Prostitution laws make murder easier: Forcing women to work in the shadows leaves them vulnerable to attack.

The Ottawa Citizen
Dan Gardner

Saturday, November 8, 2003

On Wednesday in a Seattle courtroom, Gary Ridgway admitted he is the Green River Killer, a man responsible for the murders of at least 48 women. He also confessed to an unusual problem. "I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight."

Nick Didlick, Vancouver Sun

Gary Ridgway picked prostitutes to kill because they were 'easy to pick up without being noticed.'

It's a dazzlingly perverse statement, ordinary and evil in the same breath, and will undoubtedly become a classic in the strange industry that grinds out books and movies about blank-eyed monsters who kill. Collectively, we are fascinated by serial killers. We even invent the likes of Hannibal Lecter, as if there aren't enough real monsters to satisfy our morbid curiosity.

On some psychological level, I'm sure this fascination is understandable, but still, it's unfortunate. It reduces victims to bit players and props in the black psycho-dramas of the killer, snatching humanity from those who have already lost life. It also distracts us from seeing obvious facts about the victims and asking the urgent questions that follow.

Here are two obvious facts about Gary Ridgway's victims: All 48 were women; all 48 were street prostitutes.

There are also some obvious facts in Vancouver, where about 60 people have vanished from the downtown east side and Robert William Pickton has been charged with 15 murders. All are women. Almost all were street prostitutes.

In Edmonton, the bodies of nine female street prostitutes have been discovered in the last 15 years. Five have been found in the last year. A serial killer may be responsible.

Across Canada, 73 prostitutes have been murdered over the last decade, a number that understates the grim reality because it only includes women police knew to be working at the time of death. It also excludes the missing women of Vancouver and the latest murders in Edmonton. But experts agree that almost all prostitutes murdered in Canada work on the street, not indoors.

It doesn't take a statistician to spot the common denominator in these numbers. Yes, serial killers are often involved. But not always. And if we were to add in the horrific number of assaults, robberies and rapes suffered by women on the street, then the blank-eyed monsters are themselves reduced to bit players. The real story here is not about serial killers, it is one of street prostitutes being attacked by men ranging from psychopaths to mechanics and accountants.

One could shrug and say, plus ca change, but such cynicism would be mistaken. It's not true that prostitutes are brutalized everywhere and always. It doesn't happen in Holland's legal street-walking zones and red-light districts. And it rarely happens in Canada's off-street massage parlours.

So why does it happen over and over on our streets? Gary Ridgway helped answer that question in his confession. "I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. 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."

Most street prostitutes are radically marginalized people, disconnected from family, friends and community -- which explains why their disappearances may not be reported. But why are they "easy to pick up without being noticed"?

An answer to that question arrived recently in my e-mail. A woman I'll call Susan described her experience running a massage parlour in Edmonton. The business was recently busted, Susan wrote, so now several of her friends are "working on the street, and there is some serial killer in Edmonton."

Women like Susan's friends who turn to the street quickly learn that if they walk the streets of busy neighbourhoods, or if they work together in groups, there will be complaints and the police will crack down. So they scatter. They work alone. They stick to the empty streets and keep in the shadows.

And in doing so, they become, in the chilling words of Gary Ridgway, "easy to pick up without being noticed."

Edmonton is a textbook example of this iron law. In the early 1980s, prostitutes worked together on a stroll a few blocks long so no john could pick up a woman anonymously. Then the police cracked down and now the women are so scattered there might be just one or two working across 10 blocks. And the death toll is mounting.

"Before we were safe working inside and now we risk further criminal charges (if we re-open the massage parlour) or possibly murder (if we work on the street)," Susan wrote. "I realize the police don't care if you get killed because in their eyes prostitutes are garbage. I cry all the time."

The most outrageous part is the hypocrisy, Susan wrote. "The police that busted us, at least one was a regular customer for a couple of years. There were off-duty police coming in all the time, and RCMP, too. Firemen, paramedics, lawyers, politicians, accountants -- all kinds of men. Why are we, the women, made into the criminals?"

In his new book, Justice Defiled, Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, argues, "regulated prostitution would increase the security and safety of all participants." Criminalizing prostitution has accomplished nothing, he says, but enrich pimps and gangsters and turn prostitutes into the "the prime targets for serial killers."

Gary Ridgway would surely agree.

Dan Gardner is a senior writer at the Citizen. E-mail:  .

John Lowman's Prostitution Research



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Updated: August 21, 2016