Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, PhD, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back” will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Following his arrest on Thursday, suspected serial killer Rex Heuermann pleaded not guilty this Friday to six counts of murder in connection with the deaths of three of the four women known as the “Gilgo Four,” whose bodies were found on Long Island in 2010. The women – Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy and Amber Lynn Costello – as well as Maureen Brainard-Barnes, who Heuermann is also suspected of killing, worked as online escorts. The discovery of their remains, as well as those of seven other people in the same area, was critical in galvanizing public attention to the violence faced by sex workers.
Heuermann, an architect who worked in Manhattan, was arrested out of “public safety” concerns as he had been closely monitoring the investigation, while still patronizing sex workers and using fake IDs and burner phones, according to the Suffolk County district attorney.
Now, as the case moves forward, it’s important for investigators and the public to know whether the victims’ status as escorts was a contributing factor in why it took police over a decade to solve this case – and reconsider how we talk and think about other women who are the victims of unthinkable violence.
The discovery of the remains of these women back in 2010 and all the subsequent intrigue over the cases was a very public reminder of how dangerous sex work can be – and at a time when social media was just taking off, the dangers of meeting anyone on the internet. But, sadly, that doesn’t seem to have radically changed how our society treats women who experience violence.
I lived on Long Island not far from the town where Heuermann lived for many years, and the overwhelming feeling among neighbors and friends I talked to was that the police would have been doing much more to find this serial killer if the victims hadn’t been escorts.
In 2016, James Burke, the former Suffolk County police chief in charge of the investigation, was sentenced to 46 months in prison after he violently attacked a man who stole a bag containing pornography and sex toys from his car. The judge in the case said Burke “had corrupted a system” as he spent three years trying to thwart an FBI investigation into his case. Burke has also been suspected of thwarting the FBI investigation into the Gilgo murders.
So, as the case against Heuermann develops, the public also needs other answers: Did the police and FBI do everything they could from the beginning to get to the bottom of the case? And would the cases have been handled differently if the women worked on Wall Street, or as police officers, for example?
And it’s not just law enforcement who we need to scrutinize. We as a society also need to rethink how we treat women who are victimized by sexual and other crimes. In her book “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot,” Mikki Kendall argues that our society demands that women prove themselves to be respectable before taking violence against them seriously. “Rape culture, a system that positions some bodies as deserving to be attacked, hinges on ignoring the mistreatment of marginalized women,” Kendall writes. “Because their bodies are seen as available and often disposable, sexual violence is tacitly normalized even as people decry its impact on those with more privilege.”
That was true when the remains of Waterman, Barthelemy, Costello and Brainard-Barnes were found in 2010. It was true when Kendall’s book was published in 2020. And, of course, it’s true today. As a result, all women are less safe.
According to United Nations Women, almost one in three women around the globe has been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lives. The numbers are so astounding that Pope Francis has referred to them as “almost satanic.”
As this case moves forward, we’ll be learning more about the evidence against Heuermann. But that’s not all the public needs to know. We also need to know whether law enforcement could have done more to get justice in this case. And we as a society need to rethink how we view all women and ensure that in the future the full force of the law is mobilized to protect every woman, regardless of her status or life choices.