Kolker: Prostitutes are still women society would rather forget

Right or wrong, no good can come from

Right or wrong, no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. (Credit: Tribune Media Services / Mark Webber)

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This month marks the third anniversary of the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert from Oak Beach, a gated community on the barrier islands of the South Shore. Seven months after she vanished, over three days in December 2011, a police search yielded the bodies of four other women in a stretch of highway three miles from where Gilbert was last seen. These four -- Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Lynn Costello -- were, like Gilbert, escorts in their 20s who advertised online.

Since then, the police have identified six more sets of remains, some of whom police have said also may be prostitutes. A debate has raged: Are the police doing everything they can? Do the victims deserve blame or pity or both? And why aren't more people up in arms about the unsolved nature of this case, and about these women's deaths?

The victims were written off by many spectators -- and even at times by some police -- as escorts, almost interchangeable extras in a serial-killer story. But everything that is commonly assumed about them is wrong. Brainard-Barnes, Barthelemy, Gilbert, Waterman and Costello weren't outcasts. They stayed in close touch with their families -- their mothers and sisters and, in some cases, boyfriends and children.


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What they had in common, besides perhaps a killer, was that they all came from parts of the country the media often overlooks -- poor, struggling areas where becoming a prostitute might not have been the most desirable path, yet somehow it has become a valid option.

Prostitution has existed in a shadow world in America ever since the Mann Act of 1915 made a federal crime of transporting across state lines "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." While a few European nations experimented with legalization and regulation after World War II, the practice here, with the exception of Nevada, is stigmatized.

The rise of the Internet brought the most significant change to the sex trade in generations. Prostitutes no longer had to walk the streets or work with agencies or pimps. No one had to go to a bad part of town to look for what they wanted. Everything could take place behind closed doors, where no one was watching. Moved off the streets, prostitution could become a means of economic empowerment for an entire swath of society.

But there's a reason psychopaths still target prostitutes. It's because they still work in the shadows. The Web's anonymity makes escort work more dangerous than ever. The trafficking of minors became easier online, too.

Pressure from law enforcement forced Craigslist to shut down its adult services category on Sept. 3, 2010 -- as it happens, the day after Amber Lynn Costello advertised on Craigslist from her home in West Babylon and went missing. But escorts never stopped advertising on Craigslist; they just posted on the sly in other categories. Other traffic shifted over to the new market leader, Backpage. And even if Backpage shut down its adult entertainment page, a dozen sites like it stand ready to pick up the traffic. The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other.

Something else hasn't changed, either: We still do a great job of making pariahs out of prostitutes. One way to honor the memory of the dead would be to take some concrete steps toward creating a world where women like the Gilgo Beach victims don't have to work in secret, feeling unprotected even by the police. Right or wrong, no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist.

That, after all, is what the killers are counting on.

Robert Kolker is a contributing editor of New York magazine and the author of the forthcoming "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery."

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