While most available reports focus on 43-year-old Darren Vann’s history of sexual violence and the possibility that he may have been preying on victims for 20 years, I wonder if this case will be another example of how easily we ignore the forgettable people: the alleged sex workers (with the word “prostitute” used in nearly every report about the case) who were his victims. Following Vann’s confession to the murders of Afrikka Hardy, Anith Jones, Teaira Batey, Christine Williams and other still-unidentified women, where is the compassion for those who have ‘fallen through society’s cracks?’
Over and again, we hear report after report of women found assaulted, raped, and/or brutally murdered, painted as ne’er-do-wells and labeled with incendiary terms like “drug addict,” “prostitute,” and, as in the case of Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum, “exotic dancers,” with media outlets choosing to use mug shots (like the Tampa Bay Times did) even when other photos were easily found online. In the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the accused Oklahoma City rapist cop, news media and blogs have spent more time talking about his reported victims being sex workers and drug users, or needlessly sharing absolutely horrific details of reported attacks than covering his recent bond violation or how two more women have come forward alleging he attacked them, with one of them claiming to have been assaulted by him in a hospital room. No sooner than we learn that a brutal crime against one of these women has taken place does the smear campaign against the victims begin. (Example: what Heavy.Com has done to Anith Jones, a victim of Vann, making sure to relay that she had been charged with assault before adding the charge was not thought to be related to her disappearance.)
Before the bodies are interred, we must know that essentially, these are women and girls we simply shouldn’t worry about because of their vocations, lifestyles, or experiences.
In my research, I found that three of the four identified have been re-victimized by media reporting on Darren Vann’s crimes. As with Anith Jones, Teaira Batey was also the subject of a piece, this one by The Chicago Tribune, reporting her as a “woman who lived a troubled life,” writing about her previous interactions with law enforcement and family reports of a history of drug use. Afrikka Hardy has been called a prostitute repeatedly, with little to be said about the friends or family who are left to mourn her loss and what they may have loved about her. Christine Williams’ name reveals little to no reporting at all, save her age (reported as 36) and the other still unidentified victims have been reported only as being African American.
Black women, some bravely living difficult lives, taken from their friends and families in such brutal ways—and yet we worry more about what they may have done that was wrong or distasteful than about what was wrong with the man who murdered them. In what world does it matter what these women did for work, whether they attended college, or even if they struggled with addictions? Sadly, this one. It is in this world where those narratives seem to carry more weight than the fact that one man has confessed to seven brutal murders and led police to sites where he left them, dead, disrespected, and alone. It is in our world and we allow it by continuing to read silently (with the occasional balking or shock at egregiously offensive reporting) and thoughtlessly clicking those small square icons to share such hateful words through social media. We don’t object loudly to the violence against these women, even as they lay in morgues and funeral homes. Even in death, it seems women in the sex trades; history with arrests or jail; struggles with addiction; or even all three, aren’t safe. While we hold up Vann as out of control, allegedly sick, and a registered sex offender, we collectively approve of more violence against his victims either by our words or our silence at the words of others.
We owe much more to these women, to the sex workers who face the prospect of outsider-approved violence with each passing work day. Whether they struggle with or embrace drug use, or if they love or resent their work. These brave souls deserve to be respected and when cut down tragically, remembered for who they were: Mothers, sisters, friends, aunts, homegirls, human beings. People who are worthy of care and compassion, who did not ask for your judgment in life and certainly don’t deserve it in death.
Sex work didn’t kill Afrikka, Anith and Teaira, Darren Vann did. And we mustn’t forget that.