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Simpson, Brian --- "Murder, prostitution and patriarchy: why serial killing is a feminist issue" [2001] AltLawJl 101; (2001) 26(6) Alternative Law Journal 278

Murder, prostitution and patriarchy: Why serial killing is a feminist issue

Brian Simpson[*]

Serial killing is often debated as a problem of motive and forensic science, but it is also a product of a patriarchal society which regards some women as ‘expendable’.

Much discussion on serial killings is devoted to who does it, what motives they may have and how they can be tracked down through such things as psychological profiling and DNA evidence. But less attention is given to what the existence of serial killing says about society as a whole and the social attitudes which might support the phenomenon. In short we need to ask to what extent a focus on the individual pathology of the serial killer is misplaced and whether we should refocus our concerns on the nature of society as a possible cause of this form of murder.

Prostitutes as victims of serial killers: easy targets?

Baldwin argues that female prostitutes are in effect easily targeted by serial killers.[1] She notes that data on the murder rate of prostitutes is often incomplete because of the nature of such work and the social stigma which attaches to it:

They are ‘unaccounted for’ females, from virtually every possible vantage point of observation, the whereabouts of migrating ducks are more devotedly attended. These unaccounted for females are often runaways or ‘throwaways’ from families, sometimes pimped by them. Family members likely have no knowledge of or interest in a girl’s whereabouts. Those more immediately present in a girl’s life may readily assume she merely ‘moved on’, fear compromising themselves to the police, be the killer, or simply not care. Police may make similar assumptions, while the vagaries of a prostituted woman’s legal identity render reports listing a woman under a possibly false name and a cursory description of little assistance in linking a corpse to an identifiable woman’s life.[2]

Research is cited by Baldwin which suggests that many ‘missing persons’ may be serial murder victims.[3] But even here there is a point of interest: ‘missing person’ is a gender-neutral term, but it is claimed that most victims of serial killing are women.[4] And while this alone suggests a gender dimension to serial killing, the point can be taken further through an examination of the connection between serial killing and the preponderance of prostitutes as victims of such murders.

In 1982, Baldwin notes, there were an estimated 4118 serial murders in the United States.[5] On her assumptions that half of the victims were women (which according to her is a conservative figure as she claims a majority are women) and that one-third of these victims were prostitutes, then 600 prostitutes were the victims of serial killers in that year.[6] She also cites a 1985 Canadian government report on prostitution and pornography which stated that the mortality rate for girls in prostitution was 40 times the national average as supporting her argument that many women in prostitution are dying, as she says, ‘quickly’.[7]

Recent data gleaned from the Internet would seem to support the contention that at the very least prostitutes are over represented in the total number of victims of serial killers. A website[8] which documents ‘active cases’ — that is, unsolved cases — illustrates the proposition that a substantial number of victims are prostitutes. The list includes the following:

• Guatemala City, four victims since 27 January 2001 when the body of a prostitute was found in a ‘pay by the hour’ hotel room;

• London, England where someone appears to be stalking prostitutes in the fashion of ‘Jack the Ripper’ — since December 2000 there have been three victims;

• Vancouver, Canada, since the late 1970s, 30 prostitutes have disappeared from a small area of the city — no bodies have been found and police have downplayed the possibility of a serial killer, while in April of this year another former prostitute has disappeared and her relatives have lobbied to have her name added to the list;

• Kansas City, Missouri, a serial prostitute killer (although there may be more than one) appears to have killed 18 women;

• Flint, Michigan, five women with links to prostitution have been killed since February 1999 in what is believed to be a serial killing;

• East St Louis, Illinois, six female prostitutes have been killed since November 1999 in the same area of the city;

• Chicago, four women thought to be prostitutes were strangled in the summer of 2001, the murders thought to be committed by one person;

• San Diego (though listed as a ‘cold case’), 10 or more prostitutes are thought to have been murdered by a serial killer since 1985.

While these do not represent all serial killings they do indicate that prostitutes make up a large number of the victims.

Explaining the serial killing of prostitutes

It is not the intention of this article to investigate the psychopathology of the killers in these cases. Rather it must be considered whether some explanations exist in broader social attitudes. As Baldwin states, dead prostitutes cannot tell their story[9] — which often includes a life of violence at the hands of men. The problem is compounded in the case of prostitutes as many people do not want to hear their story, in any case. There are a number of explanations for this. For example, the website referred to above also mentions the unsolved murders of 200 women in the Houston area — especially along one particular highway in the last 30 years. Although it is not mentioned whether any of the women were prostitutes (though that may well be assumed) a comment exemplifies some of the problems that prostitute victims encounter:

Texas authorities, especially those outside of Houston, that have been investigating the numerous murders have been exceptionally tight-lipped and have managed to keep news coverage to a bare minimum considering the extent of the carnage, though some have managed to actually accept the probability of multiple serial killers being a major factor in the extraordinarily large amount of unsolved murders with girls and women as the victims but it remains to be seen if any headway can be made to catch the perpetrators.[10]

One might explain the ‘tight-lipped’ behaviour as officials attempting not to panic the public — although whether this is a valid approach in terms of warning people of possible danger may be debated. It could also be that the protection of tourism, for example, lies behind preventing discussion of a location as a ‘serial killing’ destination, is at work here. But perhaps there are deeper explanations.

A case listed as a ‘cold case’ is the Green River serial murders. Since August 1982, 48 female bodies were found in or near Green River in Seattle, Washington. The victims were ‘prostitutes and other females living high-risk lifestyles’.[11] Baldwin refers to this case in her analysis of prostitution:

When the bodies are found and even tagged with names, the women even in death are still not ‘real women.’ An investigator of the ‘Green River’ serial murders of 48 prostituted women in the Seattle area remarked, ‘There was wide public attention in the Ted [Bundy] case … because the victims resembled everyone’s daughter … But not everyone relates to prostitution on the Pacific Highway.’ Prostitutes, apparently, are nobody’s daughters; no longer even ‘victims’ when murdered, but rather part of the flotsam of ‘prostitution on the Pacific Highway’.[12]

This can be also seen in the ‘Ripper’ phenomenon in England. ‘Jack the Ripper’, ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ — such perpetrators are given identities which give them, maybe by default, a personality. But their victims — often prostitutes — can be seen, in a perverse twist, as a ‘problem’ to be addressed. As Baldwin explains:

The murdered spirits of women are contested, in doubt, tainted, interrogated. Were they good women or bad? Deserving dead or undeserving bystanders? During the investigations of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murders, Jim Hobson, police investigator, issued the following statement to the public, with a bit of hortation to the killer:
‘He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes … But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls. That indicates your mental state and that you are in urgent need of medical attention. You have made your point. Give yourself up before another innocent woman dies.’
Murderers murder prostitutes, police arrest prostitutes. ‘Troubled’ is but the murderer of ‘innocent girls.’ According to one reporter, the families of the ‘innocent girls’ were also troubled by the possibility of contagion by those ‘others’ of the purity of their daughters’ deaths: ‘It is the main grief work for the families of [the Ripper’s] non-professional victims to try to understand how their girls came under the man’s hand. By having the same killer as the prostitutes, their daughters have somehow been tainted.[13]

It is a chilling quote. What this suggests is that prostitutes may be considered as ‘appropriate’ victims of serial killers as compared with ‘innocent’ women and girls. And this is the problem. The idea of prostitution often revolves around the notion of the ‘bad’ woman, the woman who has ‘fallen’ into a life of vice, who lives a ‘high risk lifestyle’, the woman who is prepared to degrade herself to make a living. Such women are expendable in the eyes of many — they do not warrant the concern which ‘innocent’ victims deserve. Indeed, it is as if it is seen as almost a tragedy that some of the victims of ‘the Ripper’ were mistaken for prostitutes and that this somehow explains those killings.

Serial killing and patriarchy

Of course, this is not the problem. The problem lies more squarely in the attitudes which abound in society towards women in general. The idea of prostitution is not just a vehicle through which serial killers might perversely justify their actions in killing prostitutes but it also acts as a mechanism which is used to explain the broader treatment of women and girls.

Baldwin notes the manner in which the idea of prostitution is used as a reason for wife beating. She notes that in one study of 33 women’s experience of being beaten, one-third had been called a prostitute or whore in the course of the assault.[14] She also cites examples of how this idea is used by men who murder their wives or girlfriends — that ‘the victim was “just a slut” and he “had to kill her”’.[15] Baldwin also claims that the female victims of incest are often reported as tending to identify as ‘prostitutes’ in their adult lives due to their learning how to use sexual behaviour as a means of obtaining those things they need:

‘Traumatic sexualisation’ … occurs through the exchange of affection, privileges, and gifts for sexual behaviour, so that a child learns sexual behaviour as a strategy for manipulating [sic] others to get his or her other developmentally appropriate needs met.[16]

Of course, the abusers may justify their actions through the same notion:

Abusers may directly label their victims as ‘sluts’ to enforce the girls’ silence, to explain their compliance, and to reinforce their sense of complicity. Those who learn of the abuse may make similar predictions, excusing the father’s behaviour and furnishing justification for further punishment of the girl.[17]

In sexual harassment cases even the courts have reinforced this distinction between the ‘bad’ woman and the ‘good’ woman by regarding sexual harassment constituted by sexual demands on women in order to keep their jobs as a demand that the woman prostitute herself.[18] The implication is that otherwise good women are being asked to bring themselves down to the level of the prostitute and that this is a terrible thing.

Of course, having sexual demands placed on a person to keep their job is a terrible thing. But the idea that this is turning the person into a prostitute removes from women who are prostitutes any dignity by making that status the problem. Simply, the idea of prostitution is being used by even well-intentioned people to make the behaviour they seek to condemn seem worse. But they achieve this at the cost of those women who are prostitutes and who must deal with the reality of life on the streets. Once their status is so demeaned they become to many legitimate targets of violence.

Another example of this is the recent publicity surrounding the ‘comfort women’ under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. Much of this centred on the fact that these women had been forced into prostitution by their captors. Of course, this was an horrific matter for which such women should rightly be compensated. But at the same time the extent to which much of this concern centres on the notion of innocent women forced into sexual slavery also has the effect of denying that women who choose to be prostitutes also face violence as an everyday part of their lives as prostitutes. Would there be the same indignation about the taking of women who were already prostitutes to work as comfort women for the Japanese military? Indeed, the fact that many of these victims could not speak about their ordeals due to their shame speaks volumes about social attitudes towards the prostitute that persist to this day. Indeed, it may be that such women are rescued from their shame by it being said that they are in fact not prostitutes. But where does that leave the real prostitute?[19]

In a similar vein Baldwin argues that laws which prevent rape victims from being asked about their sexual past also reinforces this distinction between ‘good’ women and ‘bad’ women. Her argument appears to be that such laws are premised on the basis that any suggestion that the victim is sexually promiscuous might suggest to the jury that she is indeed no better than a prostitute who is not deserving of protection and got what she deserved.[20] On this basis such questions are thus excluded — again at the cost of prostitutes who are perceived as the epitome of the ‘bad’ woman.

Serial killing and its social causes

The purpose of this article has been to suggest that many, perhaps most, of the victims of serial killers are females and that many, perhaps most, of these women are prostitutes — or seen to be prostitutes — by their killers. While it may be readily accepted that this is so due to the vulnerable physical position that prostitutes find themselves in (just as homeless men also seem to be often the victims of serial killers — they too are available targets) this in itself does not explain their killers’ motives.

What is harder to accept is that their murders are a consequence of more general attitudes held towards the place of women in society. While the concept of the ‘whore’ or the ‘slut’ has been used to keep women in their place and used by male perpetrators of violence towards women as justification for their actions, it is not just those who commit such acts who perpetuate the distinction between the prostitute and the innocent woman and give support to such a mind-set, even if unintentionally.

We need to examine carefully the manner in which we all give credence to the idea that there are ‘good’ women and ‘bad’ women in society and how this often plays out in the lives of women who work as prostitutes. For it seems their reality is they may often be doubly victimised — as the victims of serial killers and as victims of a society that legitimates the perception they are ‘bad’ and therefore expendable.

[*] Brian Simpson teaches legal studies at Flinders University of South©2001 Brian Simpson (text)©2001 Jane Cafarella (cartoon)

[1] Baldwin, A., ‘Split at the Root: Prostitution and Feminist Discourses of Law Reform’, in K.J. Maschke (ed.), Pornography, Sex Work and Hate Speech, Graland, New York, 1997, pp.85-9.

[2] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.86.

[3] Levin, J. and Fox, J.A., Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace, 1985, p.19 (cited in Baldwin above).

[4] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.85.

[5] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.88.

[6] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, pp.88-9.

[7] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.89 citing Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, Pornography and Prostitution in Canada, 1985, p.350.

[8] <> .

[9] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.85.

[10] <> .

[11] <> .

[12] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.87.

[13] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.87.

[14] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.60.

[15] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.61.

[16] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.63.

[17] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, pp.63-4.

[18] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, p.65.

[19] See more generally Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, pp.66-8.

[20] Baldwin, A., above, ref 1, pp.68-71.

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