’d have a manager to protect your interests on set and in-person, but there really is no such thing in the adult industry. Most actresses are independent contractors who have no HR department or assistant to turn to. So, instead, you may have ended up with what’s known as a “suitcase pimp” to handle your belongings, payments, and the less-pleasant day-to-day interactions your career necessitates. It’s nice to have someone else around to help you carry your bags and roll your suitcases, to make sure you’re safe on set and at appearances, to handle the collection of your money… You know, the heavy lifting. This way you can focus on being at your best on set and in person.

Your “suitcase pimp” is very likely your boyfriend. He may not be–he could just be a good friend or a bodyguard, or maybe even an ex-lover. But whatever the case, you have a very intimate relationship with him; he does a lot of your “dirty” work for you. He does the stuff you don’t have time or energy to focus on. He handles your money. He makes sure that the fans pawing at you at conventions don’t overstep their bounds. He cares about you. He makes you feel safe.

The arrangement that you have with him is probably sort of unspoken. It likely didn’t start out the way it is now. Chances are he was just your boyfriend or good friend at first, and he saw all the hard work you were doing. He offered to drop you off and pick you up at a shoot one day, and ended up helping you with your bags. You realized how great it was to have him helping you out, and it became a regular occurrence. Maybe, one day when he came to pick you up, you were arguing with a producer about getting paid, and he stepped in to back you up. Maybe he helped you get paid on time, and you realized he could help you out with collecting payments at conventions, too. Maybe after a while he simply became a permanent fixture in your professional dealings: your de facto manager. And now he goes with you everywhere, making sure you’re safe and that you get paid.

And that’s well and good. There are a lot of these “suitcase pimps” in the adult industry, and from what I can tell many of them seem to have excellent working relationships with the stars they accompany. They hover in the background at signings, collecting payments and handing out change, stepping in if anybody gets a little overzealous about touching the stars. They sometimes schedule interviews and shoots and appearances. They seem to have a predisposition toward spiky hair, Ed Hardy couture, and neck tattoos.

Some of them have become employees of the women they work with, sharing in the profits of their work. But some of them seem to have become the employers, making themselves not just indispensable to the stars but also their gatekeepers. It’s natural enough that many “suitcase pimps” end up working on-camera with the women they work with, if they’re into that, or to having input into who the stars their attached to work with on camera, or what they do in their scenes. Many end up getting behind the camera to shoot proprietary scenes that make both parties more profit than working for other people. Sometimes these new directors and producers start their own companies and go on to be quite successful. And sometimes this works beautifully for everyone involved. But sometimes, in the wrong hands, it starts to look like ownership. Ownership that must be protected.

As Aurora Snow put it on the Daily Beast, “Yes, most of us in the adult industry have experienced the stereotypical porno dude who becomes the ‘manager.’ He books your work, drives you to set, wheels your suitcase in, helps you collect your check and, of course, spends it. Along with all this comes a certain possessiveness; these manager-boyfriends begin referring to you as their property, and a sense of ownership is created.”

When this sense of ownership is combined with a particularly jealous, angry, or violent personality, things can get all kinds of messy. When a person’s body–particularly a person’s sexual body–is considered the property of another person, a line has been crossed mentally about the monetary and moral value of that other person. A line has been crossed, and soon enough all the other lines can seem much easier to jump over. Violence is not ever the foregone conclusion, but it becomes a more available possibility when a person’s body, when a person’s humanity, is seen as a thing to be bought and sold by another person.

Unfortunately for Christy Mack, the hands of the boyfriend/”suitcase pimp” turned out to be the worst possible hands to be in. I continue to send my best wishes her way for a speedy and successful recovery. And I offer the above speculation not as expert testimony or anything so high and mighty, but rather as a sort of flashlight shining into a little-known but ubiquitous aspect of the adult industry that can be beneficial or scary, to provide some background information on how these things can get to a certain place from which they can turn in any number of directions.

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