When I’m not negotiating the hall of distorting mirrors that is on-line dating, I indulge in the watching of crime documentaries. Gazillions of them. And I can tell you that these shows have their own particular language and style. Certain phrases are heard on a regular basis. Certain methods of description are a constant. We appear to want to wrap some of the most heinous and unimaginable acts in a comforting blanket of predictable narrative. Mostly, this seems to be healthy: a kind of healing comes from describing the victim as “a ray of sunshine who lit up a room” or the perpetrator as “a monster who showed no remorse”.
But one paragraph of this narrative is far from healthy. And every time it pops up I become enraged, and shout at the television. The narrative goes something like this:
” Late in 1992 X began his killing spree, murdering prostitutes around the Bay area”.
My shouting goes something like this:
“Murdering WOMEN! He was murdering WOMEN!”
You see in crime doco parlance there are three genders of victim: male, female and prostitute. This isn’t merely about reporting the victims’ profession. Of course, if all the victims were librarians, it would be noteworthy. But the reportage would go something like this:
“He murdered 11 women along the interstate. All 11 women worked in libraries.”
When the victim is a sex-worker, the crime takes on a different colour for the film-maker. It instantly becomes more salacious. And the victim instantly becomes less sympathetic. Not quite “she was asking for it”, but not far off. Sometimes the difference between a sex-worker and a woman in any other profession is specifically emphasized. I recently watched a piece about Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. The narrative contained words to the effect of “It was originally thought that he was only murdering prostitutes, but when X, a school-girl was killed, the police issued warnings to all women in the area and the general public became very concerned.” Coz apparently sex-workers aren’t part of the general public. Or women. Or real victims. Not like real women are real victims.
Sex-workers constitute, at least in the United States, the vast majority of women killed by serial killers. There are very prosaic reasons for that. Sex-workers, particular those working the streets, are often living on the fringes, so it can take days, weeks, or sometimes never, for somebody to realise they are missing. Street walkers will get into a car with a stranger: that’s part of their job. They will often only carry a “burner” phone on them, so they are less easily traceable. They often work under assumed names, so that colleagues may not know their real name. They are highly transient.
Recently, much of my viewing has been of the outstanding eight-part documentary series The Killing Season.
Beginning with an investigation into the so-called “Long Island Serial Killer” or “LISK”, the series broadens out to look at the thousands of unsolved murders of women across the United States. Most of them are sex-workers, and many of them are not even officially “missing”: the group that researcher Kenna Quinet calls “the missing missing”
These woman were disposable in life, often living on the streets from a young age, drug-dependent, young, single mothers, poor and disconnected from family and support. Then they become disposable in death, being flung out like garbage along interstate freeways, or buried in remote areas. Then to add to their indignity, their deaths are reported as something slightly less worrisome than the death of a ” beloved wife and mother”, or a “well-respected doctor”.
Sometimes the reporting attempts to add value to these women’s lives with narrative such as “…but she was also a mother, a sister and a daughter.” Gee whizz…no kiddin’???
ALL women are daughters, most women are sisters and very many women are mothers. Why would sex-workers be any different? It’s almost like a prurient fascination that a woman who has sex for money can also have another life, “just like a normal woman”.
I’m afraid that in crime reporting, as in all aspects of our society, the madonna-whore dichotomy is still very much in evidence. Witness the difference when the victim is Mrs Jones from number 57. She will always be described as a “loving wife and mother”. She could have been a lazy, alcoholic, violent, miserable, vile blot on humanity, but she is still elevated into the madonna category.
Every woman murdered was somebody’s daughter. Every sex-worker was/is a complete and complex human being, with her own joys, sorrows, battles and victories. Every killing is a horror to be mourned. And every time we ignore these killings, minimize them or differentiate them as “dead prostitutes” we chip away, not just at these women’s humanity, but at our own.
May all the victims rest in peace and may all the loved-ones left behind find a way forward.