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Caught Between culture And weakness: The Ipswich victims

By Sambaiah Gundimeda

19 December, 2006

“For all of you non-prostitutes out there talking about us women who have sold sex, you have to realise that the damage to us is massive. Financial help, a few encouraging words, won't do it. Sticking us in 'tolerance zones' won't do it. Maybe ongoing psychological care, over a period of many years…”

- An ex-sex worker from San Francisco, US[1]

The serial murder in Ipswich, United Kingdom, of five women in less than two weeks is one of the gravest brutalities that one comes across in the recent past of the country. As one follows the TV and Newspapers about the malicious killings, one’s heart could not help but get wrenched. ‘Women such as those murdered exist in every town and city in any country, though for the most part we prefer not to see them. They are killed far more often than is reported and suffer repeated violence but are noticed only when they die in numbers.’[2] But in a first world country such as Britain what causing women to enter into sex trade. This essay argues it is the existing social culture in combination with human weaknesses what pushes a father’s ‘little girl’ and a mother’s ‘lovely child’ into the ‘dark business’.


One always admires certain socio-cultural notions of the British, such as treating individuals with respect and dignity, respect for individual’s privacy and respect for others’ culture and language. We rarely come across a normal British person ridiculing others because they speak different language or speak English with a ‘funny’ accent or wear different clothes.[3] Probably this is one of the reasons why the UK is one of the best multicultural countries in the world. Undoubtedly all these notions are emanates from the ideology of individualism, which is fiercely safeguarded by the British. But problems like murders in Ipswich would reveal the excess of such ideology and practices. For instance, of the five murdered women, only two of their parents (and friends) were aware of their daughters’ ‘business’. Obviously no daughter would want to disclose her profession to her parents and no parents would want to know the business of their daughters, especially if that business happens to be selling their flesh. What surprises, however, is the personal relationship between the daughters and parents. The parents of these women did not have information about their daughters’ whereabouts. It was said that one of the parents has last seen her daughter some eight years ago. What I am trying to say here is that the notions of individuality and respect for individual’s privacy are all fine. But in the name of such respect one is risking of loosing one’s own kith and kin and thereby finding little meaning in the very purpose of living, this is more so with aged parents. If the children, on the one hand, are driven away from their parents, thanks to notions of individuality, which often results in strained relationship between the parents and children,[4] the prevailing city culture and emerging ‘star culture’, on the other hand, are equally responsible in driving the individuals into the world of vice.

The culture of a city has many facets and this is not the place for discussing all of them. Instead what I shall do is to bring-in those aspects that were emphasised by the sex-workers[5] in their justification of the trade. In the event of serial murder the police advised the women on business to stay away from the streets of the red light area. Responding to such advice the women said that they did not have choice as (a) they need money and (b) it’s Christmas time. Although the latter aspect is also tied with the former one, i.e., money, the justification of the trade on account of ‘Christmas’ is tremendous. For, whether one lives in UK or India, everyone needs money. One cannot grapple with the problem of prostitution simply from the point of money. There is something ensnares to this ‘need of money’. Perhaps one could appreciate this need from an appreciation of emerging ‘star culture’, all over the world. As modern technology helps us to connect every nook and corner of the world, the present generation, especially the youth are in an extremely advantageous position to know everything about the ‘other’ – people, countries and cultures. They are also, again, extremely informed about the overnight millionaires. As the knowledge about ‘others’ grow our desires are also equally expanding. People began to compare themselves with others, especially with the people who fly around the world, live in luxurious estates, drive BMWs and the ones who wine and dine in five-star hotels.[6] In a way we are witness to the emerging star culture and everyone wants to be part of it. Of course, there is nothing wrong in having such thoughts and desires. In fact, these thoughts not merely widen our mental horizons but also help us to learn from others and improve our own lives. But the problem occurs when people want what they want in a split of second, without working for it. In other words, unlike the past generations, the present generation is not interested in hardworking, but in hard money or what they call in America ‘a quick buck’. One cannot realise goods or achieve things as fast as one imagines in one’s mind. There is always a gap between ones’ desires and fulfilment. This void is what is driving the youth into the world of quick businesses and ready to do anything, which includes trading with one’s flesh.[7]

Of course, one cannot deny the connection between the prostitution and the psychological damages, in the form of sexual abuse, experienced by the sex workers in their childhood, and the kind of relationships they enter as young girls. First, on the latter aspect: When a girl meets a boy, it is not a simple relationship between a boy and a girl, although it appears to be. They are entering into hitherto unknown worlds, cultures and relationships, which have been part of the partner’s life. The rise or fall of a person in the new environment depends upon the character of the new world. In the sense, if the girl’s partner is a good person and world of his interactions are uncorrupted she is bound to be influenced positively by the new environment. On the contrary, if the new world is impaired and malicious, unless the girl is quick at grappling with the true character of the new environment and move out of it, she is bound to be dragged into it and finally submerged into it. Interviews with the sex workers confirm that they were initially pushed into the trade by their (so-called) boy friends who pimped them and introduced them to drugs. And once introduced they somehow, rather sadly, came to believe that in the world of prostitution there exists only a gate of ‘entrance,’ but not a gate of ‘exit’. This poses a fundamental challenge to the very power of human thinking and what we are worth. For, we would not have developed thus far had we not explored avenues of “way out”. Of course, one should recognise that our capacity to think, imagine and act is actually connected to the environment in which we are part of. For, human beings need recognition, encouragement and assurance that they are capable and worth of something which acts as motivational factors in their thinking and acting. The responsibility of encouraging an individual lies with the larger society[8] in general; the immediate responsibility, however, rests with the family. This belief among sex workers, actually takes us to an earlier point that I was trying to emphasise - individualistic attitudes and family ties. If the family ties are strong and parents are ready to help them, not in terms of money, but at least in terms of psychological assurance, these women might not come to the conclusion that their world has closed behind them.

It is no secret that many girl children are physically abused by their relatives. The whole problem is not so much about the physical bruises of this abuse, (as time heals them), but so much about the mental damages that abuse leaves behind. When a child turns into a young girl her mental disfigurement, caused by sexual exploitation, metamorphosis into hatred, both self-hatred and hatred against the people, who abused her. Of course, sometimes this might even result in hatred against the entire opposite gender. This state of mind produces two kinds of women: (a) mentally stronger women with a burning anger against their abuser, and (b) women with weak mind-set. On the former, the life of Phoolan Devi serves as a case-in-point. She violently thrashed and stabbed her ex-husband, in front of the whole village, as an act of retaliation for abusing her when she was still young.[9] On the latter, the cases of more than two thirds of the sex workers are revealing stories. Their inability to act against their abuser leaves them in a perpetual state of self-hatred and thereby in a perpetual state of suffering, which is, obviously, self-imposed (but the result of an external agency). And here lies the problem. Their powerlessness to disentangle themselves from suffering deprives them of any self-confidence and self-respect.[10] The self-flagellating behaviour of many sex workers and their willing subjection to pain inflicted upon them by the ghastly sexual behaviour of their customers is, thus, the result of lack of self-respect for themselves, which is rooted in self-hatred.[11]


Before understanding the sex-workers’ justification of their trade in the name of Christmas, I would like to point out two general social principles: First, individuals’ actions and reactions, in any given society, are both influenced by and in response to other individuals’ actions and reactions. Secondly, it is normal behaviour/tendency or social instinct of human beings to be part of the group and thereby its culture, within a given society, rather than left out. From this understanding let’s look at the justification.

In today’s world the process of commodification of everything, including a religious festival like Christmas is complete. The original idea of Christmas, i.e., celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, is, more or less, replaced by the idea of shopping. Although the tendency of shopping is high in any given month in a year, this is higher in the month of December. People spend huge amounts of money buying everything that they could possibly imagine.[12] It is this prevailing culture of shopping what drags people into its web, irrespective of their ability or inability to shop. People are forced, by culture, to earn more in order to shop more. Of course, this is not a bad notion. For, it gives an opportunity to explore avenues and thereby improve the quality of life. However, this notion put pressure on everyone and everybody cannot put-up with it. People’s ability to shop invariably depends upon their economic conditions. People with economically rich backgrounds and good earnings can afford to shop, while people with lesser economic capacities are confined to window shopping. The latter’s inability to shop sometimes forces them to explore morally and legally unacceptable avenues so as to meet the social demands and expectations.[13] Thus, the sex workers’ justification of their trade on account of Christmas should be understood from the point of this prevailing social culture of spending and its pressures. In other words, the women simply would not have become sex workers, had they have enough to afford a comfortable life.[14]

Perhaps one should mention the problem of poverty among the sex workers as well. Most of the sex workers are victims of poverty, both as children and as young girls. Lack of decent education, a consequence of poverty, poorly equips them to earn a decent life. They endure a mental suffocation on account of the restrictions imposed by their material conditions. They find it difficult to overcome the consequences of poverty and come to conclude that they simply do not have avenues to improve their material conditions.[15] In terms of economic exchange value they do not have products (capacities), which could be exchanged for money. In such a situation they view their bodies as having some earning value that can be exchanged for the real money.[16]


Human weaknesses are many and everyone is vulnerable to one or the other weaknesses. As long as they are able to control these weaknesses they would not be drifting into the worlds of vice. But they enter the dark worlds when they lose control over their facilities. In the case of many sex workers, they began to take drugs simply because it is difficult to bear the mental agony that their bodies are, like a product, being used and abused by strangers. After a certain point, however, they do the trade because they need money to buy drugs. In a way it is a vicious circle and many of the sex workers are simply victims. The Ipswich victims are, yet again, fallen into this trap. It was revealed that some of them, including two of the murdered women, spend not less than £200 to £500 per day on drugs.


The above observations suggest that the five murdered women are victims of existing social culture and their own weaknesses. The demands of social life forced them to enter the business, while their weaknesses further pushed them into the depths of the trench. Such social culture and human weaknesses are not merely confined to UK but it is a common experience all over the world. Although the state could be brought-in to ameliorate the economic conditions of the women (or sex workers), the responsibility largely lies with the society, since it is connected with its culture. However, it is not too much to urge:

1. That sex workers before entering into the world of vice were somebody’s little daughters and some others’ lovely children. We should, once for all, establish the fact that they are not sexual objects but human beings. We should develop a more realistic and humane attitude towards them.

2. Parents should take proper care of their grown up daughters and help them in all possible ways so as their daughters do not waft into the world of vice. Even if some of them do, parents should do everything in their capacity to bring them back to an ordinary and decent life.

3. While entering the trade young girls and women consider the devastating effect it will have on their family and friends. Emotionally it is simply difficult for them to come to terms with the fact that their ‘own child’ or ‘good friend’ has become an object of appalling sexual pleasures.

Sambaiah Gundimeda (sam.gundimeda@soas.ac.uk) is a research student in the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

* I dedicate this essay in memory of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell and Annette Nicholas, the five murdered women in Ipswich, UK.

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/6183491.stm

[2] Ben Macintyre. ‘Out of darkest Suffolk, enlightenment’, in The Times, London, 15 Dec., 2006.

[3] Setting aside the suitability and unsuitability of weather conditions, the way we clothe ourselves not merely reflects our individual tastes and personality but also, importantly, mirrors the specific cultural backgrounds and ideology(ies) that are embedded in that culture. See, Bourdieu, Peirre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Mass: Harvard University Press. Somehow I began to think that clothing by the non-British people in UK, despite unsuitability to the British weather, was not so much because they wanted to show (-off) their cultural background or feel comfortable in those clothes, but so much because they miss their culture amidst thousand different cultures. In a way they ‘lose’ themselves and suffer a sense of alienation. One way of overcoming such alienation and to regain the ‘lost person’ is projecting one’s distinct identity, and clothes are one of the best available means for such projection.

[4] Here I am not arguing that family relations are failing because of the individuals’ attitudes, which are rooted in the ideology of ‘individualism’, although my argument appears precisely that. On the contrary, I am only trying to show one of its many facets.

[5] Despite social and academic activism by the feminists, certain words and phrases such as ‘prostitute’ and ‘vice girl’ are very much current in the British media. A BBC correspondent while interviewing a parent of one of the victims used the word ‘prostitute’. The parent was angry, trembling and shouted at the correspondent to not to use such words against his ‘little girl’. It had such a devastating effect on him that he began to stutter for sometime. One can understand the parents’ anger and agony as the word sends nails into their hearts. One should recognise the fact that before entering the sex trade and referred as ‘prostitutes’ or ‘vice girls’ they were referred to by their own names. They are all ordinary women from an ordinary town, plying a grimly ordinary trade.

[6] I am not saying that comparison with others is a new phenomenon that emerged along with the developments in technology. In fact, comparison among human beings is as old as times. I am simply saying that with technology, our horizons of comparisons have expanded and thereby our desires.

[7] According to the UK government reports there are as many as 80 thousand women in the sex trade. See, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6172273.stm This figure does not include thousands of young girls that either or are brought from the countries of third world and East Europe. And of course, there is always the presence of sex workers from the other West European counties.

[8] For a brilliant analysis on the social forms of recognition and non-recognition, see, Honneth, Axel. 1995. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Cambridge: Polity press.

[9] Phoolan Devi was born in North India. She was given in marriage at the tender age of 11 to a man three times her age. Her marriage broke down in the same year. By the time she was around 20 years old, she was subjected to numerous sexual assaults. See, Sen, Mala. 1991. India’s Bandit Queen: The story of Phoolan Devi. New York: Harper Collins; Devi, Phoolan. 1996. I, Phoolan Devi: The Autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen. London: Little, Brown; also see, Leela, Fernandes. 1999. ‘Reading “India’s Bandit Queen”: A Trans/national Feminist Perspective on the Discrepancies of Representation’, in Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 25, no. 1, pp: 123-152.

[10] From an Indian context, talking about the connection between prostitution and a lack of self-respect, Ambedkar’s opinion may be helpful. In 1935 at a Bombay Presidency Depressed Classes conference in nearby Yeola, Ambedkar proposed a resolution for religious conversion and declared, ‘I was born a Hindu and have suffered the consequences of Untouchability. I will not die a Hindu.’ Following this declaration there was a heightened activism among the Dalits, all over India. The sex workers from Kamathipura in Bombay, who were mostly from Dalit community, also responded to this declaration. In 16 June, 1936 they held a meeting at Damodar Hall and invited Ambedkar. Although Ambedkar went there to address the gathering on the issue of conversion, instead he proclaimed that their profession was a shame to the Dalit community and they must leave it. As Gail Omvedt points out, the meeting aroused one of the earliest debates on prostitution. Most of the caste Hindu social reformers criticised Ambedkar ‘for ignoring the severe economic constraints that drove women to this profession.’ Ambedkar, however, stood firm on his stand from the point of self-respect. Although we do not know Ambedkar’s mind on prostitution, except in Kamathipura conference, it was clear, especially when he was talking in terms of ‘self-respect, that he was connecting the psychological damages suffered by the Dalits on account of caste behaviour of the Hindus with the mental agonies suffered by the sex workers, on account of physical exploitation by men. On Kamathipura meeting, see, Omvedt, Gail. 2004. Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India. New Delhi: Penguin Books, pp: 63-64.

[11]Although Rousseau was not directly talking about self abasing behaviour, but his ideas on ‘inequality and inauthentic lives’ would throw some light to comprehend the individual’s self-abasing behaviour. See, J.J. Rousseau. 1984. Discourse on Inequality. Penguin.

[12] Thanks mainly to the cheap labour from the developing countries.

[13] I am not, by any means, suggesting that only poor people undertake legally and morally unacceptable means to earn money. In fact it is open secret that lots of underworld businesses are run by elite circles. Poor people become part of these businesses simply because of economic compulsions. Note that the former is motivated by his insatiable hunger for riches, while the latter is compelled by acute poverty.

[14] One of the sex workers explained eloquently how she turned to prostitution because she needed money to raise her children, and didn’t want to work long hours in a supermarket never seeing them. See, The Times, London, Wednesday, 13 December 2006.

[15] For a brilliant analysis of the consequences of poverty in modern capitalist societies, see, Lewis, Oscar. 1965. La Vida: a Puerto Rican family in the culture of poverty, San Juan and New York. London: Secker & Warburg.

[16] This is not to suggest that all the women who undertake sex trade are compelled by poverty. In many elite circle the trade is an honourable profession. Without any disrespect, the services to the elites, in any society, are rendered not by ordinary and uneducated street sex workers but by the girls from rich background. For, they can only understand, thanks to their socialization, the ‘subtle’ behaviour of their class. We see the ‘class’ aspect in the sex business. The ‘business’ in the elite circle is professional and honourable, while the same, if undertaken by the women from the underclass, is prostitution.

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