Aileen Wuornos the Anti-Hero, Giving The Finger to the Fingers That Held Her Down

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Silence around sexual abuse is breaking. Hot takes, hashtags, gifs follow. There is a collective rage brewing, and for once, it seems like women’s anger is being listened to. Child pornographer and serial abuser Larry Nassar had to listen to five days worth of women’s rage, from 160 of his victims. And when Judge Aquilina told him it was her privilege to “sign his death warrant,” we all got a glimpse of what it would be like if the system listened to women or prioritized our health and safety.

But for every Aquilina, there are judges who prioritize the poor, pitiful Brock Turners of the world. For every Nassar, there are thousands of abusers that walk free. Women are calling for blood, and one verdict will not be enough.

Meanwhile, the backlash against #MeToo has begun. For instance, many detractors have wondered why this or that actress went to Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room or met him in private. They say, ‘oh those women had a choice. They were leveraging sex for better movie roles. They knew what goes on behind closed doors, and that’s just a part of (Hollywood/tech/government/literally any industry).’ If you believe sex is transactional, you believe everyone has a price. And that’s where prostituted people (almost always women, so from here on out, I’ll refer to the class of people subordinated in the sex industry as women) need to be included in the rising tide confronting rape culture.

If you believe sex is transactional, you believe everyone has a price.

These two elements, the primal need for vengeance, and the relative silence about how rape culture impacts women in the global sex trade, has got me thinking about avenging angel and anti-hero Aileen Wuornos.

I’ve been on a bit of an Aileen Wuornos binge lately, aided and abetted by streaming options for the biopic Monster and the documentaries Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen Wuornos: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Why does the cultural fascination with Wuornos so often extend to empathy and respect? Especially among lesbians? For the same reason feminists have not-so-ironically adopted the slogan ‘Kill Your Rapist.’ She was judge and executioner in a system that denies women justice systemically. Aileen Wuornos is the Furies. She is the Fates.

courtesy of Kate Bernatche (IG @palpablesomething)

 

Every time a man buys a woman, he is raping her.

A man who buys a prostitute knows that that woman does not want to have sex with him. If she did, he wouldn’t need to pay her. It’s that simple. Consent relies on the idea that both parties mutually enjoy the scenario (although, #MeToo has also stirred up conversation about the nuance of enjoyment, since the price of male pleasure is often female discomfort).

Wherever there is coercion, there cannot be consent. Whether the coercion is monetary, or because of a stratified power imbalance (race, class, age, ability) etc., as in the one Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar held over their victims, is irrelevant.

Even though society is talking about sexual abuse and rape culture more than ever, so long as the neoliberal myth persists that ‘sex work is a job like any other,’ we cannot center or stand with the women of the global sex trade, whether they are in pornography, prostitution, whether they are sold in a brothel, on the street, or as high-class escorts.

Even though society is talking about sexual abuse and rape culture more than ever, so long as the neoliberal myth persists that ‘sex work is a job like any other,’ we cannot center or stand with the women of the global sex trade, whether they are in pornography, prostitution, whether they are sold in a brothel, on the street, or as high-class escorts.

Aileen Wuornos’ johns knew she was at the very bottom of the social strata, selling sex on the side of the highway. The worst of them beat her, bound her, and poured alcohol in her wounds, but even the best of them still raped her.

At the time of her murders, Wuornos was not being pimped. She was not sold, as so many women are, by boyfriends or husbands or a brothel owner keeping her in a foreign country without papers. You know, “bad prostitution,” not the “consensual” kind. Johns picked her up along I-75, and she negotiated her own fees. According to liberal feminists and so-called “sex work” propagandists like Paris Lees and Melissa Gira Grant, this type of transaction empowered Aileen Wuornos. Of course, sex-is-work advocates never focus on women who are out of alternative survival options.

Of course, sex-is-work advocates never focus on women who are out of alternative survival options.

Wuornos, who was sexually abused as a child, started trading sex for cigarettes at age 11, was pregnant by rape at 14, who was homeless and slept outside in the cold on and off for years, is not atypical in profile to many women in the sex trade. Exposure to violence in childhood and adolescence, absent or neglectful parents, young entry into prostitution (the average age of entry is 13) are common. Sex-is-work propagandists only focus on the ‘right’ or ‘choice’ to sell sex, and never on the decision by a man to turn a woman into an object.

Sex-is-work propagandists only focus on the ‘right’ or ‘choice’ to sell sex, and never on the decision by a man to turn a woman into an object.

What counts as self-defense anyway?

So maybe you’re, like me, hesitant to say that rape should be punished with execution. I mean, I don’t feel like murdering the men who’ve raped and assaulted me. Although I definitely have felt like watching the men who raped my mother, my sister, and my friends be drawn and quartered. There’s something about female socialization that makes it a lot easier to advocate for someone else’s dignity and safety while managing to deny yourself the same. But I digress.

Studies are clear that objectification is associated with increased aggression. Men who buy sex are also more likely to say that they have raped, or would rape if they thought they could get away with it.

Prostituted women suffer rates of complex PTSD outstripping those seen in combat-duty soldiers.  That should come as no surprise, since in addition to being objectified and compelled to pretend they’re enjoying their objectification, these women are also exposed to endemic violence. “Researchers conducting a nine-country peer-reviewed study interviewed 854 prostituted people, who reported experiencing a staggering amount of physical violence within prostitution. For example, 64% had been threatened with a weapon, 73% had been physically assaulted, and 57% had been raped (which, in this context, means unwanted sex for which they were not paid).”

Graphic from Nordic Model Now!

Even in countries where prostitution is legal and regulated, lethality is prevalent. In the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legal for 30 years, there have been at least 127 prostituted women murdered. Only 42 of these cases have been solved. In Germany, where prostitution has been legal since 2002, 56 women were murdered, and another 31 survived attempted murder. Just this year, a Bavarian man made headlines for tying up, strangling, and setting fire to multiple prostituted women.

It makes sense that Wuornos would be highly attuned to danger, and the longer she was prostituted, probably the more imminent and inevitable that danger seemed. This awareness of imminent and inevitable danger is not unlike women’s experiences in domestic violence. Their pleas of self-defense are discounted if their attacks were premeditated. Consider the case of then 14-year-old Bresha Meadows, who shot her abusive father while he was sleeping. Should she have waited for another of his nearly fatal rages before protecting herself and her family?

Monster and the two Nick Broomfield documentaries mentioned above paint Wuornos as a victim, reaching a breaking point after a lifetime of abuse and exploitation. Suffering C-PTSD and exposure to violence, Wuornos probably saw herself that way too, and saw johns as a composite of everything threatening her. However, given the frequency and scope of violence amongst men who buy sex, there’s no reason to discount as hyperbolic her claims that she acted in self-defense in each of her kills. It’s completely reasonable that she accurately read threats of aggression, or experienced visceral violence, since it is common among johns.

Exterior of Last Resort bar where murderer Aileen Wuormos, dubbed lesbian killer, was arrested for 7 serial murders of men; Volusia County. (Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

The making of an anti-hero, and the witch hunt that never stops 

Another reason we root for anti-hero Aileen Wuornos  is because where so many serial killers target prostituted women, in this story, the john is the one left naked in the woods.

One study showed that among serial killers, one third of the murderers chose people reputed to be prostituted.  Gary Ridgway,  the ‘Green River Killer,’ who murdered at least 48 prostituted women, famously said, “I picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” More than one serial killer has bragged about killing prostituted women because they wanted to ‘clean up’ or dispose of people they considered to be scum.

Not only did she murder johns, they were merely the price tag for stuff she needed. A car. A walletful of cash. Just enough stuff to keep her girlfriend Ty in good spirits. They objectified her, then she objectified them.

Many of her critics want to use her life to prove that women are as capable of violence as men. Others cast her as an un-woman, a pathological man-hater, a lesbian predator. The misogynist and homophobic implications herein are, to me, more toxic than the tendency among lesbians and feminists to turn her life into a metaphor.

Many of her critics want to use her life to prove that women are as capable of violence as men. Others cast her as an un-woman, a pathological man-hater, a lesbian predator. The misogynist and homophobic implications herein are, to me, more toxic than the tendency among lesbians and feminists to turn her life into a metaphor.

Certainly she was an unreliable narrator of her own life. Her testimony did not match forensic evidence, and she changed her story many times, finally, while waiting for her execution, convinced that she was the subject of mind control and vast police conspiracy. So others have stepped up to tell  her story in a way that allows us to feel some catharsis about the reality of male violence. We dream of a world where women are as violent and terrifying as men. Not because that is the world we want. Because it is so unimaginable at this point that we could ever tip the scales toward justice.

We dream of a world where women are as violent and terrifying as men. Not because that is the world we want. Because it is so unimaginable at this point that we could ever tip the scales toward justice.

Consider these lyrics from “Aileen Wuornos” by Bitch: “But such a fiery, fierce soul

I saw you giving the finger to all the fingers that held you down

Of course they killed you

The witch hunt never stops”

#MeToo and #TimesUp are about confronting rape culture. We cannot confront rape culture without talking about the fact that men think they can buy women’s autonomy. They use social status, coercion, violence. And when they use money, it is no different. We need to stop examining or justifying women’s “choices” and agency and start looking at men’s choices. And we need to hold them accountable for their choices to exploit women.

We cannot confront rape culture without talking about the fact that men think they can buy women’s autonomy. They use social status, coercion, violence. And when they use money, it is no different. We need to stop examining or justifying women’s “choices” and agency and start looking at men’s choices. And we need to hold them accountable for their choices to exploit women.

Now, if it’s not clear, I am not advocating anyone follow in Aileen’s footsteps. But I understand the cult following. I understand the urge to make her a hero. I imagine a woman surviving under patriarchy has on one shoulder, Ke$ha: rising above her abuser, dressed in white and surrounded by sisters, she hopes for his own sake he’s praying. On the other shoulder, the everywoman has Aileen Wuornos: ruthless, fearless, dignified. Most of us don’t get the opportunity to express the depth of our rage at all, much less in healthy ways. So while we may try to be Ke$ha, or Judge Aquilina, in our darkest hour we pray to Aileen Wuornos, the patron saint of giving men exactly what they deserve.

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