Are we finally developing a mature attitude to prostitution in the UK?.
The news reports about the victims of the Ipswich serial killer have all been kind about the women and supportive of their friends and family, with no exceptions that I have seen. [Since posting this I had a conversation with a friend who pointed out that this may say more about what I read than about what is written. I hate it when reality spoils a good theory like that. AB]
The police spokesman calls them “working girls” which is friendly and not disrespectful.
The local paper has set up a condolence website. Ok, local papers do this sort of thing to generate readers or website hits but, even so, I found it is notable that the paper responded by giving the women who work in the town’s red light district the chance to ‘pay their respects’ to each of the dead women rather than by getting hypocritical and prurient about the very existence of a red light district in a town like Ipswich.
The women’s families speak of their daughters with love and pride as well as grief. They use words like “sad” and “difficult” not “shame”. I am not a fan of the victim culture, but perhaps acknowledging that drug addiction creates victims, and that drug addicts lead lives that are nasty, difficult and impoverished, are steps towards accepting that we will only solve this problem when we stop viewing it as an individual’s moral failure.
There is a matter-of-factness about the reporting of the Ipswich murders, a lack of knowingness, almost a lack of prurience, which feels different from the way in which newspapers and other media used to write about prostitutes.
What I remember about the Yorkshire Ripper case was the sense that “respectable women” and “innocent students” lived in fear in case he mistook them for prostitutes. There was, as I remember, a sense that the students he killed were more innocent, and therefore more victimised, than the prostitutes.
If this story does show that we have more respect for prostitutes, then where has this come from? Cynthia Payne and Christine Keeler were not treated with respect. They were not drug addicts of course, and so they did not get any sympathy there. They were treated with rather sarcastic contempt so far as I can remember.
Is it just that there have been so many prostitution-related scandals over the last 10 years that we are saddened rather than shocked when the Director of Public Prosecutions is picked up near Kings Cross or when a candidate for the Lib-Dem leadership turns out to have an on-going relationship with a rent-boy. Are we Brits developing a gallic maturity about such things?
Is it because prostitution is no longer a silenced profession? Educated and thoughtful women like Compartments and a London Ebony Escort blog about their work. We find out what they think and feel about the work they do and about how it affects their lives. They do it in ways which force us to acknowledge that they are not morally bankrupt or shameful or fallen or lost or any of the other things that the good people of the 1850s and 1950s would have us believe. Others, like Belle de Jour are almost glamourising the life. It is writing about prostitiution, but it is not pornography.
Then of course wherever we are on the Internet we are only two clicks away from actual pornography, or indeed live sex on webcams. Perhaps we are just less sexually frustrated and so less prurient. I am not entirely convinced by that line of thought, but men writing about prostitutes and brothels in the 60s and 70s, and even in the 80s or 90s, wanted us to admire them for being men of the world. The subtext seemed to be, “aren’t I a bit of a dog?”
I don’t think they could get away with that now. These days we’ve watched documentaries on Channel 4 and Channel 5 showing porn films being made and we’ve watched Louis Theroux squirm with embarrassment in a brothel in Texas. These days the colonel’s lady has a much clearer idea of what is involved in Judy O’Grady’s life.
This is all very putative, incomplete and un-researched. The shift in attitude may be something I’ve imagined. But if there is a shift in attitude, then it is something we should welcome.
As you know, I rant and rage about the dangers of our surveillance society, but the one thing I am deeply glad about is that any killer as prolific as this one will, with absolute certainty, be caught.