Sunday, December 28, 2003

Tracy Quan
Special to the The Chronicle

p. E-3.

Green River killings point up prostitutes' plight

Contrary to popular belief, relatives, customers grieve

The Green River Killer has been identified, captured and now convicted, and his peculiar ideas about the women he murdered have been revealed for us to ponder.

Some of Gary Ridgway's attitudes are recognized as repulsive, but when he opines about the prostitutes who were his victims, he sounds disturbingly conventional.

One reporter writes: "To Ridgway, they were faceless, nameless females who wouldn't be missed. And in some ways, he was right." Actually, in most ways, he was wrong. Prostitutes are missed and their deaths noted, sometimes with acute sorrow, by their families, friends, colleagues, lovers, spouses and customers. Yes, customers: ordinary men for the most part who don't like it when a favorite acquaintance disappears, even for normal reasons. Many prostitutes find that when a competitor leaves town or retires, her former clients keep hoping she'll come back.

The people who care about prostitutes are often marginalized or trapped by the law — other prostitutes, for example, are afraid to report a violent crime. If a friend is killed, a prostitute's first thought is to hide from the law because she fears arrest, physical harassment or extortion. When prostitutes do try to help, they may be ignored because they have criminal records themselves.

Our families also care when we go missing but may not have the social connections or financial resources that make it easier to pursue justice in the real world. And how about the men in our private lives — boyfriends and husbands whom we choose to be with when we're not working?

If a man knows that his female partner is a prostitute and continues to live with her, he is viewed with suspicion by the law and by polite society.

I was shocked to learn that in two cases, a victim's boyfriend led the police to Ridgway, yet they dismissed what was plainly apparent to these men and allowed Ridgway to continue with his killing. Were these men ignored because they were labeled as "pimps"? What is really going on here?

It's not that prostitutes lack for personal contacts who will miss them. It's something else entirely: The people in our lives are "tainted" by association, and they are often powerless in relation to the criminal justice system.

A man who is the romantic or domestic partner of a sex worker always runs the risk of being demonized or ridiculed. The closer that relationship is to the street, the more acute is the demonization. If you are the educated, white boyfriend of a middle-class girl who is stripping her way through grad school you might be viewed in a more kindly light, especially if you lace your acceptance with feminist cliches. But men who live with street prostitutes are labeled as pimps, and viewed as losers or villains.

We have reason to believe that when such a man tries to stop a dangerous criminal, his efforts are not respected by the police. The word "pimp," invoked carelessly, seems to cancel out every decent, normal or humane thing a man might have done and invite crude assumptions.

An important message radiating from the prostitutes' rights movement over three decades has been that "prostitutes are people, too." What is harder to discuss is the role and reputation of the so-called pimp, or the male companion of a prostitute. He may be the guy she comes home to at night for affection and a late-night supper. (Some pimps are good cooks.)

If he's a tout, a mentor, a manager or a look-out, reactions are complicated and not always rational.

Too many people think you can defend the humanity of the female sex worker without recognizing that her chosen companion is also a person. This double standard is also an insult to the prostitute who may feel appreciated and helped by the men you regard as disreputable. Are her values, desires and preferences meaningless?

Whatever label you attach to the man in a prostitute's life, he reflects her emotional and practical needs right now — and if these change, so might her choice of partner. It's wrong to assume that the men who accept us are uniformly abusive, two-dimensional monsters. In fact, they cover a full range of personalities.

Browsing for Christmas decorations on Manhattan's Upper East Side recently, I stumbled across some irreverent hand towels: Instead of His and Hers, they were monogrammed "Pimp" and "Ho." Poor taste? I was touched. Humor is often a mask for complex ideas; if conventional couples can identify with a prostitute's domestic life, I think we're making progress.

If we dismiss the concerns of a man who is the companion of a prostitute, simply because he is labeled as a pimp, we are making a huge mistake. If those two boyfriends had been taken seriously, Ridgway might well have been stopped. Did a serial killer remain free because he came across as a more "upstanding citizen" than the men who fingered him?

— Tracy Quan is the author of the novel "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl." Her Web site is

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Created: January 2, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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