The bodies of murdered prostitutes are, once again, capturing media headlines. On eastern Long Island, NY, along Ocean Parkway, the bodies of ten young women, dumped in burlap sacks, have been discovered. In Memphis, TN, near Mount Carmel Cemetery, the bodies of four women were found dead; another woman was shot several times and left for dead. These women have been identified as prostitutes. Sadly, more bodies will likely be found.
Serial murder is a distinguishing, if disturbing, feature of civilization dating from time immemorial. However, with the rise of modern urban, industrial capitalism, such murder took on a far more gruesome and sexualized form. This is especially the case suffered by women, particularly sex workers, at the hands of male serial killers.
Every few years America is beset by an outburst of serial lust murder. In late-2006, the country was beset by a comparable episode of prostitute murders when the bodies of four murdered young women were found near Atlantic City. The perpetrator has yet to be found. [See “Pay-to-Play: The Double Life of Prostitution in America,” CounterPunch, January 27-28, 2007.]
Lust murder is one of the most acute expressions of the crisis of patriarchy. It can express what some analysts call “sexual sadism” culminating in both erotic fulfillment for the predator and death to the female victim, often a prostitute. But the murder need not be sexual, an expression of sadism. Rather, it could be the infliction of power, a de-eroticized exercise of tyranny imposed by a male who feels inadequate to the inter-personal and social challenges confronting him.
Many of the female victims of these horrendous murder sprees have been prostitutes. They tend to be young women in their 20s, lost to their birth families and community, and often on drugs. They seem like lost souls who have nothing left but their bodies to sell. They are throwaway living commodities of capitalism.
Their collective deaths can be attributed to the dominant Christian morality that legitimizes capitalism. If, as Marx showed, workers only have their labor power to sell for a wage in order to live, why then cannot women (or men) sell their sexual labor, their bodies? As American history has shown over the last four centuries, prostitution cannot be suppressed. Why, with all the deaths, beatings and suffering that prostitutes endure under “free market” conditions, is it not a regulated enterprise?
With the exception of a few rural locals in Nevada, prostitution is illegal throughout America; nevertheless, it is everywhere practiced with a wink-and-a-nod acceptance. In an era when nearly everything that is sold is promoted through a sexualize message, why then prohibit commercial sex among consenting adults?
This prohibition, like the Christian right’s opposition to abortion, condom use and other “positive” sexual practices, is a mythic line-in-the-sand, a means by which the true barbary of social relations is blunted, denied. Christian moralists, like everyone else, knows that sex work is the point where the most brutal truths of capitalism’s (im)morality, where the buyer and seller most intimately connect, is acutely revealed.
The current laws against commercial sex, especially targeting the sex worker and not the john, are a punitive injunction against those who challenge the rule of heterosexual monogamy. These laws, along with the unstated morality they represent, fail to address the real problem that drives both (female) prostitution and (male) lust murder –- economic inequality and men’s sexual problems.
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Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s (1840-1902) most famous work, “Psychopathia Sexualis,” first published in 1886, is described as an “encyclopedia of the perversions.” His male patients were referred to him as a result of legal actions resulting from the patient’s conviction for public masturbation, “inversion,” petty theft of sex objects (often being worn by a woman), public genital exposure, sexual assault (particularly rape) and sexual murder.
Krafft-Ebing attempted to apply an empirical approach to the 237 case studies he chronicled and was the first to categorize “lust-murder” as a modern condition. He defined it as “lust potentiated as cruelty, murderous lust extending to anthropophagy.” He chronicled 13 cases of lust murder, only one of which demonstrated sexual sadism; most cases involved the quick murder of the victim and postmortem activities such as sexual penetration, blood drinking, evisceration, mutilation, organ removal and cannibalism. Case 19 drew much attention for it involved a 19 year old man named Legar who murdered a 12 year old girl in a forest, raped her, mutilated her genitals, tore out her heart, ate it, drank her blood and then buried her remains.
A century later, American serial killers have become celebrities, the subjects of numerous media reports, TV shows and movies. Their names have become familiar to everyone: David Berkowitz, know as the Son of Sam who killed six people; Ted Bundy, who confessed to approximately 30 murders; Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed, dismembered and cannibalized 17 young men; John Wayne Gacy, whose property concealed the bodies of 29 young men and boys; and Charles Manson, whose “Family” were held responsible for killing the actress Sharon Tate and others.
Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, America has witnessed a steady increase in lust murder often targeting female prostitutes. Since 2003, six Rocky Mount, NC, women were found murdered and their bodies dumped along rural roads outside the city. The victims had been strangled and left nearly naked; all were black with reported histories of drug abuse and suspected prostitution. So far two men, one white, the other black, have been arrested in relation to these killings.
During the 2006-2007 period, the bodies of four prostitutes were discovered in and around Grand Rapids, MI. On Thanksgiving 2006, Starkinya Vance’s body was found in southwest side of the city after been seen getting into a car a few hours before her body was found. In March 2007, Shakara Carter’s body was found about 400 yards away from where Vance was discovered. Both women were strangled. On September 5, 2007, the city’s fire department found the body of Linda Gardner, 45, burning in a fire in a vacant lot. Cocaine was found in her system but, because Gardner was so extensively burned, no cause of death could be determined.
In 2008, Jacob Etheridge murdered two prostitutes, Rosanna Cruz and Teresa Tingey, in Ogden, UT. He was subsequently tried and sentenced to two concurrent 20 years-to-life in prison terms for the murders.
Earlier this year, 50-year-old Walter Ellis pleaded guilty in Milwaukee, WI, to the killing of six prostitutes. Ellis, who had a long police record, was known as the “North Side Strangler” and committed the murders over a 21 year period, from 1986 to 2007; two women were killed 1986, three in 1995, one in 1997 and one in 2007. Ellis is African-American and his victims were black women ranging in age from 19 to 41 years.
In should not be forgotten that some of the celebrity serial murders have never been solved. The most famous is probably the Zodiac Killer who murdered five people in Northern California from December 1968 to October 1969.
Between 2001 and 2009, eleven reputed sex workers were murdered in Albuquerque, NM, in what is known as the “West Mesa Bone Collector” case; one of the victims was pregnant and the fetus died bringing the number of murders to twelve. The victims were young Hispanic women, ranging from 15 to 32 years, and many were mothers. The murders took place in the city’s War Zone, a neighborhood where prostitutes and drug dealers ply their trade. One victim, Cinnamon Elks, told friends shortly before her August 2004 disappearance “a dirty cop was chopping off the heads of prostitutes and burying them on the West Mesa.”
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The serial killings of female prostitutes on Long Island and in Memphis are ongoing police investigations. Sadly, these women may well join the increasing number of female sex workers found dead in Atlantic City, Albuquerque and other parts of the U.S., victims killed by perpetrators never arrested, prosecuted and punished.
There appears to be no federal or NGO data on the annual murder rate of prostitutes in the U.S., nor serial murders targeting prostitutes. A cursory review of the nation’s popular press reveals that, since 2000, there has been an apparent increase in such murders taking place throughout the country. Scanning this literature, one can only ask: Are prostitutes the proverbial canaries in the coal mine?
Does the apparent increase in serial killings of female prostitutes foreshadow the socio-economic crisis now besetting the nation, of capitalism stripped bear of all restraint, regulation and sense of humanity? Does this extreme culture of human barbary encourage a social environment in which self-serving greed becomes the dominant moral rationale and the killing of female sex workers the most extreme expression?
Prostitution represents a contradictory moral vortex in capitalist society. It is the quintessential expression of the “free market”; sex workers are the most free “free” labor, not slave or captive labor, selling their services to the highest bidder. Yet, western civilization, with its religious and philosophic roots going deeper than capitalist economic relations, prohibits selling one’s body or body parts, thus acknowledging that people are more then their labor power.
Sexual engagements are super-saturated expressions of self-hood, of meaning or significance going beyond the narrow dictates of the sex act engaged in. In commercial sex, two people are involved in the exchange of a commodity or a service. A prostitute sells more than her body, her service; she sells her self.
Personhood is rooted in self-hood, a sense of identify involving a complex of historically determined attributes. One of these attributes is labor power, that combination of brain and/or brawn that locates one in the production process. However, these attributes also involve a personal sense of gender or sexual orientation, of race or religion, of citizenship or national origin, of familial and personal relations and a lot more.
Prostitution is the classic example of how commodification debases the most traditional of gift exchanges and its giver. Sex can be the most intimate expression of human communication, a bond of love. Sadly, with prostitution it becomes the most exploitive.
The prostitute’s sexual exchange is the purest expression of capitalist alienation, the relation between buyer and seller. However, the exchange of a sexual service for money or other goods and/or services is more than an exchange of reciprocal values. It is the forsaking of self as a person, a subject, a gift and its replacement with a self as a commodity, a monitorized value. Under such conditions, self become alienated, objectified.
The female prostitute is not a passive object but as an active subject selling her labor power. But she is among the weakest, most vulnerable, segments of wage labor force. As the bodies pile up on Long Island and in Memphis, she is revealed as the most disposable of living commodities.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at email@example.com.