Serial Killers And Sex-Worker Safety

Police in the UK have arrested a 40-year-old PhD student named Stephen Griffiths in connection with the murder of three prostitutes. Tragically, Griffiths is part of a long line of killers who target sex workers.

Newspapers have already drawn the parallel between the recent murders in Bradford and several other high profile serial killer cases. In 2006, fork-lift driver Steve Wright went on a killing spree, murdering five prostitutes in Ipswich. Back in the 1970s, the Yorkshire Ripper (real name: Peter Sutcliffe) killed at least thirteen victims before being caught (and we don't even have to go into where Sutcliffe got his nickname - Jack, who also preyed on street-walkers, is perhaps the most famous killer of all time). The most recent crimes have led some to question whether police are doing enough to protect prostitutes - and given others cause to blame the victims.

The Guardian has featured a series of articles on the murders, including one that names and describes each missing woman. Shelly Armitage, a 31-year-old mother of two, disappeared a month ago, and Susan Rushworth, a mother of three and a grandmother, has been missing for almost a year. So far, police have only identified the body of Suzanne Blamires. Blamires, 36, was born and brought up in Bradford. She was reported missing last Saturday by her boyfriend, who she lived with in the Allerton district. Her remains were found in the river Aire in West Yorkshire. Investigators believe all three women were murdered by the same man.

Also from the Guardian are two pieces on the dangers faces by sex workers. First, Brian Tobin urges women selling sex on the streets to take steps to leave the life behind, including contacting local charities and drug treatment centers. Having worked with prostitutes, Tobin is able to debunk the myth of the "happy hooker:"

All the women Iceni has worked with were drug users, the vast majority being addicted to heroin and/or crack cocaine. Drug addiction is the consistent thread, and remains the driving force behind why so many women resort to prostitution. We can introduce new legal measures, and various groups can keep spitting vitriol about decriminalisation, legalisation or whatever their preferred option is; but unless we as a society learn to deal with drugs more effectively, we will never see an end to what is a desperate and dangerous activity that destroys lives.

Without exception, all the women I have worked with expressed an intense hatred for what they did; many disliked the men they did it with; and most had a deep sense of self-loathing. I cannot recall one woman ever stating that she would be involved in prostitution if it wasn't for her addiction.

Similarly, an editorial published today points out that although crimes are committed every day, the Ripper-esque crime sprees come to national attention because of both their volume and their victims. But what can the state do about it? Apparently, not a lot:

Decriminalisation might improve confidence between sex workers and the police, and improve the reporting of violence, but in New Zealand, where it was introduced in 2003, what the government hails as a success is bitterly opposed by many neighbourhood organisations. Local hostility here has led to the increasing use of asbos. That means women are forced into unsafe areas where they are even more at risk. Anecdotally, street sex workers experience as much violence from men who are not clients as from men who are. Some argue that legalising small co-operative brothels would help. But in the end the law only deals with the symptoms, not the desperation that drives women on to the streets and into danger.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the question how can we better protect sex workers?, especially when there are so many complicated factors. However, one way not to deal with it is by blaming the women for their situation. Micheal Bilton, author of Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt For The Yorkshire Ripper, provides a stunning example of how not to talk about sex crime. Observe:

it seems astonishing that street prostitutes are still so reckless with their security and that police are seemingly powerless to protect them.

We call ourselves a civilised society, yet it is only when occasional extreme cases such as this reach the headlines that a light is shone on the seedy and dangerous reality of life on the margins of society.

And there is more:

Thirty years ago, before drugs became the number one cause of crime, street walkers understood the dangers of their work and most did everything they could to keep themselves secure.

They often operated in pairs, with one woman making a note of the vehicle her friend went off in.

Too often now, women plying their street trade are the worse for wear through drink and drugs and throw caution to the wind.

We don't know yet how Griffiths attacked his victims, but it seems a little premature (understatement, I know) to assume that these women threw caution to the wind. Sure, Bilton mentions the role of the police and our "civilized" society, yet blame falls squarely on the woman for her seedy life of sex and drugs. He makes very little mention of Griffiths's history, including his obsession with serial killers and his previous attempts to contact women through online dating sites. Armitage, Rushworth, and Blamires may have been driven into a vulnerable position, they may have even chosen a particularly risky profession, but the only person who could have truly prevented their deaths is the man who killed them.

Bradford Murders: Police Question A Mature Student [The Guardian]
The Bradford Sex Workers Stephen Griffiths Is Accused Of Killing [The Guardian]
Protecting Sex Workers [The Guardian]
A Safe Exit For Sex Workers [The Guardian]
Serial Killing Suspect Searched For Women On Online Dating Site {Telegraph]
Bradford Murder Suspect Listed Killers On Myspace [The First Post]
Bardford Prostitute Murders: Horror Of Victims We Never Hear About [Daily Mail]