Nobody seems as pathetic as a serial killer in want of notoriety. There may be individuals more evil; there may be people who are far more cruel on a far wider scale; there may be human beings of whom we should have a lower opinion. But, for many, there is no one more sickeningly inadequate as a member of our species; no one more worthy of our disgust and contempt.
Why is this so? Why is a serial killer in search of fame so much worse than one who wishes to go about their murders without seeking attention? After all, it is the latter kind of repeat murderer – a Dr Shipman or a Fred West – who is actually more dangerous, for they are less likely to be detected. Part of the reason is perhaps that such figures also reveal something awful about ourselves: our morbid curiosity, our willingness to bestow celebrity, and our casual disregard for the lives that were taken. No victim of a serial murderer is more famous than the person who took their life: their names, if recorded at all, are footnotes.
Take Susan Rushworth, Shelley Armitage and Suzanne Blamires. They are now dead, but I suspect you will not remember their names the moment you finish reading this sentence. They were the ones killed by a Stephen Griffiths, whose dear wish to be known by some nickname was sadly granted by the mainstream media. All that you may know of these three victims was that they were “prostitutes” or sex workers.
Sex workers are easy targets for those seeking fame as serial killers. Sex workers are also easy targets for those who just want to kill or injure other human beings. Sex workers are simply soft targets for any person wishing to treat another human being in any inhumane way.
And the criminal law makes it easy for this to be the case. Though sex work itself is not a criminal offence, all those around the sex worker are likely to be at instant risk of arrest and prosecution. This is the worst possible situation, as it means the sex worker often has to operate without any effective support or supervision. There can be no one there to protect them, whether it be from a serial killer or some punter who wants to slap someone else around.
Whatever the problems posed by sex work, the solution is not the use of criminal law. Prohibition merely makes the human beings engaged in sex work (whether by compulsion or by choice) more likely to be subjected to the inhumanity of others. Aspiring serial killers may well wish to dehumanise their victims, but there is no reason for us to do so, too.
David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for blogging in 2010.