“Cleaning Up the Place”: Sex Workers and Serial Killers

It was 2:30am and Mary Ann Nichols was working late on a narrow road in London’s East End. An hour later her body was found. The road was White Chapel Road. Mary’s job? Selling sex. She is the first documented victim of Jack the Ripper.

It is unknown why the Ripper chose sex workers as his victims. However, he joins a long list of serial killers who target ‘ladies of the night’ to satisfy their sadistic desires.

A hundred years later, Peter Sutcliffe – the Yorkshire Ripper – would kill thirteen women in what he saw as a mission from God to cleanse the world from damned whores. “The women I killed were filth” Sutcliffe said, “I was just cleaning up the place a bit.”

At present, the Long Island serial killer remains at large after killing over a dozen sex workers in the Gilgo Beach area. The killer is believed to have met many of his young female victims via advertisements for escort services on Craigslist. The age of serial killers targeting prostitutes is far from over.

Easy Targets

It is well documented that sex workers have a much higher risk of homicide than the general population. Street based workers are twelve times more likely to get murdered than other women.

Why serial killers target sex workers is likely to have a myriad of answers, both individual and cultural.

For Gary Ridgeway, The Green River killer, the motivation was at least partly opportunistic. “[I] picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up, without being noticed” he said. “I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing”.

In contrast, Steven Write – the Ipswitch murderer – appeared largely motivated by his sexual fetish for strangulation. Sex workers were his victim of choice largely due to the intimate nature of their work and the level of trust they placed in their clientele.

Forensic psychologist Anthony Beech has noted that sexually motivated killers tend to view male sexual desire as uncontrollable and to project sexual anxieties around women onto their victims. Sex workers, who are culturally stereotyped as sexually assertive, are likely to be seen as particularly threatening to this worldview.

Predatory killers also view sex workers as easy targets separated from the herd. Social stigma leaves some workers isolated from family and friends, meaning that investigators are slow to identify victims and killers can add several notches to their belt before arrest.

Occupational Hazard

Poor relationships between workers and the criminal justice system also severely hinder investigations.

A West Midlands Magistrate once infamously summed up the life of victim Gail Henderson, who was murdered by a client, by stating “And then the silly girl went and got herself murdered”. Quotes like these hardly build trust in the system.

Distrust in authorities mean those in the sex industry – particularly street based sex workers – are reluctant to share information with police. This is made even worse when sex work is criminalised and divulging information leaves workers at risk of prosecution. Many sex workers and pimps suspected Ridgeway as being the Green River Killer, but were too scared to report this information to police. As a result, Ridgeway took at least forty-nine lives.

A perception that murder is an unfortunate ‘occupational hazard’ of street-based sex work also does little to bridge barriers. In 2011, St. Francis County sheriff Bobby May reportedly said in relation to the murder of 25-year-old sex worker Marcal Camero Tye that “[y]ou know, prostitutes, these types of folks—it’s a risk. Whenever you’re soliciting, things of this nature happen sometimes.”

Time for Change

Although fault for the crimes of Ridgeway, Sutcliffe and Writer clearly lie with the perpetrators, the vulnerability of sex workers to violence has a more social origin –and therefore is a shared responsibility.

“There really are people who don’t care when prostitutes are victims of hate crimes, beaten, raped, and murdered” notes sex worker and activist Annie Sprinkle. “[But] no matter what you think about sex workers and the politics surrounding them, sex workers are a part of our neighbourhoods, communities and families.”

One hope’s the lessons of the past can be learned. Only through cooperation and shared understanding will potential victims be protected. With the Long Island serial killer still on the loose it is time for law enforcement and society to rally behind sex workers. It is time for no more ‘easy targets’.

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