Media feeds on killing spree

Five women have been killed in Suffolk County, England, and news outlets can't get enough.

By Carol Lloyd
Published December 14, 2006 5:31PM (EST)

With its slasher cocktail of gore, girls and grit, I've been assiduously avoiding the tale of a killer on the loose in the eastern English county of Suffolk. The story is as sad and horrifying as all other stories involving young women dying at the hands of some sicko. To recap: In the past two weeks, the bodies of five women have been discovered in the county. Four of them have been identified as Ipswich sex workers, and the last is assumed to be another prostitute who recently went missing.

But the panting news coverage of the crimes has been too egregious to ignore. Despite their photos being published, the women have often been presented as faceless prostitutes, sometimes even without last names. The Guardian's Joan Smith noted Tuesday that British tabloid the Sun identified one of the victims simply as "blonde Gemma." By contrast, the killer has been elevated to Ripper status -- repeatedly compared to Jack the Ripper, who killed five East London prostitutes in 1888, and Peter Sutcliffe, aka "the Yorkshire Ripper," who killed 13 prostitutes between 1975 and 1980. Psychologists analyze his motives; investigators discuss his "scary speed."

Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy got it right when she observed that the killer's legendary status gets in the way of the seeing the crimes for what they are. "The Ipswich killer's upgrade from random violent schlub to a mythic personage capable of waging 'a campaign' means a concomitant downgrade for his victims," she wrote Wednesday. "These people are demoted instantly from human women to 'prostitutes,' from 'prostitutes' to 'vice girls.' From there it's just a short hop to 'heroin addicts' and, finally, to the lowest form of life imaginable, 'single mothers.'" She noted that Ipswich police have refused to grant amnesty to any sex workers who might wish to come forward and give information about the crimes but fear reprisal.

Fortunately, other regions of the country seem to be doing a little better. Police in Teesside, another eastern England region, have announced they will be distributing 100 attack alarms to local prostitutes, as their policy evolves from prosecuting street walkers to protecting them. The Suffolk murders have also reignited a national debate about the right way to manage the oldest profession. Although prostitution is not formally illegal in the Britain, sex workers can be prosecuted for soliciting sex in public, as well as for something British law refers to as "living off immoral earnings." Various cities in the U.K., including Edinburgh, have experimented with designated prostitution zones with mixed results, though some advocates for prostitutes claim they are effective in curbing violence. After Edinburgh's tolerance zone was scrapped in 2001, the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project told the BBC that attacks against prostitutes skyrocketed from 11 in 2001 to 111 in 2003. Now government is again discussing the possibility of legalizing mini-brothels -- or "safe houses" -- which allow three women to work together in a private home, a model that presumably helps women protect each other while keeping them off public streets. This isn't exactly the solution that many sex-worker activists are pushing for, but it sure beats putting sex workers at risk -- or a shame parade through the city of Shenzhen -- any day.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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