Sutcliffe’s victims: treated with contempt

Sutcliffe’s victims: treated with contempt

 “I remember it as though it were yesterday,” said Joan Smith in The Guardian. “The fear we lived with in the North of England, the suspicion about neighbours and colleagues, the sense that we couldn’t rely on the police to protect us.” All those decades-old feelings of “anger and hurt came rushing back” last week with news of the death from Covid-19 of Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, who between 1975 and 1980 murdered 13 women, and tried to kill seven others, in cities and towns across the North.

It has become a “lazy, dangerous commonplace” that Sutcliffe mutilated and killed “prostitutes”, said Nicci Gerrard in The Observer. “He did not. He mutilated and killed women.” Sutcliffe was motivated by “misogynistic hatred”, and he didn’t care who his victims were: some were sex workers, others were not. West Yorkshire police, however, did care: they distinguished between those who were selling sex, and what they called the “innocent” victims. Their “farcically incompetent investigation” was derailed by contempt for women. Officers didn’t listen to the survivors, said Christa Ackroyd in The Daily Telegraph – who gave clear descriptions of a bearded man with a Yorkshire accent. Instead, they were misled by “Wearside Jack”, an amateurish hoaxer, into thinking that the killer came from the Sunderland area. Sutcliffe himself was interviewed nine times by police before finally being picked up, by chance, by police in Sheffield. Today, we still award him too much mystique. He was “a weak, pathetic, evil killer who enjoyed his notoriety until the day he died”. It is his victims that we should be thinking about: Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill.

This week, John Robins, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, offered a “heartfelt apology” for mistakes in the inquiry and for the “language, tone and terminology” of officers at the time. “It was good to hear,” said Libby Purves in The Times. And attitudes have certainly improved since then. (At the time, Attorney-General Sir Michael Havers declared that “perhaps the saddest part of the case” is that some victims were not prostitutes. “The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”) But I’m not convinced that the curse of “victimblaming” has ever really gone away. There’s still an “infuriating presumption” that some women are responsible for their own rape, and that some lives are worth less than others.

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