The Truth About True Crime

As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each piece will be dedicated to a woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Yvonne Pearson, killed by a man on 21st January 1978, at the age of 21.

By Moira Boyle.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

Recently we had the news of the death of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, who, in 1981, was convicted of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder seven others between 1975 and 1980.  Almost instantly, there was news that he was going to be the subject of the next Netflix true crime docuseries.[1]

From the trailer, this looks to be just what the true crime fanbase are baying for. The promotional material feeds out tempting lines like “one of the most cunning killers”, “no woman safe”, “the ultimate crime against women”, and compares Sutcliffe to the “legendary Jack the Ripper” while showing ancient looking clips of actual footage from the time. This approach puts these crimes squarely in the realm of quasi-fiction. Like the stories of Jack the Ripper, we can now view these crimes from a place and time of apparent safety. Fans responded to the trailer with tweets of “we need to Netflix Party this!”.

Why the fascination with true crime?

While people would not normally choose to live in a constant state of fear, most, quite enjoy being periodically scared from the safety of their armchair. To this end the horror fiction industry grew particularly during the Hollywood golden years (1940-1970). Director Alfred Hitchcock made many successful films but perhaps none more so than “Psycho”. It spawned a genre of film featuring graphic violence where the victims were young, helpless females and the perpetrators were males suffering from split personalities à la Jekyll and Hyde.

Murder of course is as old as time, and we cannot blame works of fiction for the actions of individuals. Even so, our collective penchant for violent voyeurism raises some concerns.

Popular obsession with fictional acts of violence, has now shifted to real crimes. Victims are still mostly young females, and the perpetrators are males with a variety of “excuses” for doing what they do. There is currently a plethora of true crime documentaries, dramas, docudramas, docuseries, and podcasts available for consumption. The recent focus on serial killer Ted Bundy portrays him as a sophisticated, charismatic, handsome man. Who better (apparently), to portray him than former Disney actor and idol of millions, Zac Efron.

Some may ask, where’s the harm?

The danger is that the likes of Bundy are being portrayed as so extraordinarily attractive that “fandoms” are forming. In reality, Bundy was a self-involved, average looking man whose only true extraordinary trait was the depth of his evil nature which cost the lives of at least 30 innocent women.

People becoming obsessed with notorious criminals is not new, but the reach of the internet makes it easy for large numbers of people to fall under the spell of the latest true crime story’s leading man. Netflix spends large amounts of money on marketing and boasts 60 million subscribers in the USA alone. Its mainstream collection includes “You”, “Making a Murderer” and “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” as a sample of recent hits. “You”, in particular, is the story of a disturbed man pursuing and ultimately murdering the female object of his affections. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos is quoted as saying ‘You’ is a series that seems to “tap into the global zeitgeist” or spirit of a generation.[2] We can deduce from this that the world currently has an appetite for stories involving violence against women.

The reality of the Sutcliffe murders

So, before we send out for pizza and settle in for a night of spine-tingling, ghoulish voyeurism in front of the Peter Sutcliffe docuseries, I would like to ask true crime fans to think about the following.

I was living in the North of England during the time of Peter Sutcliffe’s horrific murders. I worked for the Prison Service and one of Sutcliffe’s victims, Yvonne Pearson, had been in our custody for a short time. At this time, soliciting was a criminal offence, and “prostitutes” were criminals. At the start of the summer each year, we would have numerous women in custody for approximately 3 months. The government wanted the streets clear of sex workers, so the rest of the population could enjoy the long summer evenings without witnessing these women engaging in sex work. Apparently the government didn’t worry about them working during the long, cold, nights of winter.

The 1970s was a time when women were expected not to do anything “risky”. This included not just what they did, but what they wore, what they drank, and where and when they went out, especially at night. If some violent act was committed against them, then short skirts, alcohol, and walking alone at night were causal. The victim was always on some level to blame for the violence they encountered. The male perpetrator was never entirely to blame, especially if the victim was a sex worker.

This attitude was certainly at the heart of the initial police investigation when the first four victims of Peter Sutcliffe, all sex workers, were killed. These women were viewed as criminals engaging in risky behaviour and not worth much time and effort. It was only when teenager Jayne MacDonald was murdered in June 1977 that the Police announced this was an “innocent” victim (i.e. not a sex worker) and therefore “no woman was safe”. During the trial, Attorney-General Sir Michael Havers who led the prosecution made infamous remarks about Sutcliffe’s victims, saying: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not…the last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”[3]

Those comments sparked protests outside court.

Before Sutcliffe’s arrest, I was in West Yorkshire for a week on a training course. On the first day it all seemed normal until about 5.00pm – home time for most people and the streets were busy. It was going dark as I walked back to my accommodation, when I realised that the streets were suddenly empty. It was unnerving. Later I learned that everyone thought it wasn’t safe for women to be on the streets after dark. People were suspicious of each other; people were living in constant fear.

The murders continued. The Police seemed to be clueless. The best they could offer was warnings to women to “stay home” and “only go out after dark with a man they trust”. What we know now is that the police force at that time reflected the society it served. It was riddled with a culture of misogyny which ultimately allowed violence against women to flourish. It has only taken 40 years for North Yorkshire Police to add misogyny into its hate crime policy, stating that “…we will be looking to educate our front line officers in the recognition of the offence and the support available for victims”.[4] Better late than never, I suppose.

My worry about the impending Netflix docuseries is that it will focus on and glorify Sutcliffe, and his victims will be as voiceless in death as they were in life.

How much time will be devoted to who they were?

Sutcliffe’s thirteen known murder victims were Wilma McCann (1975), Emily Jackson (1976), Irene Richardson (1977), Patricia “Tina” Atkinson (1977), Jayne MacDonald (1977), Jean Jordan (1977), Yvonne Pearson (1978), Helen Rytka (1978), Vera Millward (1978), Josephine Whitaker (1979), Barbara Leach (1979), Marguerite Walls (1980) and Jacqueline Hill (1980). He is also known to have attacked at least nine other women: an unnamed woman (1969), Anna Rogulskyj (1975), Olive Smelt (1975), Tracy Browne (1975), Marcella Claxton (1976), Marilyn Moore (1977), Upadhya Bandara (1980), Maureen Lea (1980) and Theresa Sykes (1980). These women suffered, physical, mental and emotional trauma that was life changing. Marcella Claxton was four months pregnant when she was attacked, and lost the baby she was carrying.

Will the series address the social issues that put many of these women in harm’s way?Whether it was a child or a drug habit to feed, there was no help for the women who engaged in survival sex work and were vulnerable to victimisation.

Will the series do right by the families of these women?

Sutcliffe killed the mothers of at least 23 children. How have their lives been affected? It is known that least one committed suicide. Sutcliffe  took away the future of the families of all these women. It is profoundly sad to know that the mother of his final victim, 20-year-old Jacqueline Hill, was at the Old Bailey to see him sentenced on 22 May 1981 – a day when her daughter should have been celebrating her 21st birthday.

Will the series address the poor policing of the time?

How was it that a man with a history of violence against sex workers dating back to 1969 could be interviewed nine times to no avail? Why did the Police ignore tip-offs naming Sutcliffe, and vital information from survivors Theresa Sykes and Maureen Lea, preferring to focus on the hoax tape and letter? Ignoring these people ultimately cost more lives. It was their arrogant belief in their methods and chauvinistic attitude towards women in general and sex workers in particular, that was the Police’s greatest failure.

It would be shameful if Netflix ignored the humanity of the victims and produced a series to titillate the masses, boosting ratings and making more money. It would be wonderful if they showed Sutcliffe as the evil person he truly was, and not as another caricature of a fascinatingly-handsome-yet-dangerously-flawed human being. It would also be wonderful if companies benefiting from true crime put some of their massive earnings towards fixing the problem of the Sutcliffes and Bundys of this world. Or are they content to let survivor and artist Maureen “Mo” Lea, who was beaten almost to death by Sutcliffe in 1980, use the money she now raises from her beautiful artwork to help victims of gender-based violence?

Many true crime programmes just give a new lease on life to the murderer, while victims are largely forgotten. These women become collateral damage in the legacy of male perpetrators of gender-based violence.

So, to those who are still getting giddy about the latest opportunity to use Netflix party, I ask you to take a moment to remember the victims.

Think about Yvonne Pearson. Yvonne was 21 years old and mother to two children when Peter Sutcliffe killed her.  She is buried in a pauper’s grave with four strangers in her hometown because society failed her.

Think about Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia “Tina” Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill. Let’s remember them, and not the evil man who took their lives.


[1] https://www.radiotimes.com/news/on-demand/2020-11-18/yorkshire-ripper-documentary-netflix-trailer/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/03/21/does-netflix-have-killer-problem/

[3] https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2020/11/13/ripper-trial-came-after-judge-insisted-jury-should-decide-if-he-was-mad-or-bad/

[4] https://northyorkshire.police.uk/staying-safe/hate-crime/north-yorkshire-police-announce-misogyny-now-recognised-hate-crime/


Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

One thought on “The Truth About True Crime

  1. Let’s hope Netflix do better than the BBC docuseries trailer on The Trials of Oscar Pistorious – which did not refer to the victim. Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC iPlayer, said “This incredible documentary series provides new perspectives on the terrible events of Valentine’s Day 2013 , giving us a deeper and closer look at one of the world’s most remarkable sporting figures, on the South Africa that he grew up in and the media circus that surrounded his trial for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. It’s essential viewing, and joins an enormously rich collection of sports documentaries now streaming on BBC iPlayer, including the recently added Lance…..and OJ: Made in America.” So there you have it, the BBC declaring murder of women as “sport”!

    Like

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