Criminal Status of Sex Workers Attracts Serial Killers

There’s been much speculation about who is responsible for the murders of at least four sex workers in Long Island, whose bodies were found in December 2010 along beaches in Suffolk and Nassau Counties. Six other sets of remains found in the same area have yet to be identified. Sex workers in New York and beyond can find little comfort in the news media’s profiles and unwarranted guesses about what the killer is like. In all of the uncertainty and still unanswered questions, one fact is certain- sex workers are at risk of violence from predators as long as our work remains illegal.
Sex workers in New York, led by Audacia Ray of the Red Umbrella Project, are calling for the Suffolk County Police Commissioner to grant amnesty to all sex workers in the region while this investigation is ongoing. Although there has been no official acknowledgment of this request, Ray reports at her blog that she’s been informed that Suffolk County is looking into the request. While it’s good news that our phone calls and emails requesting amnesty have been acknowledged, we understand that amnesty in a single New York county does little to address the larger picture of abuse and vulnerability that sex workers nationwide are subjected to daily.
As a nation, it’s time to seriously re-evaluate the criminal penalties that all 50 states impose on people who consensually exchange sex for money. Serial murders of sex workers, and the subsequent indifferent treatment by police are not limited to New York. New Jersey, Washington, Texas, and multiple cities in California have all seen serial killers and rapists who target sex workers in the past two decades. Not surprising, the current slay of killings are not a first for Long Island. Robert Shulman also targeted sex workers in the area. These are only the cases that have been reported in the media or responded to by law enforcement. On December 17th, 2010 the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA added nearly 40 names to their list of assaulted or murdered sex workers as part of their Annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The majority of those 40 incidents went unreported and unnoticed.
Sex workers are targeted by opportunistic predators because, in the words of Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River Killer, “I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” It is a popular misconception that sex workers have no family or friends who care about us, that we are society’s throwaways and nobody will notice if we go missing. It would be more accurate to note that we are vulnerable because we have to keep our work a secret from those who care about us the most due to social stigma and legal fears. This leaves us to work in secretive environments where indeed, it does take time for those who love us to notice that we’re in trouble.
Sex workers need our friends and families to join in the chorus of concerned citizens calling not just for amnesty in Long Island, but for an end to state prohibition of the consensual exchange of sex for money. As long as sex workers have to fear legal consequences and disapproval from loved ones, we are perceivably easy targets for killers, rapists and thieves. You can help by calling or emailing authorities in Long Island and by supporting local organizations that embrace a harm reduction model for sex workers. The St. James Infirmary Occupational Health and Safety Handbook has a list of organizations, as well as extensive safety and screening tips for sex workers. There is also a list of resources by region at the Desiree Alliance website.