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Prostitution as violence against women

By Helen Pringle - posted Monday, 2 May 2011

Since last December, the remains of ten young women have been found on New York's Long Island. The police do not yet know if all ten women were killed by the same person, but the evidence suggests that the four women whose bodies have been identified are the victims of a serial killer who contacted them for sex work via Craigslist. The murder of these women lies on a continuum with other forms of violent subordination, primarily unleashed by those who control and use them, and which work in turn to stigmatise them as dirty and worthless. Most of the women murdered on Long Island had not even been reported as missing persons.

The women had not been missed, just like other victims in the Long Island killing fields over the last 20 years. In 1990, Allen Gormely, a carpenter, was convicted of killing two women sex workers. In 1993, Joel Rifkin, an unemployed gardener, confessed to killing 17 women in the preceding four years. In 1999 and 2000, Robert Shulman, a postal worker, was convicted of the murder of five women whom he dismembered and disposed of in garbage bins.

And the killing fields stretch way beyond Long Island: to the north in Poughkeepsie, where Kendall Francois confessed to murdering eight women between 1996 and 1998; to the south in New Mexico where the bodies of eleven women and the unborn child of one of them were found in Albuquerque in 2009; to the west in Seattle where Gary Ridgway admitted in 2003 to killing 48 women.


It is too easy to read cases like these as "only in America". However, no country is free of this evil. In 2008, Steve Wright, a forklift truck driver, was convicted of the murder of five sex workers in the Ipswich area of England. In 2010, a PhD student in criminology, Stephen Griffiths, was found guilty of the murder of three women in Bradford; the body of one victim has never been recovered. These crimes recalled the murders of thirteen women, some of them sex workers, by Peter Sutcliffe in Yorkshire.

It is also too easy to read these cases as a tale of psychopathology. But the character of most of these convicted killers is little different from others in the crowd. The Long Island suspect, for example, has been profiled in the following terms:

He is most likely a white male in his mid-20s to mid-40s. He is married or has a girlfriend. He is well educated and well spoken. He is financially secure, has a job and owns an expensive car or truck. He may have sought treatment at a hospital for poison ivy infection. As part of his job or interests, he has access to, or a stockpile of, burlap sacks. And he lives or used to live on or near Ocean Parkway on the South Shore of Long Island, where the police have found as many as 10 sets of human remains.

Scott Bonn, a serial killer researcher at Drew University, added, "This is someone who can walk into a room and seem like your average Joe… He has to be persuasive enough and rational enough that he is able to convince these women to meet him on these terms. He has demonstrated social skills. He may even be charming."

In other words, the suspect in these killings is likely to be an unremarkable person (apart from having greater access to burlap sacks for disposing of the bodies), and this has long been known from criminological research into violence against women. It has also long been known that that there are few distinguishing "markers" of men who prostitute women for sex. Despite this, both media columnists and some academic writers continue to put it about that is groundbreaking to "discover" that men who prostitute women for sex are "very ordinary, decent, hard-working people".

At his sentencing hearing for the murder of 17 women, the very average Joel Rifkin said, "You all think that I am nothing but a monster, and you are right,… Part of me must be." His actions were indubitably monstrous, not any distinguishing personality characteristics that he at any rate failed to exhibit.


It is quite natural then to wonder what leads average, ordinary, decent, and hard-working men to such monstrous acts as killing 17 women. My argument here is that these killings can be understood as aspects of the prostitution of women, and as not simply incidental to its practices.

In contrast, it is the favoured argument of some sex worker associations, such as the Scarlet Alliance in Australia, that the dangers women face in prostitution are clearly separable from the act of sex work. One of these "incidental" dangers that is frequently mentioned is the stigma attaching to sex work and sex workers. That stigma does create conditions of great vulnerability for sex workers, especially but not only women sex workers. But it is important to note that the stigma around sex work rarely attaches itself to the johns, the pimps and madams, the advertisers, that is, all those other figures who make prostitution into an institution and not simply a job description of sex workers and what they do. The stigma of sex work is not equal opportunity in its distribution.

Moreover, the main source of the stigma that attaches to sex workers comes from the men who prostitute them, as women. When sex workers are killed, they are targeted first because they are women. What makes it so easy to kill them and to get away with it for so long, is that sex workers are among the most vulnerable of women. As Gary Ridgway said in his statement of guilt for killing 48 women, "I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,… I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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