25 August 2015

Why men murder prostitutes

Cybershrink explores why it is that so many prostitutes are murdered by their clients and why so little is done about it by the authorities.


Prostitution is often called the oldest profession in the world, although I suspect politics came first. Of course, there are strong similarities between the two professions – we tend to get screwed by both, but politicians end up being a lot more expensive.

Men are physically violent and destructive

Politics is also a safer career choice, but apart from the odd assassination, politicians tend not to get physically attacked or killed.  Prostitutes, on the other hand, get killed on a regular basis.

2004 statistics put the homicide rate for female sex workers in the USA at 204 per 100,000. The next riskiest jobs in the country were male taxicab drivers (29 per 100,000) and female liquor store workers (4 per 100,000).

I was recently asked to explain why men murder prostitutes, and it’s been rather an interesting question to explore.

Men and women don’t go about murder in the same way. Contrary to general belief, women are just as capable of cruelty and murder as men, but men are more likely to be physically violent and destructive. Women are the poisoners, patient and seemingly kind as they slowly kill their victims under the guise of caring: “Have a little more soup, my dear; I made it just for you.”

Read: 'Munchausen by internet' – mother kills son for attention

We’ve seen examples in recent years of nurses bumping off patients they considered “superfluous”, and “concerned” mothers slaying their children. Women tend to be personally involved with their victims: husband or boyfriend, child or parent.  Men seem more likely to murder randomly, opportunistically, wanting to get away with it, to do it again.

Occasionally there’s a religious zealot or fanatic who sees “fallen women” as being sinful and causing others to sin, and therefore deserving to die.  Maybe to a minor degree such ideas may help other killers feel justified, even though their motives are deeper and darker.  

Such people are more likely to be mentally disturbed, even psychotic, with garbled explanations why they need to play the role of executioner. Think of the Son of Sam killings, in New York, where serial killer David Berkowitz in the late 1970s shot at courting couples in cars, killing 6 people and wounding 7, claiming he received instructions to kill from “Sam”,  a devil,  through his dog . Coincidentally, the dedicated detective who caught him, Timothy Dowd, died very recently, aged 99.

Nobody will miss them

The main reason prostitutes get killed is probably because they are uniquely vulnerable, which means that their killers may have a better chance of escaping justice. There aren’t many people who will agree to meet with you in a private place, not telling anyone where they’re going, not expecting to know your name or identity, and keeping no record of the meeting.

They’re like runaways and street people, in the sense that nobody will miss them if they disappear. These are marginalised people who tend to steer clear of the police and their disappearance is therefore unlikely to be reported. When Joel Rifkin confessed to killing 17 prostitutes around New York from 1989 to 1993, not one of them had ever been reported missing.  

Read: Famous serial killers

They’re the ideal victim, and this attracts predators.  As the career crook Willie Sutton supposedly said when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” Working girls don’t want to attract attention and rarely report crimes committed against them, or, for that matter, the disappearance of a colleague. They trust to their instincts in choosing whether to go with a client, though such instincts aren’t infallible.   

If they’re prepared to engage in sadomasochistic activities, they may allow themselves to be tied up or otherwise rendered helpless. The relationship between sexual activity and murder varies: some killers may attack the woman after they have had sex, or during sex, and some may prefer to have sex after killing them.

The categories can get muddled in complex ways. Last year there was a case in Australia where a man who worked as a gigolo, and also a male hustler, murdered his transgender wife who also worked as an escort. He later dismembered and cooked her in their apartment and committed suicide after the police discovered what was boiling on the stove (the Prasetyo/Volke case).

Not what he expected

Do homosexual clients kill male hustlers? Apparently so, as in the case of the brutal robbery and murder of a gay flight attendant during a layover in Mexico City, but much less commonly than straight men kill hookers.

There are occasional cases reported where a client kills a prostitute who turns out to be not what he claims to have expected, such as the 2013 Philadelphia case where a man murdered and dismembered a transgender prostitute after discovering he’d been born a man.

Read: Hate crimes burden the health of transgender people in SA

There are relatively few media reports of prostitutes killing clients. One is the recent case of the aptly named Ms Tichelman who was arrested last year in California for killing the rich man who hired her for sex on his yacht.  He was a successful software engineer for legendary companies and she was a model and “high-end prostitute”.

During their festivities, she injected him with so much heroin that he died on the spot. A security camera showed her, as he lay dying, sipping a glass of wine as she stepped back and forth over him to gather her belongings, rather than calling an ambulance.

So what can and should be done about it?

The figures show major differences according to where and how the women work. Street prostitutes are at much higher risk than call girls and those who work in massage parlours and brothels. This means that the risk is significantly lower where sex work is legal, though there are still occasional attacks on women working in legal brothels.

In New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized and the women don’t have to work alone or in isolated areas, violence has indeed been significantly reduced.  It’s estimated that at least 60 prostitutes have been murdered even in comparatively safe Britain over the past 10 years. In more accepting and regulated societies, conditions are definitely safer. In Amsterdam, only two prostitutes have been murdered during the last 5 years.

Where sex work is illegal, women need to take their customers to isolated places where they’re less likely to be interrupted or arrested. Sometimes sex work is legal only when the women work alone, rather than in groups, increasing the degree of risk.

Read: Durban prostitute decapitated for traditional medicine

Other policing attempts to discourage prostitution also increase risk of assault or murder.  It’s been reported from Britain that clients drive the working women from safer, brightly lit streets with security cameras, to dingy back streets where they are far more vulnerable.

A prostitute can also be raped

Apart from violent clients, the women are also at risk from pimps who protect themselves and their profits rather than the women who supposedly pay them for protection.

Where sex work is illegal, the police tend to focus on arresting them as criminals, and are less likely to investigate attacks on sex workers.  A study of street sex workers in California found that 82 % had been physically assaulted and/or threatened with a weapon and 68 % had been raped while at work as a prostitute. People forget that a prostitute can also be raped, just as someone selling anything else can be robbed.

Prostitution has always been present within society, and almost always regarded with disapproval. Becoming a prostitute also isn’t always a choice and many are driven to prostitution by poverty and drug addiction.  It is also a very dangerous occupation – so dangerous that it almost amounts to an acceptance of capital punishment for those who engage in it.

This state of affairs somehow doesn’t seem fair. It seems anomalous that other activities that cause more harm to individuals and society, while dangerous, are considerably less dangerous. Drug dealers, for instance, are not often killed by their clients, and they arguably cause much more harm to society than prostitutes.  

Read: Drug abuse

In a sense we behave as though prostitutes are solely responsible for what goes on between them and their clients, even though in reality their clients are equally involved. It’s almost as though there’s a general consensus that men would be saintly and pure if it weren’t for the evil prostitutes leading them astray.

The ambiguous nature of prostitutes’ role in society greatly enhances their risk of a horrible death. Their position as peripheral members of society probably reflects society’s ambivalent attitude towards sexual pleasure. Rappers, pop stars and sportsmen also provide the public with a lot of pleasure, but because their activities are not of an overtly sexual nature they are allowed to charge a much higher price for their efforts with much less risk to themselves.   

Read more:

Prostitution in the genes?

Decriminalise prostitution, say experts

How a murderer's mind works

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.




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