The forgotten murders

Hilary Kinnell 

Only a serial killer gets sex workers’ deaths in the news. But such individuals are rare – unlike the violent deaths of prostitutes

Hilary Kinnell



February 22, 2008 4:00 PM | Printable version

Steve Wright’s conviction for the Ipswich murders has unleashed a predictable storm of angry assertion about sex workers’ vulnerability, the dangerousness of “punters”, and what should be done about either or both of these problems.

Various dubious statistics are hurled into this maelstrom about sex workers’ high risk of murder and the low success rate of police investigations: 60 murders in the past 10 years and only 16 arrests was one recent misquotation of figures from a paper I wrote in 2001 (which is now, naturally, out of date).

I have studied murders of sex workers, and tried to inject some concern for their vulnerability into public policy for years: in July 2006, my database of deaths rose to more than 100 since 1990.

I failed to get any media interest then, as I had failed in 2000, when the total was 50. It took the excitement of a serial killer to engage public attention, and even this seems unlikely to change the Home Office’s anti-prostitution strategy, which denies sex workers protection from violence.

If I cannot influence policy, perhaps I can at least introduce a few facts.

I know of 118 sex worker homicides between 1990 and 2006. Over 75% of the victims were street sex workers, even though far more women work indoors than on the street.

Most unsolved cases are among street workers, but the proportion of unsolved cases is the same for both street and indoor workers, challenging the belief that the “chaotic lives” of street workers materially impede investigations, although the criminalisation of sex work does.

The success of homicide investigations has improved greatly since 1990: in the first half of the period, only 36% of deaths led to a homicide conviction; in the second half, 68% did so, an improvement that may arise from changed police attitudes, improvements in forensic science and more willingness on the part of juries to convict.

Sex worker homicide is not only about “punter violence”. A third of victims were killed by people who were neither clients nor people posing as clients. Of those who approached as clients, only a third are known to have paid for sex; the rest merely used the “client disguise” to manoeuvre their victims into situations where they could be attacked and killed.

Nor are the great majority of sex worker victims killed by “serial killers”. Under 15% were committed by people charged with more than one sex worker homicide.

But Wright was a serial killer and a client. For those who regard paying for sex as intrinsically abusive, no other cause needs to be found for the deaths of the Ipswich women.

Forget that no such killer has been seen for a generation. Forget the anti-prostitution measures that drove Ipswich sex workers to hide from CCTV cameras and go with clients to places where no one could help them. Forget Darren Brown, the disgruntled resident who beat and kicked an Ipswich sex worker to death in December 2003.

The Ipswich authorities must have been mightily relieved that no anti-sex worker vigilantism was even hinted at by the prosecutors of Steve Wright.

The Ipswich women, and at least 50 others, have been killed while working on the street in the last 10 10 years. And, with all the anti-prostitution rhetoric that has poured out of the Home Office in recent times, the rate of attrition is rising.

Is it possible that the government’s aim of eliminating prostitution is interpreted by some as an invitation to eliminate prostitutes?

To see comments on Guardian’s page, click original link below: 


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