Monday, December 12, 2005


No doubt I'm a little slower than your average bear sometimes, but I never knew there was a name for this sort of behavior. In case you didn't, either, we're not talking about the economics of prostitution here.*

Nope, I read a couple medical blogs recently that talk about the ways senior docs, quiz junior docs or med students in sometimes torturous ways. Evidently, part of the pimping thing comes down to pretending a Socratic method, part comes down to sheer Sadism, and the tiniest part comes down to that moment when the junior person actually knows something and realizes it.

My dissertation director, DD, was brilliant at pimping. As I've experienced it, pimping only works if the juniors involved really care in a big way, care about getting the answer right, and more important, care about one-upping someone else or showing off their knowledge. If your students don't care, pimping simply gets blank stares. But we cared; we especially cared when DD pimped us, because DD took such obvious pleasure in watching us squirm, and, perhaps surprisingly, even more obvious pleasure when we could actually answer a question. And we were desperate graduate students.

In my first seminar with DD, long before I became a dissertation advisee, I watched with amazement as DD pimped Very Advanced Student. We were about 2/3rds first years in the class, so most of us didn't know enough to be worth DD's pimping. VAS, though, knew many of the answers; to be honest, it was a little like S and M, with we voyeuristic beginners watching experts at play.

(VAS was supremely helpful and kind when I asked questions outside of class, by the way, unlike, apparently, many junior docs who enjoy pimping more junior types harshly.)

We newer folks quickly realized that being pimped was a sign of favor, a sign that DD either appreciated the opportunity to show off considerable wit and intelligence, or a sign that DD thought you might actually know something. It was also scary, because DD is incredibly witty, and not shy about exercising that wit on lower life forms. And gradually, we got in on the action.

My first pimping (in that very seminar): I was trying to say something not particularly brilliant, and then got cut short by another student. (Cutting off happened all the time, since we weren't actually talking TO each other or caring what anyone else said, we were talking to make points and hear ourselves talk. There was also a good deal too much hormonal stuff happening in the room.) After the other student finished, DD looked back at me and asked if I were finished. I said yes, I'd shot my wad.

DD's most expressive eyebrow raised (both were expressive, but the right one especially so), and a scary glimmer took over the eyes. "Do you know what that means?"

Ok, I'd meant to be a little playful with language, a little risque (did I mention the hormonal stuff floating about?), but I wasn't about to be faced down or intimidated because it was sexual, after all, this is SHAKESPEARE we're studying, people! I bucked up (yes, pun intended) and responded, "Well, usually it means ejaculation, bu..."

DD's head quite literally smacked the seminar table as DD roared with laughter. I turned bright red, of course. Just about everyone else either looked at me with total superiority, knowing I was an embarrassed, incompetent idiot, or looked away, embarrassed at my obvious incompetence. I squirmed, and gulped out something about musketry and running out of ammunition. Yep, just another moment of grad school glory.

There's an important lesson to be learned about pimping. Ready? Here goes. When a student asks you a question, s/he's not pimping. When a job interviewer asks you a question, also probably not pimping. And when a colleague or peer at a conference asks you a question, not pimping. Most of the time people actually want an answer they can understand, communicated generously, rather than a smirky flash of your whatever. (I should have learned that lesson LONG before I did, alas.)

*On the economics of prostitution. In another grad seminar, long ago and far away, we were discussing how one could make useful economic comparisons when there's little overlap in things we buy and things people bought "back then" in the time period covered by the class. One of my peers helpfully suggested that the best way to make comparisons was to compare the cost of a prostitute.

I can't tell you how horrified I was, but I was totally silenced, as was everyone in the class.

Not only that, but totally confused. I don't know about my peer, but I've never actually paid for or been paid for sex, and I have no clue how much a prostitute charges (note that I don't use "cost" but "charge"). Then there's the added issue of wondering what the economic differences are in different parts of the country or even different parts of a large city. Do prostitutes in NYC make more or less than those in rural Iowa? Does one charge more in the Village than Queens? Are there gender issues as well? Do male and female prostitutes in a given area charge similar fees?

I also have no clue about the economics of prostitution in the early modern or medieval periods, but the same questions about geography come to mind (well, except that it's English geography rather than US geography.)


  1. Speaking as an Iowa, I don't believe there *exist* paid prostitutes in rural Iowa, and I think there are very very few in the urban areas. I suspect that most or all of these women are slave to their drug (meth) habits.

    Then again [and this has been said before], if you consider prostitution more broadly; then just about everybody who's having a sexual relationships with someone they're economically dependent upon is prostituting themselves [and that's a lot of women]...

  2. Well, pardon the typos, of course I meant "speaking as an IowaN...."

  3. Hmmm, I don't know for sure, since I've only passed through Iowa on I-80 (and may I say, you folks have the BEST rest areas of any state I've visited?), but I'm willing to bet there are indeed rural Iowans practicing prostitution. (Is prostitution like medicine, refered to as a "practice"? Somehow "practicing" fits in my mental landscape for prostitution.)