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Women, masculinity and murder

Photo Credit: Janet Hamlin Illustration/

Jessie Klein, an assistant professor of sociology-criminal justice at Adelphi University, is the author of the forthcoming "The Bully Society."


The remains of 10 people have been found on beaches along Ocean Parkway, and at least four of them are considered to be victims of a serial killer. These four were escorts who advertised on Craigslist, and their disappearances raised few concerns.

Mari Gilbert, the mother of a still-missing woman whose disappearance helped lead to the discovery of the bodies, said the police didn't bother looking for her daughter, who was a prostitute, until she was linked to the serial-killer case.

There is a long-standing disdain -- still prevalent today -- toward women who are perceived as excessively sexual, especially those who are prostitutes.

Back in the late 19th century, the unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper targeted impoverished prostitutes in London. In a Seattle courtroom in 2003, Gary Ridgway, who confessed to killing 48 women, remarked: "I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

Ridgway's belief that no one would miss a prostitute is, unfortunately, too often true. While women have achieved some measure of equality regarding education and career, there remains a double standard in how we view sexual behavior. Both men and women tend to expect males to be sexually dominant, so much so that teenage boys often feel pressured to demonstrate, fabricate and exaggerate their sexual exploits to increase their social status. It is practically a rite of passage.

Young women, on the other hand, have long been punished and disdained for their sexual interests and activities. This imbalance means that some men feel threatened by women who are overtly sexual. When women are comfortable with their sexuality or express it in obvious ways, some men read it as a challenge to their masculinity. Too often, they respond through sexual harassment, dating or domestic violence, or worse.

Criminologist James Messerschmidt argues that boys who commit sexual assault tend to view heterosexual dominance as integral to demonstrating their own manliness. They often learn such lessons from important men in their lives. Boys who are teased at school, undermined at home, and who feel unsuccessful with girls, may be more inclined to resort to sexual assault as an alternative means of proving their masculinity.


Serial killers tend to be sexual predators, too. Authors James Alan Fox, Jack Levin and Kenna Quinet, in "The Will to Kill," suggest that adult experiences with relationships and work are integral to the making of a serial killer. Many have been degraded in their childhoods and met similarly emasculating fates as adults.

Danny Rolling, who in 1989 and 1990 killed eight people in Louisiana and Florida, was the victim of an abusive parent and then a failed marriage; he was unable to hold a job, drifted from state to state, prison to prison, and then murder to murder. Rolling confessed to raping many of his victims.

Ridgway also had a troubled childhood and two divorces, marked by his wives' infidelity. His low IQ made it hard for him to navigate school when he was growing up, and he was left back as a result.

While Mary Ellen O'Toole, a former FBI special agent for 28 years, recently said serial killers tend to be "glib and charming," Fox and his colleagues say this belief is a myth based on the glorification of particular serial killers in popular culture.

Their research suggests that it's difficult to profile a serial killer. Such killers may have some similar characteristics, but many men and women who have similar traits don't become murderers. Fox and his colleagues write that in many respects, serial killers come across as "extraordinarily ordinary" -- and are therefore "extremely deadly."

Serial killers' tendencies toward sadism may stem from a search for power. Their profound sense of powerlessness -- resulting from early and repeated rejection or humiliation -- may drive them to overcompensate by using aggression to exert control over others. Of course, a drive for dominance and power is also evident among successful people in business and politics. The difference is that serial killers lack the opportunity to exert that dominance in socially acceptable ways.

Serial killers also learn the same messages as other men: the importance of demonstrating dominance, proving their heterosexuality, winning by any means necessary, and disdaining women who threaten their sexual dominance by appearing "too sexual." Ridgway, for instance, admitted that while strangling one victim he thought: "You made me do it . . . you whore, you worthless piece of garbage."


The message that women are "garbage" if they are overtly sexual is pervasive. In classic literature, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina committed suicide, seeing no other way to survive in a society that disparaged them for their sexual choices. Nowadays, the "too sexual" women are usually the ones whose lives are quickly snuffed out in vampire flicks and other horror films. The trope in such films -- that the appearance of a sexy woman signals her imminent death -- is so common that it's often satirized.

Every teenage girl knows well the line she is expected to walk -- appear attractive to boys, but don't get labeled too interested. The dangers of crossing the line can make tragic headlines: Last year, an Irish immigrant in Massachusetts, Phoebe Prince, killed herself after she was targeted by girls who believed she was invading their territory when she dated a popular football player; they called her "Irish slut" and "whore."

While both men and women should make educated and safe sexual choices, there's no justification for judging, harassing, assaulting or killing women who make their own decisions -- even if they're illegal -- about their sexuality. We have too long a history of demanding that women be sexual in the just the right way, whatever that might be.

When social norms pressure men to dominate sexually and punish women for being "too sexual," these senseless prescriptions hurt everyone. Serial killing is the most abhorrent manifestation of the destructive values and norms that affect women and girls every day. School-age kids can make life miserable for girls they deem slutty. The Gilgo Beach slayer has taken such slut-bashing to the most horrific level imaginable.


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