Who are these "vice girls" I've been hearing about all week? Bizarrely, they've been turning up in headlines every day, as though someone's discovered a new girl band, but the accompanying illustrations tend to show young women leaning against lamp posts or bending to talk through open car windows. Their lifestyle takes a heavy toll, judging by their pallid faces and heavy make-up, even though they have girlish first names - Debbie, Lou and Paula - and seem to be in their twenties.
Now, though, we all know who Paula is or rather was: Paula Clennell, a 24-year-old mother with three daughters, whose naked body was found by police in Suffolk on Tuesday. Detectives later confirmed that she had been strangled. Ms Clennell had talked to a TV crew the previous week, around the time the media began to wake up to the fact that what was going on might be more than routine disappearances among the 30 or 40 women who sell sex on an industrial estate in Ipswich.
Ms Clennell's body and that of another woman, named on Friday as 29-year-old Annette Nicholls, were found within an hour of each other, bringing to five the toll of the killer (or killers) known variously as the Ipswich Ripper or the Suffolk Strangler. The impulse to mythologise is characteristic of serial killer investigations and the "Ripper" label was splashed across front pages even though it was clear from the outset that the dead women had not been mutilated, unlike the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, or the Victorian serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.
Rippers are heroic outsiders, Robin Hood gone bad, as the continuing obsession with the Whitechapel killer attests; the ambivalence towards the Ipswich killer was evident last week in newspaper claims, without supporting evidence, that he is bold, confident, taunting the police and so on. But it isn't just serial killers who are turned into creatures of myth.
The slaughter of two, three, and then five young women was bad enough for their friends and families, but these women were and are, even in death, "vice girls", "working girls" or even, in a weird detour into 1960s sub-culture, "hookers". The labels stick, an unsubtle reminder that women who sell sex are prostitutes first and human beings second. By the end of last week, a revolt was gathering and editors were trying to find less loaded terms for the victims. A word of advice, guys: try "women".
At the same time, we were treated to acres of newsprint about the way in which the second woman to disappear, Gemma Adams, 25, had been transformed from a piano-playing child who loved the Brownies into a heroin addict. The popular press loves this kind of juxtaposition, middle-class normality side-by-side with hard drugs and sordid sex, and Monday's Sun couldn't resist reporting that the third victim, Anneli Alderton, 24, was found close to the entrance of a private girls' school. "It's even worse that it's next to the girls' school," a parish councillor told the paper.
This is the age-old conflict between vice and virtue, thrown into utter confusion by the fact that the women set up to represent "vice" in this bleak morality tale are actually the victims. They're also stubborn and self-destructive. In a staggeringly insensitive interview on Wednesday's Today programme on Radio 4, Ms Clennell's father was asked why his daughter had told reporters she would continue to sell sex after one of her friends had been murdered. I'm not sure why Brian Clennell, who did not even know for certain that his daughter was one of the victims, was expected to defend her decisions in the midst of uncertainty and grief.
Anyone who has followed the media coverage of the Ipswich murders should be aware by now of a striking absence; while we have heard a great deal about the desperate lives of young women who sell sex, we have heard next to nothing about their clients, the men who buy sex on the streets, in massage parlours and in suburban flats.
We know that all five women killed in Suffolk were users of hard drugs, either heroin or crack cocaine, a fact that complicates the toxicology tests being carried out on their bodies to establish whether the killer drugged them. That isn't unusual among women who sell sex on the streets, with some experts placing the level of drug use in this group as high as 95 per cent. But who are these men who drive around at night, looking for a teenage drug addict - the woman whose disappearance prompted the initial police investigation, Tania Nicol, was only 19 - to have sex with?
The press coverage, and indeed pronouncements by the police, has suggested that the "girls" in Ipswich should get off the streets because they're dangerous, as though, for women who work as prostitutes, the streets aren't always dangerous. Study after study has demonstrated that encountering a violent client isn't unusual; it is the norm. Years ago, during the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry, I interviewed a young woman in the red light district in Manchester who was covered in cuts and scratches after a client attacked her with a wire coat hanger; last week, when I took part in a discussion on a Dublin radio programme with a woman who works with prostitutes in Ireland, she said she routinely hears from women who have been beaten, raped and even gang-raped by clients.
In 1998, when the global sex trade was on a smaller scale and possibly less institutionally violent than it is today, research carried out in five countries showed that 73 per cent of prostitutes reported physical assault and 62 per cent had been raped; among the rape victims, between a third and a half had been raped on more than five separate occasions. The situation of women who work indoors is hardly better, especially since the influx of trafficked women from countries such as Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. A study carried out recently by the London School of Tropical Hygiene discovered that 95 per cent of trafficked women had experienced physical or sexual violence. Sixty per cent reported experiencing some form of violence before they were trafficked, demonstrating a cycle of abuse.
This is what everyday life is like for women in the commercial sex industry, and it should demolish once and for all the legend of the occasional nutter, the client who stands out because of his weird or violent behaviour. This figure - much loved by the popular press, who managed to import a note of contemporary xenophobia last week by identifying the Ipswich killer as a fat Pole - is a mythological creature in his own right. The difference between "ordinary" punters and the Suffolk serial killer is that the latter goes further. Hard-pressed detectives are looking for a particularly egregious misogynist in a field already bristling with them.
Against this background, the pronouncements of that breed of "experts" who style themselves psychological profilers do at least provide some bitter humour. Last week, a succession of these gentlemen lined up to inform newspapers that the Ipswich killer hates prostitutes because he's been swindled by one of them; that he is taking revenge after being infected with an STD by a prostitute; and (my favourite) that he has something against women from Ipswich.
The Yorkshire Ripper case is usually cited at this point, ignoring the fact that Peter Sutcliffe's defence that he heard voices telling him to kill prostitutes was rejected at his trial. He was found guilty of 13 counts of murder and it is clear from the pattern of his 20-plus attacks that his motivation was hatred of women; Sutcliffe's earliest assaults, outside red light districts and on women who had nothing to do with prostitution, were disturbed by passers-by. That is when he began killing women who sold sex for a living, reverting to "ordinary" women when the red light districts of Leeds and Bradford became too heavily policed for him.
A simple truth lies behind the dreadful events in Suffolk over recent weeks: for a man who hates women, prostitutes make easier targets. They are not just more vulnerable, ready to get into a stranger's car or go with him into a dark alley; their backgrounds, which often include spells of homelessness and what is euphemistically known as being "in care", mean that the police are less likely to take them seriously if they report being spooked or attacked by a client.
Men who like and respect women don't pay to exploit them in this way - "just like using a slot machine", as one kerb crawler in Yorkshire told researchers. What's happened in East Anglia over the last few days should act as a wake-up call to police, politicians and the public that the law in this country currently punishes the wrong people - women who sell sex to pay for drugs or bills - while allowing their abusers to go scot-free.
The logical step is to punish the punters, a course of action which has already been adopted in Sweden where it is official government policy to treat men who pay for sex as abusers. For the past six years, in an experiment which has attracted attention around the world, men who attempt to buy sex have been subject to fines and compulsory education about the nature of the sex trade. Meanwhile the act of selling sex has been decriminalised, removing prostitutes from the criminal justice system and helping them do something else with their lives.
We're often told that it isn't possible to eradicate prostitution, just as we can't wipe out murder or domestic violence. But we can reduce the harm it inflicts on the estimated 80,000 women who work as prostitutes in this country, by the simple act of decriminalising what they do. We owe no less to Paula Clennell, Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, Anneli Alderton and Annette Nicholls, who should be viewed not as "vice girls" but as abused young women whose lives have been tragically cut short. And it's time to get tough with the clients, the husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers, whose predilection for paying to abuse women has once again provided cover for a killer.Reuse content