The Yorkshire Ripper case – Sex workers as victims, victimology and victim-blaming

In order to understand the concept of victim-blaming and victims, the term Victimology and ‘victim’ should be defined. Victimology is the study of crime that focuses on the consequences of that crime on the individuals involved and the society (Newburn, 2012).

The term of ‘victim’ has been defined in the 1985 United Nations Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crimes and Abuse of Powers: ‘victims’ are the individuals whom personally or collectively suffered harm , that including emotional suffering, mental or physical injury, substantial impairment of their fundamental rights or economic loss through acts that are in violation of criminal law operatives within Member States.

An individual is considered a victim regardless of whether its perpetrator has been apprehended, identified or convicted and regardless of the familial relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.

Although, highly neglected in its early years, the area of Victimology has gained substantial attention during the past decades due to the implications of feminist approaches and the mass media coverage of high profile cases of rape, vulnerable groups that highlighted the plight of victims and ultimately, with the development of the Criminal Justice System (Goodey, 2005).

The field of Victimology has had three major approaches: Positivist, Radical and Critical Victimology.  The Positivist approach will be applied in this essay to the Yorkshire Ripper Case.

According to Miers (1989), this approach has its focus on the ‘identification of factors that are contributing to a non-random pattern of victimisation, a focus on interpersonal crimes of violence, and a concern to identify victims who may have contributed to their own victimisation’. This approach has been discredited to a certain degree due to its association with victim-precipitation and victim-blaming. In his work, Hans Von-Henting classified victims according to how ‘victim-prone’ and how ‘culpable’ they might be. His main concern was to gain an understanding of the relationship between the victim and its perpetrator.  In different words, he thought that the victim moulds and shapes the offender.

The Yorkshire Ripper case has been a high-profile case during the 1970’s when Peter Sutcliffe has viciously killed 13 women and attempted to kill seven others that managed to escape. The ripper developed an obsession with prostitutes, and he began observing them conduct their business on the streets of Leeds consistently (Groover & Soothill, 1999). He started the killing spree in 1975 and getting arrested only in 1980 for drunk driving and while awaiting his trial, he killed another two women and attacked three others. He was ultimately arrested in 1981 and given twenty concurrent life sentences. The motive behind his murders is still unclear, although he claimed that the voice of God has commanded him to kill them in an attempt to clean the streets, claiming that he is suffering of paranoid- schizophrenia (Caputi, 1987).

For decades, Peter Sutcliffe’s victims were known to be either’ good time girls’ or prostitutes, but later investigations discovered that some of the victims were not sex-workers (Yallop, 1983). This led to a rupture between the prostitute and the blameless victim that was not involved in such immoral behaviour. Although the nature of the crimes has terrified the public, the perception that some victims were less blameless than the others was not prevented. During the trial, prosecutor Sir Michael Havers, controversially claimed that while some of the victims were prostitutes, ‘perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not’ (Bindel, 2006).

The tendency to blame crime victims for the offences they suffered, or victim-blaming has long existed in our society (Finkel, 2001). This phenomenon was explained by the ‘just world’ hypothesis applied by criminologists (Grubb & Harrower, 2008). This hypothesis has its central focus on the public tendency to hold victims accountable for the offences they suffered due to immoral behaviour or perceived character flaws. This serves as a mean to alleviate feelings of fear or guilt for not providing victim services or eliminate adverse social conditions for the prevention of future victimisation (Freeman, 2006). The victim-blaming or victim-precipitation theories, in their initial form, acknowledge that in some crimes, there is a certain relationship between the perpetrator and its victim and it is implying that if there was not for the victim’s own culpability, no crime would have been committed in the first place (Rock, 2007). Despite feminist criticism, for decades, women were blamed for domestic violence and rape. Feminist approaches claimed that this reasoning served as a means of discreditation of victims of rape or sexual assault, and even murder (women) on the grounds that they were dressed to provoke and through their behaviour, they brought the victimisation they suffered. Under some circumstances, this idea came very close to absolving the offender of responsibility for the offences committed. Amir (1971) applied this victim-precipitation view in a study of rape victims and his findings have shown that one fifth of the victims has somehow precipitated its victimisation. As expected, his work has faced considerable criticism due to the limited views about the nature of victimisation. In particular, Walklate (1989) argued that this approach has failed to consider the structural circumstances in which victims find themselves and its focus is mainly on choices and individual events.

The Yorshire Ripper’s case that involved the serial killings of sex workers as a marginalised group presented an indifference towards the victims in both terms of commitment of the police investigation and efficacy and, most importantly, the way in which the victims were presented (Jiwani & Young, 2006). Furthermore, prostitutes are still at risk to be victims of violence due to a repressive policy formed by the stigmatisation and repression of sex workers throughout the past two centuries in England and Whales (Sanders & Cambpell, 2007). Feminist scholars argued that this was a femicide found within a culture of misogyny that allowed the male-dominated legal process to deny the victimhood of less respectable women and failed to value the lives of thirteen women (Radford, 1992). Academic assessments on the Petter Sutcliffe case focused on the practical and procedural failing of the police (Byford, 1981), however, feminist assessments on the case highlighted the misogynist views of the victims the way the investigation was shaped by the police culture (Smith, 1992). Moreover, Smith (1992) claimed that the machismo and sexism within the Yorkshire ripper’s community was also shared by the West Yorkshire police whom was male-dominated. This led to misguiding the investigation and delaying the apprehension of the killer due to the dismission of genuine victims if they did not fit the prostitute profile of victim. Historically, in the United Kingdom, prostitutes have been consistently prosecuted and regulated by the criminal justice systems which lead to an increase of vulnerability and victimisation within their occupation. Further on, even in the twentieth century, legislation continued to stigmatize and disempower prostitutes and, generally women.

O’Neil (2010) argued that the police investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper’s case has been influenced by this socio-historical legal context where the prostitute was viewed as ‘morally deviant other’. Previous to the Ripper’s murders, the policy frameworks regarding prostitution has been persistent in ‘othering women’ both as criminals and victims. The extent of victimisation when it comes to women that are soliciting and loitering is quite broad due to the socio-economic and situational factors that put prostitutes at high risk of serial murder (Quinet, 2011). The disappearance and murder of sex workers is also lees likely to be investigated, solved or even noticed and are considered to be the victims of serial murderers as ‘the less dead’ due to their low social status (Egger, 2002). The attitudes towards prostitution and prostitutes as victims  are in accordance with the early positivist victimology that claims that lifestyle is the central reason for victimisation and it makes the victim culpable for its own victimisation but failing to consider how victimhood is often caused by unequal power relations (Amir, 1971; Von Henting, 1948).

In conclusion, the Yorshire Ripper’s case has been a high-profile murder case where the police investigations have failed to apprehend the murderer multiple times due to the nature of the crime and the victimology. The investigation has been highly influenced by the police culture and its views on prostitutes and this type of victimhood, and the lifestyle and morality of the victims. In a world constructed on misogyny and male-dominated powers, the prostitutes are seen as culpable for their own victimisation due to their immoral and deviant lifestyle.

The positivist victimology has been highly criticised in regards of its views on victim-precipitation and the victim-blaming approaches failing to take in consideration the socio-economic circumstances and the unequal power relations between the victims and their perpetrators. Scholars such as Amir and Von Henting attempted to understand the relationship between the victim and its perpetrators but by doing so, they diminished the role of the victim and influenced the public views on the victimhood of individuals that fail to comply to the societal norms and what is considered to be socially acceptable and moral and  what is considered to be immoral, subsequently creating a rupture between the blameless and less blameless victims of crimes.


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