Pubdate: Sun, 17 Dec 2006
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2006
Author: Jenny McCartney, Sunday Telegraph


The recent murders of five women in Ipswich, Suffolk, have ignited a 
blaze of publicity that has briefly illuminated the grim reality of a 
career in street prostitution. An even more depressing reality, 
however, is that prostitutes are routinely murdered in Britain and 
hardly anyone pays much attention. It is estimated that 90 such women 
have been killed in the last 12 years: only a small minority of the 
cases have been solved.

The public tends to accept the one-off murder of a "vice girl" much 
more easily than that of a suburban housewife or a schoolgirl. 
Somewhere in the murky depths of the communal subconscious, 
prostitution and death already go about arm in arm: the killing of a 
prostitute is merely confirmation of their togetherness.

One reason is that the case of Jack the Ripper, that grisly piece of 
Victorian melodrama, is firmly lodged in the national psyche. Indeed, 
the original Ripper story exerts such a powerful, prurient tug upon 
the public imagination that it is now impossible for any serial 
killer of prostitutes in Britain to elude the "Ripper" label. Not 
only was Peter Sutcliffe, who killed 13 women before he was caught in 
1981, dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, but the name "Ripper" is already 
being bandied about worldwide in connection with the Ipswich murderer.

An army of "experts on the criminal mind" have been busy drawing 
speculative parallels between men who serially kill prostitutes and 
their motivations. Yet a more telling comparison is not between the 
so-called "Rippers" but their victims.

Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols was 43 when she died on August 31, 1888: a 
prostitute and heavy drinker, she was the mother of five children. 
Her marriage had broken up, and a recent stint in domestic service 
hadn't worked out: she had left abruptly, stealing some of her 
employer's clothing. She went out one night boasting that she was 
sure to attract some business thanks to her new bonnet: that night, 
she became Jack the Ripper's first victim.

Wilma McCann was 28, a prostitute and the mother of four children 
when she died. On October 29, 1975 she kissed her children goodnight 
at 7.30pm, leaving the eldest, aged nine, in charge, and went out to 
work. She was seen drinking numerous whiskies and beer in the pubs 
and clubs of Chapeltown, Leeds: that night, she was murdered by Peter 

The victims of the Ipswich murderer - Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, 
Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell and Annette Nicholls - were all 
heroin or crack addicts. They shared their addiction to hard drugs 
with the vast majority of street prostitutes in Britain today. But 
while heroin undoubtedly creates an urgent need for large amounts of 
money, it is far from the sole cause of misery in these women's lives.

The five known victims of Jack the Ripper were all very heavy 
drinkers: alcohol, not heroin, was their anaesthetic of choice. But 
they, like the Ipswich women, had experienced difficult or broken 
relationships with men, precarious finances and erratic strokes of 
misfortune. They had often displayed a rebellious or disorderly 
streak, and been cut adrift from their families. Their lives were in 
chaos, and their children frequently proved too great a 
responsibility for them to cope with: the pain of serial failures was 
first dulled and then exacerbated by alcohol.

The financial hardship of Victorian England, of course, was much more 
extreme than that of today. But heroin can create a Victorian England 
in the middle of a prosperous modern town such as Ipswich: if an 
addict knows a dealer but does not have the money for a fix, she is 
as physically desperate as a starving woman in a grocer's shop.

Some people have suggested that the legalisation of heroin would 
alleviate the addicts' need to work as prostitutes: it might 
certainly allow them to be choosier about when and where they worked. 
But such a policy would come with wider social costs, and even if 
heroin is free the rest of life is still expensive. It is hard for 
heroin addicts in their preferred state of vaguely euphoric 
stupefaction to hold down a regular job and pay their debts. 
Sometimes, they cannot even hold down a regular job in prostitution: 
it was reported that one Ipswich victim, Tania Nicol, had been 
dismissed from work in a massage parlour, itself a safer option than 
working the streets.

Our culture lends a spurious glamour to both prostitution and 
addiction. Rich celebrities such as Paris Hilton dress up in hooker 
chic, rather like Marie Antoinette playing a shepherdess. Five's 
idiotic recent sitcom, Respectable, was set in a brothel staffed by 
pretty prostitutes who turned tricks to fund university studies and a 
taste for expensive shoes. The rock star and heroin addict Pete 
Doherty went out with the world's most famous model and collects 
endless column inches and negligible fines.

It is likely that, at the very beginning of their careers as 
prostitutes and drug addicts, the Ipswich victims experienced some 
brief sense of excitement, albeit mingled with sporadic disgust and 
fear. One has only to read the last letter written by Paula Clennell 
to her mother to realise how quickly and comprehensively any such 
excitement evaporated. Clennell was touchingly preoccupied with what 
Christmas presents to buy for her sister's children, but explained 
that for her Christmas would be a "dark, lonely and depressing day" 
without her own children, who had been taken into care. Now, she will 
not see that depressing day at all.

The lives of such women are lived largely in the shadows: they become 
visible only when death strikes them. One need only look at the 
photographs of the Ipswich victims as children, gleaming with bright 
possibilities, to comprehend the extent of the destruction wreaked by 
drugs and sexual exploitation.

The shameful fact is that little in the lives of street prostitutes 
has changed since the 19th century, except that today the dead women 
of Ipswich are significantly younger than most of Jack the Ripper's 
victims, and the murderous, comfortable lie of "the happy hooker" is 
more powerful than ever.
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