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4:10pm on Tuesday, 12th December, 2006:

Generating Hysteria


So, three prostitutes who worked in Ipswich have been murdered and another two are missing.

Immediately, newspapers and TV stations dubbed the killer the "Ipswich Ripper". I expect this of the likes of The Mirror, but I was surprised that The Independent followed suit. The police have not been releasing many details, but they did say that the latest victim appears to have been strangled; that being the case, why "ripper"?

Well of course it goes back to Jack the Ripper, who also murdered prostitutes and who really did "rip" them. The last serial murder of prostitutes in the UK, Peter Sutcliffe, was called "the Yorkshire Ripper" because he also killed prostitutes and did so quite violently (eg. he used a hammer). The "ripper" tag wasn't exactly accurate, but it stuck. Thus, all serial murderers of prostitutes are now called "the <wherever>ripper".

The thing is, this is a name designed to frighten. You don't just get murdered, you get ripped. It sensationalises what's going on, and leads to widespread panic.

I was in the post office today and the person serving was saying to a customer that she was going to go to Ipswich's Toys R Us yesterday, but thought she'd wait until today as she was frightened of going alone. What, she thinks she looks like a prostitute?

Well no. In her mind, the Ipswich Ripper is killing all lone women, not merely prostitutes; I guess by extension I should assume he's killing all lone people, and stay out of Ipswich myself. This is what happens when you invoke the mythology of Jack the Ripper in modern times: it doesn't matter that to him it's prostitutes that are the "problem", he's a ripper, and that means people are going to get ripped. Fear is the order of the day. Well done, newspapers and TV stations.

Interestingly, one TV report I heard stated "the third body of a prostitute was found yesterday". Uh? How many bodies does this prostitute have? OK, so I know what they meant, but it was telling that they regarded "body of a prostitute" as the unit, rather than "prostitute"; now that's what I call objectification...

As it happens, dissimilarities between the murders mean there could actually be two or more people involved. If there are, the loss of the term "ripper" could be one of the very few positive things to come out of this awful series of events.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).