Ten years ago, the remains of four sex workers — Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello — were found close to Gilgo Beach, near Long Island, New York. The bodies were unearthed after a frantic 911 call from another worker: Shannan Gilbert spent 21 minutes telling a dispatcher a man was trying to kill her, then she disappeared. It became evident that a serial killer was targeting area sex workers he met on Craigslist, so the Suffolk County police commissioner asked the community for help. In response, the local SWOP demanded amnesty for sex workers, a request the police department scoffed at. The case featured multiple suspects — including a former Suffolk County police chief — and remains ongoing.
That case, which came to be known as the Long Island Serial Killer case as it expanded to 10 victims, demonstrated how the internet revolutionized sex work, taking it online and out of the shadows without the help of pimps and traffickers. The public, however, interpreted the case differently; Craigslist made sex-for-money easy and accessible — and dangerous, it was surmised. The notion that the police department had erred couldn’t compete against the lurid narrative of sex workers naively meeting their killers online. Robert Kolker, who wrote a book on the subject, told TAS in 2013 that he was certain that the case might have unfolded differently if the women weren’t sex workers, or “a different class of people” as he put it. Either way, Craigslist’s Adult ads section shuttered soon after, marking the beginning of the end of the internet as a safe haven.
Today is Dec. 17, the annual day we rally to end violence against sex workers, and the last such day in this decade. The environmental changes sex workers have endured are too many to list but, in the day’s spirit of reflection and rememberance, we’re certain it’s paramount to revisit the challenges we’ve faced and the hard work we’ve endured.