Gilgo Beach and the ‘normal’ man turned serial killer

Gilgo Beach and the ‘normal’ man turned serial killer

The apprehension of Long Island resident Rex Heuermann on numerous counts of murder might have generated shockwaves within his local community, but the fact that an ostensibly “ordinary” man could commit such atrocious acts of violence came as no surprise to sex workers and their advocates. Regrettably, acts of violence, including sporadic yet appalling instances involving serial predators and murderers, remain an unfortunate reality for those engaged in the sex industry.

The media has conventionally focused on delving into the details of the police inquiry and now the murderer’s background. The media’s historical fascination with narratives about serial killers targeting sex workers is well-documented, with a plethora of such cases to draw from. Starting from the sensationalist coverage of Jack the Ripper in Victorian-era London to the Yorkshire Ripper case in 1970s England, and from Robert Pickton’s terrorization of Indigenous women in 1990s Vancouver to the “Green River Killer” in Seattle during the 1980s and 1990s, individuals with serial predatory tendencies have frequently singled out those involved in the sex trade. Recently, the Dallas police apprehended an individual suspected of being responsible for the deaths of three sex workers.

While the connection between serial killers and sex workers provokes a morbid curiosity, significantly less attention is directed toward understanding the factors that render sex workers vulnerable in the first place. These killers, at times, offer insights into the underlying causes. Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, pursued and murdered numerous women in Washington and Oregon before his eventual capture in 2001. He admitted to targeting sex workers due to his intense animosity towards them. Ridgway believed he could take as many lives as he pleased without facing consequences, exploiting the societal perception that their disappearances and deaths would provoke minimal public outcry. In a sense, these individuals were already marginalized and pursued by law enforcement.

A pithy remark that has gained currency within sex worker communities in recent years is, “If you believe police deserve respect because their profession is hazardous, then prepare to be astounded by revelations about sex workers…” This wry quip subtly challenges the societal notion of police as protectors and sex workers as societal misfits who need policing for the greater good. Scholars, myself included, have asserted that violence against sex workers isn’t an inherent aspect of their trade, but rather a consequence of policies and practices that criminalize and marginalize individuals engaged in sexual labor. Research has indicated alarmingly high rates of violence experienced by sex workers, with the intricate web of laws and policies that criminalize commercial sex standing as a primary instigator of this violence. Rather than acting as safeguards, law enforcement often subjects individuals in the sex industry to harassment and violence, exploiting their vulnerability to legal penalties. Consequently, sex workers are understandably reticent to report crimes or place trust in law enforcement to address abuse seriously.

In 2010, the same year when the remains of some victims were discovered on Gilgo Beach, Craigslist decided to eliminate its adult services section. Heuermann’s victims had utilized Craigslist’s erotic/adult services section to advertise their services. This section on Craigslist, relatively affordable and easily accessible, had been an indispensable tool for numerous sex workers. Like the majority of individuals, sex workers rely on the Internet to conduct their business and, crucially, to vet potential clients and share safety-related information with peers. In fact, research indicates that the presence of Craigslist’s erotic advertising page might have contributed to a 17 percent reduction in the rate of female homicides.

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