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The language of reporting the Ipswich murders

Use of the word “prostitute” in coverage of the Ipswich murders has come in for predictable complaints from those who felt that “sex workers” was the more appropriate term. Prostitute is an uncomfortable description to apply to any woman but in context of events in the Suffolk town it had a necessary precision.

Not only does sex worker seem to sanitise the work, it is an all encompassing term for escorts and massage parlour workers as well as those vulnerable on the streets.

But there is something else here. The murdered women were local girls, daughters, school friends, former girl friends; they belonged to the community. They have been seen locally not only as victims of the sex trade but as victims of drugs. Parents have talked to the media of daughters “lost to them” because of drugs.
Unusually, for this kind of case the local media, day-after-day, has talked to people who knew the women and spoke about them in very human terms. BBC journalist Tim Fenton who still lives close to the town where he was brought up, wrote on the corporation’s Suffolk website:

With a population of about 140,000, Ipswich is big enough to be a proper town but not so big as to feel impersonal. It’s noticeable that the TV crews have had little problem finding people who knew and will talk about the murdered women.
Many remember them as schoolgirls or neighbours and offer the cameras personal recollections. There’s ready sympathy for the addictions that drove them to sell their bodies and risk their lives. I wonder if that would be true in a big city.
Everyone is affected.

The women killed in Ipswich have not been traded around the world for sex nor have they fled from their homes for the anonymity of a big city: they are “the girl next door”.

I live about 12 miles from Ipswich. All I hear is sympathy for the dead girls and their families. The people round here see an inextricable link between drugs and prostitution. There are drugs in our village, and with them the recognition that every family is vulnerable.

In this context the word prostitute is a recognition of reality and not “dehumanising” or implying a “value judgement” about the lives of the women, as readers of the Guardian have suggested to Ian Mayes, the readers’ editor.

Writing on the use of the terms “prostitute” and “sex worker”, he says: “The terms will probably continue to co-exist, carefully one hopes. Once again context is all-important and indicative.”

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