Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Words for Women

Let's get the caveat out of the way from the off. The five women murdered in Ipswich were tragic, lost souls who met a grisly end. I sincerely hope whoever killed them is caught, charged and convicted.

No one with a shred of humanity would wish upon them their ghastly lives and horrible deaths. But Mother Teresa, they weren't. And I know this might sound frightfully callous in the current hysterical, emotional climate, but we're not all guilty. We do not share in the responsibility for either their grubby little existences or their murders. Society isn't to blame.

It might not be fashionable, or even acceptable in some quarters, to say so, but in their chosen field of "work", death by strangulation is an occupational hazard. That doesn't make it justifiable homicide, but in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss.

These were the words of Richard Littlejohn, Daily Mail columnist and right-wing skuzzball, in a December 2006 piece about the murders of 6 women in Ipswich.

Last week, Steve Wright was convicted of the women's murders and, given that he was only one of three high profile murderers of women to get convicted in the last few days, it may seem disrespectful or frivolous to start talking about the language used to discuss these matters amid such horrific circumstances. But language is the means through which we describe and define our world, and if we can't talk about language in relation to these kinds of events, I think we're missing an opportunity to highlight the importance of language in shaping our attitudes and responses.

A response to Littlejohn's article came in the form of this piece on a feminist blog, while the stand up comedian Stewart Lee has performed a sketch in his most recent show 41st Best Stand Up which attacks Littlejohn's attitudes to these women and the language used to label them. Elsewhere, The Guardian's Joan Smith looks with a little more optimism at what she sees as changing public attitudes to "women who work in the sex industry", comparing the media coverage of the Ipswich murders favourably with that given to the victims of the notorious Yorkshire Ripper in the 1970s.

To begin with, it seemed as though nothing had changed since the 70s when Sutcliffe's murders unleashed a torrent of insensitive headlines about the women he preyed on in the red light districts of Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Manchester. The Sun's "Fears for vice girls" on November 16 2006 was followed the next day by the same paper's "Fears for hookers", while the Times joined in on December 5 with "Ripper murder strikes fear into vice girls".

But public attitudes to women in the sex industry have changed, as the press quickly discovered. In Ipswich and elsewhere, people were outraged by TV and radio bulletins that baldly announced five "prostitutes" had been murdered in Suffolk. Many people are uncomfortable when the word is used in headlines as though it's no different from "teacher" or "dentist"; the dead women were daughters, mothers and girlfriends but their whole lives were being defined by something they had embarked on out of absolute desperation. "As soon as it became a national story, it became apparent that the language used to describe the women was inappropriate," says a journalist who went to Ipswich when the third body was found. "Everybody knew one of the victims or had been to school with one of them."

So, what of the language choices made by these different commentators? What connotations spring to mind with terms such as prostitute, vice girl, hooker, or even Littlejohn's own touching tribute disgusting, drug-addled street whores? And what of women who work in the sex industry, or women who worked as prostitutes? Do these alternatives - clunky and awkward as they may sound - offer a shred of humanity for us to hang an otherwise unpleasant label on?

Useful for:

ENA1 - Language & Representation

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