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anger in the Red Light District

by Debra Littlejohn Shinder
copyright 1997

"Hell" by Troy Bennett


Why are some men so attracted to or fascinated by prostitutes that they're willing to pay for what other women would give them freely? Psychologists and sociologists have long speculated on the reasons, but when that attraction turns fatal, it becomes the business of criminologists and the police. Statistics show that prostitutes are a favorite target of the most mentally disturbed of all violent criminals: serial killers.

The FBI's behavioral sciences division pioneered the art of "criminal profiling," constructing a likely psychological and physical picture of an unknown perpetrator based on the crimes committed and the evidence left behind. Aided by computerized databases and software capable of analyzing incredible amounts of detailed information and recognizing the most subtle patterns, police can make amazingly accurate assessments about a killer's personality and background before they even have a suspect in mind.

"It's like John Douglas [leading criminal profiling expert who spent twenty-five years with the FBI] says in his book, *Mind Hunter,*" one police psychologist explains. "If we study someone's behavior, we see a reflection of that person's personality. The crime tells us about the criminal. With serial killers, every tidbit of information contributes to the picture. That includes their choice of victims."

Jack the Ripper lives in infamy as the first widely publicized serial killer. Never caught, he haunted the streets of London in the late 1800's, leaving the surgically dissected bodies of his victims in plain sight for the world to see. It can not have been coincidence that the women he chose to murder and mutilate were prostitutes.

Since the Ripper's debut, many others have followed in his blood-tainted footsteps. The so-called "Green River Killer" preyed on prostitutes in Seattle; the "Twin Cities Killer" murdered 34 women, most prostitutes, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; Joel Rifkin killed eight hookers on and around Long Island. This year, a suspect was arrested in Yonkers for the fatal beatings and dismemberments of five prostitutes, and in Miami, a body was found that is believed to be the sixth victim of a killer who has been stalking prostitutes since last September.

What motivates these murderers? And why do so many serial killers focus their deadly attention on "ladies of the evening?" Is it simply because a prostitute is more likely than other women to go off to an isolated place with a strange man? Is it because the police are slower to respond to killings of these women who are considered part of the local "low-life"? Or does the prostitute's line of work represent to these sexually frustrated men a painful mirror of their own inadequacies? Studies of the lives of convicted serial killers show a pattern of impotency in normal male-female dating situations, an inability to achieve sexual arousal except when stimulated by violence and death.

"Oddly enough," the psychologist says, " rape is a crime known to be about power, not about sex. But serial murder is almost always about sex. These men usually have a history of abnormal sexuality. At some time during their formative years, sex and violence became linked in their minds. Forever after, they're not able to get sexual satisfaction unless they're hurting their partner. For some of them, watching a woman die is the only way to attain orgasm."

According to police profiles, serial killers differ from the typical murder suspect in many ways. They are mostly white, heterosexual males in their twenties and thirties, loners, often with higher than average IQs but low self-esteem. Experts believe serial killings -- whether or not they target prostitutes and whether or not they include rape -- are almost always sexually motivated. Serial killers are obviously mentally disturbed individuals, often sociopaths who feel no guilt or remorse for their crimes. There are many reasons prostitutes are preferred targets.

James Fox, Northeastern University sociologist and author of several books about serial killers, says in one of them that "serial killers tend to prey on vulnerable targets, easy victims, and undoubtedly prostitutes are the easiest targets around." He says prostitutes are the number one category of victims.

Some attribute the rising incidence of such crimes to the American lifestyle and its obsession with sex and self-gratification. But history shows that serial killings of prostitutes is not a phenomenon exclusive to the U.S. nor to recent times. Nikolai Dzhurmongaliev, Russia's notorious cannibal, proclaimed that women and prostitution were the root of all that is wrong with the world, and he is believed to have butchered at least 100women and served their meat to his dinner guests.

The vast majority of killers of prostitutes are male, but there have been exceptions. The Gonzales sisters in Guanajuato, Mexico ran a bordello for which they recruited prostitutes through "help wanted" ads. The unexplained disappearances of many of their employees and customers led to a raid of the premises, where authorities found corpses of eleven males, eighty females and several fetuses. The madams apparently disposed of the girls who ceased to please the clientale, and in some cases did away with the displeased customers as well.

"Frankly, we don't know much about the phenonomenon of female serial killers. There have been some, but they're so rare that no good profile has been established. Undoubtedly, their motivations differ from male killers', and it's a fascinating question. We're much more used to women being the victims, not the perpetrators of cold, calculated crimes."

Violence is a well-known occupational hazard for streetwalkers, the women on the low end of the prostitution hierarchy who are often high school drop-outs, drug or alcohol addicts, the products of the lowest socioeconomic environments. They are commonly the victims of beatings and worse from their pimps, their johns, and even their "sisters" whose turf is threatened. But the high-class self-sufficient call girl who gets paid hundreds of dollars an hour for her services is not immune, either. Some killers have targeted the pricey professional escorts or the part-time hooker housewives, seeing them as more of a challenge than their lower-status counterparts who work the streets.

The sex act inevitably puts both parties in a position of vulnerability. A women who has sex with strangers on a regular basis, whether for money or not, continually exposes herself to the risk of violence. Prostitution, a topic of legal and moral controversy, arouses strong emotions. It is a natural focal point for the sex-obsessed minds of many sociopathic personalities. These killers run the gamut from overtly angry, viciously brutal would-be romeos outraged at having to buy the sexual favors they feel should be given freely to their alter-egos: calm, methodical, almost-gentle self-appointed moral judges who kill prostitutes to "save" them from their lives of sin.

One chilling pattern that emerges about serial killers in general is the number of them reported to have been the children of prostitutes. Henry Lee Lucas, one of this century's most notorious random killers, apparently started his rampage with the rape and killing of his own mother, a prostitute. Pedro Alonso Lopez, recognized as a top contender for the distinction of "most killed," was the son of a Colombian prostitute; he murdered over 300 people across the borders of three different nations.

"It's part of the profile," says the police expert in abnormal psychology. "Serial killers very often have obsessions of some kind with their mothers. A love-hate relationship, in popular language. These moms usually aren't candidates for mother of the year, although they aren't necessarily abusive either. The common thread seems to be the sexual element, mothers who were very seductive, who had many sex partners of which the son was aware. Of course, the children of prostitutes are more likely to be exposed to this type of behavior."

Being a member of the world's oldest profession does not translate into having a good chance of becoming one of the world's oldest professionals. Prostitutes stand a greater-than-average chance of dying young, of dying violently. Some studies also seem to indicate that their male children are at risk for growing up to become prostitute killers. The causes are not clear, but the connection is undeniable -- and frightening to those who are forced to rethink their views on this "victimless" crime.

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