It’s been a year since police in New York discovered the remains of four women on Long Island. All were believed to be the victims of a serial killer, and all worked as prostitutes. The search that unearthed them began when Shannan Gilbert’s family reported her as missing. Their persistence in pressuring area police led to the ongoing searches which have turned up ten bodies since last December, none of them Gilbert. That changed Tuesday, when police found her belongings near skeletal remains on Long Island. Unexpectedly, given the fate of the other women, they theorize that Gilbert was not a victim of the serial killer, but instead may have drowned.
No arrests have been made and no solid leads to the identity of the killer/s have emerged. In an article about profiling serial killers, the New York Times puts forth the disturbing idea that the killer works in law enforcement. While no other information has been released that supports that theory, it highlights how sex workers are made more vulnerable because of the legal prohibitions on their work. The police are seen as a threat, not as protection. Other sex workers may not come forward with information for fear of legal reprisal, leading to this request made by the Red Umbrella Project last December for amnesty. It’s sadly obvious that had the victims all been young college coeds rather than women working in an illegal profession, the media attention and public pressure to solve the case would be increased tenfold. There’s attention, of course, and even a TV special, but there’s not outrage.
Saturday December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. December 10th, 2010, was when the first body on Long Island was found. In the year between these two dates, many other acts of violence against sex workers have taken place. We at Tits and Sass rail against the cultural acceptability of considering sex workers to be a lesser class of human being, as seen in idiotic Family Guy dead hooker jokes, cracks by comedians about how all sex workers were molested, and the actions of paternalistic rescue organizations that refuse to believe anyone does sex work of their own free will. All these things contribute to a dangerous environment for sex workers. The pressure brought on Craigslist that led to the shuttering of its Erotic Services section was also detrimental to sex workers’ safety.
While there is risk in all endeavors, especially those without legal protection, being a murder victim is not the inevitable or even likely outcome of working as a prostitute. None of these women deserved or expected to be terrorized, and in death they are not punchlines. I know we’re mostly preaching to the choir, but we will especially appreciate out non-sex worker supporters on December 17th. Remember to challenge people’s assumptions about sex workers … especially the one that violence against them is a normal and routine job hazard.