Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (Book Review)

Last year, I read a book called I [Heart] Sex Workers. Written by Lia Scholl, the book opened what I had previously assumed were my open eyes to some realities of how and why sex is sold, who sells, and who buys. Parts of that book have remained solidly with me, though I reviewed it in February 2013 here. Scholl wrote:

You might ask, if everything was equal, everyone had shelter, food, clothing, and jobs they loved, would people still sell sex? In all honesty, I believe they would. Some people sell sex because of sexual desire. Some people would sell sex to get one step further up the food chain. Some people would sell sex because they like it.
If everything was equal, though, the desperation around sex work would diminish. Sex works would be less likely to trade sex in risky situations. They’d be less likely to ignore their inner voice that says, “Run!” when a client is violent. They’d be less likely to have sex without a condom and risks HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. They’d be less likely to get into coercive relationship with pimps and more likely to keep more of their earnings. (44)

I haven't forgotten that paragraph or Scholl's point that women who sell sex are in much more danger, typically, than johns or pimps. Not only at greater risk for being arrested, sex sellers (male and female) are simply more frequently in vulnerable positions wherein they can be harmed physically or otherwise.

All of this kept floating up to the top of my mind as I read Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker. The book give the personal histories of five young women whose bodies
were found in the brambles off a Long Island beach between 2010 and 2011. The women all had struggles with their families, frustrations in their lives, plans that were thwarted, and hopes that were expected to be realized. What all five actually have in common is that they were all killed and probably by someone who had contacted them through Craiglist or another site under the auspices of buying sex from the them.

They were not killed together, but over a span of month. Their bodies, along with the bodies of others who may or may not have been killed by the same person or have been selling sex, were all found along a stretch of a deserted highway.

Part of what made me ache about this book is how each woman came to make the decision to sell sex, often for short-term financial gain. Frequently, this decision came with a cavalcade of other situations- pimps or "bodyguards", drivers, competition, drugs. Not everyone who chooses to sell sex finds themselves in these situations, but that is what happened to most of these young women. The combination of crackdowns on streetwalking makes "escort services"- contacted through the internet- more appealing, especially since it can allow the sex worker to be his or her own free agent, separate from a pimp or madam.

Yet the decision to sell sex seemed to make these young women "less than" in the eyes of police and other investigators when their families first reported them missing. In the book's conclusion, Kolker notes:
It may no longer matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on... Shannan, Maureen, Megan, Melissa, and Amber were over twenty-one. They were more or less working alone and of their own volition. Despite what some family members said after the fact, they were not lured or overtly pressured. Some would say this makes them complicit in their fate- in other words, they brought this on themselves by doing something so dangerous. But to suggest they had it coming because they put themselves in a risky situation is disingenuous; no one walks through life thinking they're going to be killed. (381)
These women were people, are people. Yet their decision led at least one person to think it wouldn't matter if they died. Maybe it led a person to believe that they should die because of the work they were doing. The police were also complicit in dehumanizing the women:

The police had failed to help them when they were at risk. They'd failed again when they didn't take the disappearances seriously, severely hobbling the chances of making an arrest. And they'd failed a third time by not going after the johns and the drivers. (363)

Frankly, this situation is unsurprising in that our culture generally chooses to thrill in women's sexual expression in certain social situations (product placement, magazines, movies, etc.), but frown on women's sexuality when it is expressed as blatant non-procreation activity, for whatever reason. Women who dare to engage in *that* get what's coming to them, whether it be STIs, unintended pregnancies, or murdered.

The murderer in these cases remains at large, insofar as anyone knows. Sex continues to be a commodity, but only the act. The bodies of those who deliver the commodity are still viewed as disposable. Women and children, and some men, are trafficked around the world for this trade. Others make the decision to sell sex for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these situations are far, far worse than others.

One thing remains, true though, a sex worker could be your sister or brother, your mother or uncle, your friend or neighbor, the person next in line at confession, or passing your groceries over a scanner. That woman or man is a person, a child of God. It is only when we start to think about society as a whole- education, opportunity, community, work, safety net- that we can begin to change some of the situations that cause some people to feel that selling their body is their only option.

If these girls, these women, are to have any legacy at all, let it be that we remember them with kindness, compassion, and a prayer for their families' peace. And that we do not fail them by refusing to see the truth around us.

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