Lust Murder: Prostitutes as Victims of Throwaway Capitalism
The bodies of murdered prostitutes are, once again, capturing media headlines. On eastern Long Island, NY, along Ocean Parkway, the bodies of ten young women, dumped in burlap sacks, have been discovered. In Memphis, TN, near Mount Carmel Cemetery, the bodies of four women were found dead; another woman was shot several times and left for dead. These women have been identified as prostitutes. Sadly, more bodies will likely be found.
Serial murder is a distinguishing, if disturbing, feature of civilization dating from time immemorial. However, with the rise of modern urban, industrial capitalism, such murder took on a far more gruesome and sexualized form. This is especially the case suffered by women, particularly sex workers, at the hands of male serial killers.
Every few years America is beset by an outburst of serial lust murder. In late-2006, the country was beset by a comparable episode of prostitute murders when the bodies of four murdered young women were found near Atlantic City. The perpetrator has yet to be found. [See "Pay-to-Play: The Double Life of Prostitution in America," CounterPunch, January 27-28, 2007.]
Lust murder is one of the most acute expressions of the crisis of patriarchy. It can express what some analysts call "sexual sadism" culminating in both erotic fulfillment for the predator and death to the female victim, often a prostitute. But the murder need not be sexual, an expression of sadism. Rather, it could be the infliction of power, a de-eroticized exercise of tyranny imposed by a male who feels inadequate to the inter-personal and social challenges confronting him.
Many of the female victims of these horrendous murder sprees have been prostitutes. They tend to be young women in their 20s, lost to their birth families and community, and often on drugs. They seem like lost souls who have nothing left but their bodies to sell. They are throwaway living commodities of capitalism.
Their collective deaths can be attributed to the dominant Christian morality that legitimizes capitalism. If, as Marx showed, workers only have their labor power to sell for a wage in order to live, why then cannot women (or men) sell their sexual labor, their bodies? As American history has shown over the last four centuries, prostitution cannot be suppressed. Why, with all the deaths, beatings and suffering that prostitutes endure under "free market" conditions, is it not a regulated enterprise?
With the exception of a few rural locals in Nevada, prostitution is illegal throughout America; nevertheless, it is everywhere practiced with a wink-and-a-nod acceptance. In an era when nearly everything that is sold is promoted through a sexualized message, why then prohibit commercial sex among consenting adults?
This prohibition, like the Christian right's opposition to abortion, condom use and other "positive" sexual practices, is a mythic line-in-the-sand, a means by which the true barbary of social relations is blunted, denied. Christian moralists, like everyone else, knows that sex work is the point where the most brutal truths of capitalism's (im)morality, where the buyer and seller most intimately connect, is acutely revealed.
The current laws against commercial sex, especially targeting the sex worker and not the john, are a punitive injunction against those who challenge the rule of heterosexual monogamy. These laws, along with the unstated morality they represent, fail to address the real problem that drives both (female) prostitution and (male) lust murder –- economic inequality and men's sexual problems.
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Richard von Krafft-Ebing's (1840-1902) most famous work, "Psychopathia Sexualis," first published in 1886, is described as an "encyclopedia of the perversions." His male patients were referred to him as a result of legal actions resulting from the patient's conviction for public masturbation, "inversion," petty theft of sex objects (often being worn by a woman), public genital exposure, sexual assault (particularly rape) and sexual murder.