Jack the Ripper, true crime, and victim-blaming: Why we need to stop objectifying murder victims

Camilla Kristensen is a second-year International Relations student, who is interested in politics, diplomacy and international law.  She is as passionate about equality and social mobility, as she is addicted to coffee.

[Featured Image: Two police officers discover a woman dead on the street. Source.]

We all know the story about the infamous and mysterious Whitechapel Murderer, Jack the Ripper. While his identity is still unknown, what we do know is that he is the confirmed killer of at least five women from London’s lower class.  Whilst all these women were assumed to be prostitutes, there is only conclusive evidence that two of them were. His victims were mostly guilty of being lower class or homeless. What becomes clear when you read The Five by Hallie Rubenhold is that these women have been turned into objects in the mystery about Jack the Ripper. Five women were brutally murdered by a serial killer, yet instead of hearing their stories, we have sensationalized their deaths. This is a tragedy in and of itself. What does it say about our society that victims can be brutally murdered, mutilated even, and their deaths become sensationalised to the point where they turn into a trademark for the area? What does it say about our society that these victims remain anonymous and reduced to objects in most recollections of the events?

Already at the time of the Whitechapel Murders, the horrific stories of what Jack the Ripper did to his victims were used to scare, control and abuse women.1 In 2017, it was estimated, around 50,000 women, who were killed intentionally, were killed by intimate family members or partners.2  Women are still abused or killed by their partner, and this precedent can be used as a way to threaten and control women to make them behave. According to Sarah Green, who is the director of End Violence Against Women Coalition, the “rough sex defence” is growing in the UK.3 This form of victim-blaming was also present when Jack the Ripper killed his victims, which is evident, when we consider that the public was told, he only killed prostitutes. It is almost as if victim-blaming, especially in regards to sex workers or former partners, has become a viable excuse to abuse or kill them. As recent as 2018, a study by Sprankle et. al. found that many still believe that sex workers either can’t get raped and abused or that they deserve it.4 The study largely reiterates a study published in the Mazelan in 1980, where 82% of United Kingdom Undergraduate participants in an experimental study believed that “sex workers were more likely than other women to be raped.”5 Victim-blaming, abusive behaviour, and blaming sex workers for their abuse or deaths are all symptoms of the normalisation of violence against women. Yet, the violence against women is not addressed in a way that seeks to change these patterns or statistics.  Instead, the descriptions are told as cautionary tales for other women used primarily to control them. 

We have always been fascinated by macabre crimes and deaths. Media company Jupiter makes more than 200 hours of crime shows each year, and several dedicated 24-hour crime channels now exist in both the US and the UK.6 The true-crime genre is only becoming more and more popular. I will admit that rainy days become better with a cup of tea and a true-crime podcast, so I get the fascination. What needs to change is not the telling of stories about serial killers but their focus. In general, when we talk about serial killers, we talk about violence, power, and fear. We talk about gender and the horrific acts usually committed to women by men. We talk about the killer, their motivation, their upbringing, their psychology and anything else that can bring us closer to understanding why they did what they did.  In 2011, a terror attack took place in Norway on the island Utøya, where a right-wing extremist shot and killed 69 members of the Social Democratic Youth party. When we talk about the episode at Utøya, we don’t talk about the tragic shooting of politically engaged youth, nearly as much as we talk about the shooter’s motivation for targeting them. 

What is even worse than telling the killer’s life story instead of their victim’s, is the fact that these killers are given platforms and have to an extent been glamourised or even sexualised by the media. Remember the Ted Bundy movie starring Zac Efron? I do. And I especially remember how the movie sexualised a notorious serial killer, who confessed to murdering 30 women, and how easily the public opinion suddenly leaned in his favour. This tendency begs the question, why it is socially acceptable to glamourise serial killers, violence, paedophilia, or assault and make it comprehendible for the general public. A similar point raised by Izzy Caldwell in her article from 2019 is that seeing these charismatic killers commit atrocities not only makes the atrocities comprehendible but also make these charismatic killers the only ones able to commit violent crimes. Why have they been given such a platform? History does not remember Ted Bundy’s victims and has not remembered the names or the nuanced stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Is it not the victims that deserve the spotlight instead of their violent killers?

This obsession with true crime and violence against women has turned into a phenomenon, we may call unhealthy. These stories and their inherent victim-blaming are used as cautionary tales to abuse and control women. Several questions have been raised in this post. They require us to think about what society’s obsession with true crime and these stories about serial killers are truly eclipsing or replacing. What all the stories about serial killers, like Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy, are overshadowing is the stories of their victims. Instead, the victims’ stories have been turned into a footnote in the harrowing tale of their killer. This needs to change. As Caitlin Donovan so points out, “Maybe the first step is to stop being fascinated by real-life killers to the point where we make them famous.” And maybe the next step is to stop turning murder victims into sensations.

1  Judith R. Walkowtiz, “Jack the Ripper and the Myth of Male Violence,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn, 1982).

2 https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures

3 https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/nov/22/concern-over-use-rough-sex-gone-wrong-defence-uk-courts

4 Eric Sprankle, et.al, “The role of sex-work stigma in victim blaiming and empathy of sexual assault survivors”, Sex Res Soc Policy, issue 15, (2018), p.247

5 Eric Sprankle, et.al, “The role of sex-work stigma in victim blaiming and empathy of sexual assault survivors”, Sex Res Soc Policy, issue 15, (2018), p.243

6 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47474996

7 https://www.thecut.com/2019/02/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-serial-killers.html

8 https://womenpoliticscom.wordpress.com/2019/03/14/true-crime-and-white-men-im-bored/

9 http://thebluebanner.net/media-focus-attention-on-killer-rather-than-victim/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s