This article describes the recent murders of four women in New Jersey who authorities believe were working as prostitutes at the time of their deaths. So far, only one of the four victims has been identified, her name is Kim Raffo.
The article makes some useful observations about the vulnerability of sex workers: illegality, stigma of immorality, slow responses from law enforcement. However, it also (along with much of the coverage of this case) recycles some of the very beliefs that keep sex workers vulnerable. The fact that prostitutes are easy targets for serial killers is not due “to the nature of their business” and sex work is not “dangerous and illegal under the best of circumstances”. The criminalization of sex work is a choice that our society has made, and the consequence of criminalization is increased vulnerability for sex workers. There are other choices. De-criminalization is a choice that would make sex work safer – less underground, less vulnerable, less stigmatized.
As we mourn the deaths of these four women, I want to remember their humanity (they were women after all, “prostitutes” may have been their occupation but does not describe their beings sufficiently) and I want to remember that their deaths were not inevitable, nor were their deaths the natural consequences of a choice to work as a prostitute. Even if prostitution is illegal, a death sentence is not how our society has chosen to punish it. All murders deserve outrage.
PROSTITUTES HAVE LONG BEEN TARGETS FOR KILLERS
Home News Tribune Online 11/24/06
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ATLANTIC CITY — Since at least Jack the Ripper, 118 years ago, serial killers have preyed on prostitutes.
Prostitutes are not only in the world’s oldest profession, but are among the world’s oldest murder victims, says James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of five books about serial and mass murderers.
People who have worked or studied the cases say prostitutes make easy targets and difficult cases to crack because of the nature of their business, which is dangerous and illegal under the best of circumstances.
On Monday, the bodies of four women were found near a row of seedy, discount motels just outside of Atlantic City and within view of the resort city’s skyline of glimmering casino hotel towers. Authorities are looking into whether the women were prostitutes — the one who has been identified, Kim Raffo, is reported to have been — and whether they were the victims of a serial killer.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office did not issue any updates on the case yesterday.
If the New Jersey deaths turn out to be by the hands of a serial killer, the case would join a long line of similar, notorious killing sprees. Some of the cases — which have occurred from Alaska to Arizona and beyond — are unsolved, and many have been given gruesome nicknames like the Green River Killer and Hillside Strangler.
Jack the Ripper, the first documented serial killer, victimized at least five prostitutes in London in 1888. Though there’s a cottage industry of research and speculation on his identity, the case was never solved.
Prostitutes — especially streetwalkers who work in areas such as the one where the four women’s bodies were found in a ditch in Egg Harbor Township — are vulnerable, Fox said.
And because the women are selling sex, Fox said, the killers may think of their victims as immoral.
“In their eyes, these women are sex machines. They’re not as worthy as others,” Fox said. “When you devalue people, it becomes easier to kill them.”
That seemed to be the case for Gary Ridgway, who pleaded admitted in 2003 to being the Green River Killer and pleaded guilty to murdering 48 women in Washington state between 1982 and 1998. Ridgway said he killed because he hated prostitutes and didn’t want to pay them for sex.
Fox said that authorities do not always respond quickly when a prostitute is reported missing. Often, he said, because many prostitutes are transient, police will believe she has simply moved on.
Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI profiler who helped track serial killers, said most homicides are committed by people who know one another — giving investigators a smaller group of possible suspects to start with.
But when men kill prostitutes, their only connection may be a single illicit transaction with few, if any, witnesses.
To crack the cases, police have to rely on help from other prostitutes, who are often wary of the law.
Another key tool of investigators — DNA testing — does not always work as well when the victims are prostitutes. “If you get semen, what does that mean?” McCrary said. “It might not be related to the killer. Foreign hairs and fibers may mean absolutely nothing.” The technology can be helpful, however, if the same man’s genetic fingerprints turn up on the bodies of multiple victims.