Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Where are the men in this horrific story?

It isn't just the killer who is invisible. So are the guys in cars who regard women as sex aids
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I was on the 207 bus on Thursday, sitting next to a fat man with a hairy face and cracked lips with The Sun in his hand. Turning the pages, he muttered: "Just effing tarts on the game." Then his eyes rested happily on the breasts of the naked Page 3 model, a treat his paper offers him daily. I said nothing, but seethed. He looked like a chap who would need to buy sex, even in these times when it is offered up for free by young women game for casual sex.

This momentary encounter clarified for me why I have felt so uneasy about the coverage of the murders of the five Ipswich prostitutes. Where are the men in this shocking story? It isn't just the killer who is invisible; so are the male pimps and the customers, the guys concealed in their cars who regard women as sex aids they buy to use as they wish. As with drug addiction, suppliers are the focus of public and police attention, not the consumers, without whom there would be no trade and destruction.

I have never understood why the purchasers of loveless sex should expect and are granted automatic anonymity while prostitutes have their lives completely uncovered and exposed when there is a crime committed against them. They, too, have mums and dads, siblings and children, who will then have to deal with the fallout of such an onslaught on their privacy.

With a gruesome murder, some publicity is essential when evidence is being gathered. The public needs to know facts essential to the cases. Last week, all parents became more aware how drugs can inject themselves into any household, leading young addicts then to sell their bodies for cash to pay for the next fix.

However, nothing explains or vindicates the way entire families of the victims are dragged into the story - as they have been for the past few days - when they have so much to deal with, including loss and guilt that their daughters were caught up in what is, and always has been, a perilous occupation. "How do you feel?", they ask a bewildered father, who hasn't seen his dead daughter since she was a little girl. What do they expect him to say that we can't imagine he will? This is emotional porn.

The appearance in the media over so many days of photographs of the murdered young women feels like an overstimulation. There are many out there excited and titillated by the story, which is both a movie thriller and a Victorian melodrama with footsteps of other real life slashers and stranglers. When Dennis Nielsenkilled his male victims, I didn't feel there was anything creepy about the coverage. Public horror was not smeared in drool. These women are dissed in death as they were in life.

To call the women "working girls" is to deny the range of risks a prostitute takes the minute she steps into a place alone with a stranger or a known punter. There are superconfident prostitutes who say they are doing a job they like and which pays well. They are a minority. All across the world, this profession demeans and endangers women and young girls. Trafficked women - big business now - have no protection at all. Few females are physically stronger than males; few of the men who use prostitutes feel genuine affection or respect for the women they paw and enter. Some users can become attached to particular providers and are thereby the weaker partners in the arrangement, but that is neither respect nor affection.

Pretty Woman is only a fantasy, and the film's undying popularity a sign of how we kid ourselves about the malign effects of prostitution. Squillionaire gentleman do not embrace prostitutes in daylight nor take them as lifelong, trusted partners. The rich have always wanted and arranged to have skilful, beautiful concubines, but with the understanding that no cultural sophistication, loyalty, sexual magnetism or intellect can ever make women who charge for their services worthy of love or commitment.

The whores exist to keep the good women pure, that, too, is a running male hypocrisy. I have met a number of Muslim men in our northern towns who pray devotedly, hang tasbis (rosaries) on their car windows and pimp for a living. When I ask them how they can do the two they usually explain the trading girls are "bad" and their own women belong to Allah.

Pakeezah is an extraordinary old Hindi movie - an exposé of such wretched prejudices and double standards. A squire falls genuinely in love with a beautiful courtesan who lives in an enclave of sensual opulence but removed from the "decent" folk. She agrees to marry him, but only if he publicly performs all the rituals expected when a young virgin weds. That is her condition, her test, to be given the badge of honour in an uncaring society. The women who were snuffed out by the killer in Suffolk deserve and have been denied that honour and respect.