Apparently, Killing Sex Workers Doesn’t Count

fictional image of Jack the Ripper

As if being a sex worker isn’t hard enough, you can also be blamed if someone kills you.

To catch you up if you’ve missed the story, a serial killer targeting sex workers and killed at least ten of them, burying their bodies  along Ocean Parkway in Long Island. This is hardly the first time that a serial killer has focused on sex workers, and it’s certainly not the first time that police have pretty much ignored it because murders of sex workers weren’t worth investigating.

“It could be more than just prostitutes.”

Stigmatizing and slut-shaming sex workers isn’t new, but some of the commentary on this case highlights it. In the transcript for this NPR interview, one person said “It could be more than just prostitutes.” Granted, they might have meant “there might be some victims who aren’t sex workers”, but I’ve listened to the recording of the interview (available on the site) and it certainly sounds to me as if they’re saying “it could be people who matter.” Listen to it and see what you think.

And then there’s the NY Times article: Prostitutes’ Disappearances Were Noticed Only When the First Bodies Were Found, as if the fact that three of victims’ families had filed missing persons’ reports with the police doesn’t count. Maybe the headline should have been “Prostitutes’ Disappearances Were Ignored by Police Until the First Bodies Were Found”. Then again, you could substitute “poor people” for “prostitutes” in that headline. As Newsweek put it, “When people living in such precarious circumstances suddenly disappear, they are not necessarily the highest, immediate priority for the authorities.”

Sex workers are vulnerable to this kind of attack because the last people they want to see are the police. Not only would going to the police put them at risk for arrest, 14% of sex workers interviewed in one study had been threatened with arrest if they did not have sex with a police officer. So they have three choices- risk of arrest, risk of rape, or not reporting to the police. Let me think about which one I would choose. (Not to mention that 22% of the sex workers in that study had had police as paying customers. Way to model following the law, officers!)

Of course, there’s plenty of victim-blaming, whether it’s people telling sex workers what they need to do to be safer or saying that one of the victims “cast aside caution“. It’s difficult or impossible for many sex workers to take precautions when they have to hide what they’re doing in order to survive. But that doesn’t mean they’re invisible to everyone.

“Sex workers often work in isolation because of the criminalized status of the work, but I don’t think sex workers live in isolation,” said Ms. Ray, now program director for the Red Umbrella Project, which helps sex workers tell their stories publicly. “There’s an assumption that if your life has gotten that bad, you’re expendable. That’s not true. A lot of people do care. We’re just not listened to.” (from this article)

This is why I support decriminalization of sex work. It isn’t enough to make sex workers safe and it certainly doesn’t address the issues of economic inequities, drug abuse, homelessness, or lack of job skills that push some people into sex work. But it’s a step towards creating a climate in which the people who want to be sex workers can be free to do it while also creating opportunities for the folks who want to stop. And it’ll make all sex workers a little bit safer.

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8 Responses so far.

  1. erichazann says:

    Not all 10 bodies are women. One body is a child under six and one is an adult man.. so yes, it could be more than just prostitutes.

  2. Charlie says:

    Thanks for the info. That wasn’t in any of the reports I found. And yet, given the general attitude of shaming sex workers, if they meant “only sex workers”, they should have said that. “Just prostitutes” sounds like it’s less important.

  3. Cheryl Overs says:

    Excellent post. In the UK in the 70s a senior cop famously appealed to the serial killer the Yorkhire Ripper to hand himself in after he murdered his first non sex worker because things were getting serious. To be fair, media coverage of sex worker murders here is more respectful these days.

    Good to see recognition that decriminalisation is necessary but not sufficient. There’s an unfortunate tendency to overinvest in the removal of criminal law as a solution in itself.

  4. Renee says:

    Excellent piece, Charlie. It’s crazy how many different articles you were able to cite that imply that sex workers don’t matter. Good thing there are a few voices of truth among us to counter that bullshit.

  5. Charlie says:

    And actually, it wasn’t that difficult. 🙁

  6. I’m with you, Charlie, in support of a decriminalization of sex work, providing those who want to do sex work with the same legal rights as those who pursue careers in other professions, and a support system for those who want out. Important post you have here.

  7. umm says:

    charlie, erichazann — what makes you think that adult men don’t do sex work, or that children under six are somehow out-of-category automatically? they may be sold on different market but both men and children have also participated in the exchange of money and sex.

  8. Jaeleen says:

    Great post! I’ve been following this and I completely agree with you, and I support decriminalization.

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