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December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers

Photo by Fibonacci Blue | CC BY 2.0

“I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight,” said Gary Ridgewood, known as the Green River Killer. “My plan was I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could … I picked prostitutes as my victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,” he added.

December 17th  is International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers.  It was established as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer, Ridgewood.  For more than two decades, in and around Seattle, WA ,the murders of women went undiscovered until Ridgewood was arrested in 2001.  He pleaded guilty to killing 49 women, many of whom were sex workers, but likely killed more than 90 women.  He received multiple life sentences.

Americans have a confused notion of prostitution. One perception is shaped by the “happy hooker” myth fondly represented in movies and books. (Remember Pretty Woman?)  Another perception stigmatizes the far bleaker, desperate life of the women (and some men) who sell their sexual favors. These women tend to be in their 20s, from poor or working-class backgrounds, often lost to their birth families, filled with dreams of a better, more exciting life; yet they often struggle with drug addiction, failed relationships, physical abuse and sometimes have children to support.

Prostitutes are all-too-often lost souls who have nothing left but their bodies to sell — capitalism’s throwaway human commodities.  Sadly, the latest homicide rate for female sex workers is for 2004 and was estimated to be 204 per 100,000, far greater than for all occupations.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 loggers had the greatest level of fatal accidental deaths among the top 10 most-dangerous occupations at 135.7 per 100,000; for fishers it was 86 and for farmers 23.1.  Most troubling, the death of sex workers are for the most part intentional murders. In 2016, the national murder rate was 5.4 per 100,000 people.

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In 1886, the early psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebbing introduced the medical diagnosis “erotophonophilia” or “lust murder.” He defined it as “lust potentiated as cruelty, murderous lust extending to anthropophagy” – a form of cannibalism.

Lust murder expresses what some analysts call “sexual sadism,” a violent act culminating in the predator’s erotic fulfillment and the death to the female victim, often a prostitute because she is an accessible target. Other analysts argue that such murder need not be sexual, an expression of sadism, but rather the infliction of power, a de-eroticized exercise of tyranny imposed by a male who feels inadequate in the face of the interpersonal and social challenges confronting him.

Every few years, the U.S. is beset by reports of a wave of female sex worker killings, like those perpetrated by the Green River Killer.  Many of these reports are identified in the mass media, some even becoming the subject of popular books and TV/film programs.

One such mass killing of females took place between 2010 and 2011 on Long Island, NY, and the perpetrator was dubbed “the Long Island Serial Killer.”  The murdered bodies of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Amber Lynn Costello and Shannan Gilbert — along with six others, including a male trans-dresser and an infant — were found along Ocean Parkway on the south shore of eastern Long Island.  It is featured in Robert Kolker’s 2013 study, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (Harper) and HBO’s 2016 documentary, The Killing Season directed by Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills.

Another mass killing of females involved what has been dubbed the “Jeff Davis 8 murders.” Between 2005 and 2009, eight women from the town of Jennings, LA, in Jefferson Davis Parish, were murdered and their bodies dumped in crawfish ponds and canals in the area.  Local police suggested that a serial killer was involved, but no one has ever been arrested.  The murders are the subject of Fergus Mason’s book, Jeff Davis 8The True Story Behind the Unsolved Murder That Allegedly Inspired Season One of True Detective (Absolute Crime).

Some incidents receive little of the attention they deserve. Between 2001 and 2018, Chicago has been the scene in which at least 75 women have been murdered.  According to reports in The Chicago Tribune, the women ranged in age from 18 to 58 and most of them were African-American.  It notes that at least 47 of the women had histories of prostitution.  It reports they some “were nurses, waitresses or young women hoping to finally conquer their addictions and go back to school.”  It adds, “one of the victims was a grandmother of 20 and a great-grandmother of two.”

Sadly, there are all-too-many mass killings of sex workers.  In 2011, Walter Ellis, a 50-year-old African-American, pleaded guilty in Milwaukee, WI, for the killing of six black female prostitutes. A few years earlier, in 2006-2007, the bodies of four prostitutes were discovered in and around Grand Rapids, MI, and four other bodies of apparent prostitutes were found near Atlantic City, NJ.  In 2008, Jacob Etheridge murdered two prostitutes in Ogden, UT, and in 2009, the remains of 11 women reputed to be prostitutes were found buried near Albuquerque, NM.

And then there is the story of murdered and missing Native American women.  The National Crime Information Center found in 2016 there were 5,712 such cases reported. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) noted, “the numbers are likely much higher because cases are often under-reported and data isn’t officially collected.” And Lisa Brunner, co-director of Indigenous Women’s Human Rights Collective and professor and cultural coordinator at White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen, MN, says that murder and sexual assault “is a real fear amongst Native American women.” A 2016 study found that American Indian/Alaska Native were “vulnerability to prostitution and trafficking” due to “increasing economic stress and decreasing the ability to resist predators.”

***

Since the nation’s founding four centuries ago, prostitution has been a crime that flourished.  While legal in only 22 brothels in seven rural Nevada counties, sex work is estimated to be an $15 billion industry.  Because it’s an underground business, no one really knows how many women (and men) engage in the “oldest profession. The Foundation Scelles estimates that in the U.S. there are between 1-2 million working prostitutes.

According to federal data, in 1994, 98,000 people were arrested for engaging in commercial sex; in 2004, those arrested dropped to 87,900; and in 2014, it had further declined to 47,600.  A 2012 report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics notes, “From 1990 to 2010, the arrest rate for prostitution and commercialized vice was cut in half (down 55%), with substantial declines in both the male (down 62%) and female (down 50%) arrest rates.”  Most revealing, the report offers no explanation as to why this significant decline took place.

However, a May 2016 Marist Poll offers insight into Americans attitudes regarding sex work.  It reported that nearly half (49%) of Americans felt that commercial sex between two consenting adults should be legal whereas just over two-fifths (44%) opposed it.  It broke down the findings as follows: “Men, 54%, and residents under 45 years old, 58%, are more likely than women, 44%, and older residents, 40%, to believe prostitution should be permissible under the law.”  In addition, six in ten respondents opposed criminal prosecution of those arrested for prostitution and more than half of respondents (53%) reported that decriminalizing prostitution would regulate the “profession,” thus minimizing risk to women sex workers.

We live in an era when gun ownership is a Constitutional-guaranteed right; when 30 states decriminalized the medical use of marijuana and 9 states decriminalized its recreational use; the Supreme Court ruled sports gambling legal; and the commercial sex industry – of sex toys, porn, enhancement drugs and more — has been mainstreamed.  It’s time to decriminalize sex work.

The decriminalization and regulation of commercial sex work would likely end the murder and abuse of sex workers.

 

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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