Sex Work After Gilgo: Advocating for the vulnerable

Cases like the Gilgo Murders have increased calls to decriminalize Sex Work. // Photo by Alexandra Whitbeck/Long Island Advocate

By Alexandra Whitbeck

“Sex Work After Gilgo” is a three-part investigative audio series examining the relationship between vulnerable populations and law enforcement. In this series, The Long Island Advocate’s Alexandra Whitbeck looks at the unsolved Gilgo Murders by the Long Island Serial Killer to better understand how sex workers are policed on the Island and in New York State. The series discusses the legal, political and social questions faced by sex workers after the murders, which left many fearing for their lives.

2021 marked a decade since the remains of 10 bodies were found along Ocean Parkway on Gilgo Beach, in Suffolk County. Seven were later confirmed to be sex workers. In this podcast, Whitbeck speaks with sex workers and sex worker advocates, past and present members of the Suffolk County Police Department, an attorney representing a victim, a crime reporter who covered the case as it unfolded and the victim of a civil rights violation committed by the SCPD.

“Sex Work After Gilgo” was Whitbeck’s master’s thesis for Hofstra University’s Graduate Journalism Program, which passed with distinction in December. The series was also named a finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists 2021 Mark of Excellence Awards and featured on 88.7FM WRHU’s “The Morning Show” and on Hofstra social media.

“Sex Work After Gilgo” first aired on April 4, 2022, on 88.7FM WRHU and The Long Island Advocate.

Alexandra Whitbeck


Music: Midnight Stroll by AK

MOLLY: Sex work is exploitative because of the societal conditions that surround sex work. When sex work is exploitative, it’s exploitative because we’re a criminalized class.

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: Sex work is work. People are out there in various kinds of work to make money. There are labor rights abuses, and there are abuses by state agents, such as police officers imported gods, right. That problems happen.

GERADLINE HART: These are not, these are not criminals. These are victims.

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: But those problems would not happen. If sex work is recognized as work and people can then seek labor protections, right? That’s what’s happening all around the world. And the idea that films are still being made and, and shows are still being made with this older idea.

MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: What ultimately would strengthen the community of sex workers is labor protections.

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: Um, It, you know, like everybody get with the times, it’s time to make the new representations of sex workers and a pathway.


I’m Alexandra Whitbeck and welcome to Part Three of Sex Work After Gilgo. 

In the last episode, we discussed the Gilgo murder case and the allegations of corruption found in the Suffolk County Police Department’s investigation. 

In the final installment of Sex Work After Gilgo, we’re going to look at the troubled relationship between sex workers and police with sex workers rights advocates. 

We’ll discuss the recent push for decriminalizing sex work made in New York as well as previous initiatives made toward legalizing sex work. 

A rhetoric and labor rights expert will break down how labor can be inherently exploitative and the role language plays when referring to vulnerable populations.  

We’ll also look at the future for the Gilgo investigation and where some of the people we heard from before are now. 

Once again, I’m Alexandra Whitbeck and this is Part Three of Sex Work After Gilgo. 

Music: Midnight Stroll by AK


In our last episode, we discussed corruption allegations within the Suffolk County Police Department and their investigation into the 10 bodies found on Gilgo Beach. 

We looked at former disgraced police chief James Burke, whose actions throughout the Gilgo investigation raised numerous questions like…

Why did he remove key detectives from the case? 

Why did he shut out the FBI? 

Why did he beat Christopher Loeb for finding something that is believed to link Burke himself to the murders? 

What role did he play in interfering with the call for justice for the victims at Gilgo Beach: Maureen Barinard-Barnes, Shannan Gilbert, Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Lynn Costello, Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, Megan Waterman and the three sets of unidentified remains?

All of these questions beg another: is the lack of justice brought to these women due to their profession?

The seven identified women were confirmed to be sex workers on and around Long Island. 

Sex workers are adults who provide consensual sexual services in exchange for a form of payment. 

Penelope Saunders is the executive director of The Best Practices Policy Project, an organization dedicated to supporting sex workers and advocacy initiatives. 

Like many Long Islanders, she too questions the involvement of police in the Gilgo investigation. 

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: I think about these cases on Gilgo beach, and I do wonder what the engagement of the police was here? Whether they stood by and let someone do this because they didn’t care because of it was sex workers and immigrants and a young black mother, right. Or were they involved?





MOLLY: As long as sex work is criminalized, you know, the relationship between sex workers and the police will be inherently violent, right? And incredibly out of balance, the relationship between any non-police officer and a police officer is already out of balance.


According to a systematic review of research done by the Sex Worker Project, on a global scale sex workers have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence on the job.

In 2004 a handful of sex workers advocacy organizations submitted a report to the United Nations finding that police violence against sex workers has a pattern. 

This pattern usually includes assault, sexual harassment, public ‘gender searches and rape. 

These figures are precisely the reason why there is a growing call for decriminalization of sex work. 

The decriminalization of sex work means removing all the criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work. 

Decriminalization creates an environment that supports and enables safe and healthy sex work. It allows sex work to be protected under labor laws and gives sex workers access to better healthcare and legal services. 

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that ‘violence against sex workers is often not registered as an offense by the police and in some cases is perpetrated by the police.’

As we discussed in episode two, this was precisely what many observers believe to have happened in the Gilgo case, where sex workers were targeted and the police investigation was flawed. 

Throughout her career working in sex work advocacy, Penelope Saunders has witnessed this dangerous relationship between sex workers and police. 

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: As a sex worker’s rights organizer there are so many cases that I know of that sex workers have reported that police are killing them, killing colleagues. And people are very fearful. So, there’s a whole uncovered story here about how police do in fact murder sex workers. And it’s very difficult to talk about people people’s lives at risk.


Saunders says it’s a major challenge to engage directly with police from the position of a sex worker, which is why she says there is a need for reform. 

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: In terms of engaging with the police where you’re at, I have engaged with the police in the district of Columbia, in New Jersey and in New York. And, uh, there is, there are no safe ways that people can raise the issues directly with. Uh, so there has to be structural change in other ways, which I think are the demands right now, nationally because the police do whatever they want whenever they want. And it’s a very scary situation when you are one-on-one with a police officer because you alive can be ended, your life can be ended.


Molly, a representative from the Brooklyn Chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, or SWOP Brooklyn.

MOLLY: They inherently have more power than, than any average citizens. And so that relationship is inherently violent just because we are a part of a criminalized class, and we have no right and no ability to protect ourselves from persecution or from violence or danger.


Advocates like Penelope Saunders and Molly argue that the relationship between police and any vulnerable population can be subject to violence because there is little legal or social recourse for individuals to take for assistance, let alone justice as a member of a so-called criminalized class. 

Because sex work is considered illegal, stigmas have grown to misrepresent the industry like the idea that sex work is inherently exploitative. 

Molly breaks down some of these stigmas that plague the sex industry and therefore endanger sex workers. 

Molly: That’s a huge part of the reason why so many sex workers are abused and murdered is because people know that no one cares because the dominant narrative of a sex worker is, um, that. You know that they chose it or that they’re dirty or that, um, like they must have been addicted to drugs and their life was in shambles and like terrible anyways, you know? Um, so one is like getting away from this narrative that, um, Victims have like, who are sex workers have this like inherently, um, like tragic life, uh, that led them to this like inevitable end.


These misconstrued ideas put sex workers in danger. 

The thought that sex workers are undeserving of dignity or respect for partaking in something society has deemed immoral, and the law has deemed criminal fuels the dangers they face. 

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: We know a prostitute when we see one. We have an image, you know, I’m, I’m saying that ironically, uh, we think we know what a prostitute looks like. We think we know what the, what, what prostitution leads to. These are all statements and caricatures, and the law operates in that same way.


As Penelope mentioned, the societal view of sex workers is often misconstrued, with both TV and news showing dramatic depictions and often using terms such as prostitute in their representation of the industry. 

These are terms that carry heavy connotations of immorality and depravity such as ‘prostitutes’ and ‘whores’ in lieu of the term sex worker. 

Aside from being harmful to the image of who sex workers these terms can hurt the families of victims like those on Gilgo beach. 

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: You know, sometimes the families feel very angry that their child would be described as a prostitute in the press. Right. Um, and so as advocates, we always want to be sensitive to the family’s grief. But also at the same time, not it is scribing stigma. And I can tell you that’s, you know, on behalf of the sex worker rights, it’s mentally and physically emotionally draining to try and do all of that.

It’s not the same as the family losing someone, but, you know, trying to, uh, ensure that people are acknowledged as humans and that sex work is not stigmatized in this and dealing with families that, uh, in great grief, it’s very difficult.


Saunders directs The Best Practices Policy Project, or B Triple P. The organization refers to sex work as a wide variety of sexual exchanges, including situations where sex is sold for remuneration, or for other basic needs.

B Triple P states that sex work may also refer to exotic dancing and other forms of legal entertainment. 

According to a study by the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, many individuals who sell sex do so because of financial difficulties. Many sex workers struggle with unemployment and holding onto steady jobs. 

This assumed low-income status of sex workers leads to another common misconception about the sex industry—that sex work is the same thing as sex trafficking. 

Commonly, sex work is used interchangeably with sex trafficking like we discussed in part one. 

The term sex work refers to an individual willingly (consensually) taking part in selling sex. And the individual’s human rights are not affected according to Stop The Traffic, an organization dedicated to spreading information and awareness about human trafficking. 

Sex trafficking is defined by the US Department of State as when a person is required to engage in a commercial sex act as the result of force, threats of force, coercion, or any combination of such means. 

Once again, Penelope Saunders. 

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: You know, a woman downed, trafficked, you know, there are so many films and pieces outdated that sort of eroticize, the violence perpetrated against victims of trafficking, who are also assumed to be engaged in sex work, you know, forced into sexual interactions for money.

It’s not work if you’re forced.


So, let’s be clear: sex work and sex trafficking are not the same thing. However, sex workers are at a higher risk of being trafficked, precisely because of some of the stigmas we discussed before. 

Others have an opposing view to Penelope Saunders, Molly, and some of the organizations we discussed before. 

Catherine MacKinnon is a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School who focuses on women’s rights and sexual abuse and exploitation through international law. 

MacKinnon has been studying sex trafficking, sexual harassment and pornography for most of her career.

In books, seminars, lectures, and essays, MacKinnon has made her view very clear: sex work is not work. 

In a September 2021 opinion essay in the New York times, MacKinnon writes quote, “what is being done to them is neither sex, in the sense of intimacy and mutuality, nor work, in the sense of productivity and dignity.” 

She continues to explain that quote “the term sex work implies that prostituted people really want to do what they have virtually no choice in doing.”

MacKinnon argues that sex work is not something people do by choice and calling prostitution, sex work diminishes the role that their poverty, homelessness or employment exclusion plays in their form of employment. 

I reached out to Catherine MacKinnon, and we exchanged a few emails about discussing her work. After a few communication attempts, I have yet to hear back from her. 

The Suffolk County Anti Trafficking Initiative have noticed a similar thing on Long Island that MacKinnon has found in her research. 

Detective Sergeant James Murphy of the Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative (SCATI) has been aiding victims of human trafficking since he helped establish the initiative in 2017. 

Music fade in 


Murphy has found through his work that consensual sex work is a rarity. 

He finds that the people he and other SCATI officers are providing services to commonly victims of sex trafficking. He sees little consent, and as we discussed before, major violations of human rights. 

JAMES MURPHY: You can go to some stats that the Federal Government have and that’s 99% of the quote sex workers are not doing it as a choice. 1% is that’s a big difference, you know, 99% of being coerced, being forced being manipulated and only 1%.

But doing it as a choice. Yeah. So, it’s not a 50, 50. It’s not, well, I wonder if she’s no 99% of the time, there’s somebody behind this that is taking her money, using her money, and sending her down a very bad path. Torture assault. Beatings, um, keeping food from them, starving them. Uh, so it is having somebody that’s doing consensual from money that, uh, it’s very hard to find.


Murphy’s findings differ from the experiences of Molly and the ideas of SWOP Brooklyn. 

SWOP supports the idea that sex work is only exploitative because it is a criminalized profession. 

Molly: We at SWOP Brooklyn and I don’t support the narrative that, um, sex work is inherently exploitative and organizations that espouse, that mentality tend to be really carceral, right? They tend to be the types of organizations that think all sex work is sex trafficking.

All sex work is rape. Um, the sex industry, they are porn and prostitution. Um, oh crap. What do we call it? Uh, well, they don’t believe that corner prostitution should exist. Right?…..

…We don’t really support that narrative because it doesn’t take into account the complexity of the sex industry and why people are in the sex industry….Like, no, I would never lie. Say that the sex industry is always in great place where nothing bad ever happened.

But that thing happened in the sex industry because we are criminalized. And because we are a uniquely vulnerable population of largely marginalized identities that are already vulnerable to harm, and then we’re criminals on top of that. 

…and we don’t support the narrative that all sex work is inherently exploitative or sex trafficking.


This concept that sex work is inherently exploitative takes agency away from sex workers. 

Once again, Molly. 

Molly: Right? Sex work is exploitative because of the societal conditions that surround sex work, sex work, when sex work is exploitative, it’s exploitative because we’re a criminalized class. And because we also have no access to other resources, right? Like a lot of sex workers do work to exit the industry and.

What do they need to do that? They need healthcare. They might need psychological care. They might need childcare and, um, a car and access to a job that will be flexible and allow them to work with their schedule. Or they might need secure housing, right? Like. But those are huge things that they might not have access to, or they might not know how to access.

So, they stay in the industry, right? To really help someone exit the industry who doesn’t want to be in. It means providing them with like, providing them with access to innumerable resources that most nonprofits and even our government are not equipped to handle.

Music fade out 


The Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative is aiming to provide victims of human trafficking with health, social and legal services on Long Island. 

These are similar resources that Molly mentioned would expand if sex work is decriminalized. 

JAMES MURPHY: That started on, um, may of 2017. Um, but I was given the task of running the kidnap team along with Lieutenant Massena.

And along with running, the kidnapped team came overseeing any human trafficking in the county. And that started us, uh, looking into the situation that we have in Suffolk and what we’re seeing. It was more disturbing than we thought we were done cover because there really weren’t any ongoing investigations at that time.

Uh, so the administration allowed us to do, uh, a little bit of a deeper dive. And in October of 2017, they give us six investigators to do an even deeper dive, to see if a unit that would be permanent would be necessary. So, they give us six months to run this temporary initiative. And within four months we prove that there’s no question that we needed.

We needed a unit because of what we’re seeing out there. So, it became permanent March of 2018.


Remember, Murphy himself does not see any difference between sex work and sex trafficking.

For him, both are exploitative, and for the most part coercion is part and parcel of both practices. 

Nevertheless, he is still providing and coordinating the same services sex worker advocates feel are essential to making the sex industry a safer place. 

JAMES MURPHY: The mission is to train ID victims that are in the lifestyle and get them the needed. Uh, through services, we have an advocacy agency that we deal with.

ECLA, uh, they’re available to us 24 7. So, when we find. Uh, a victim that’s in this lifestyle and if they want help, we can, we can get them together with a therapist, a counselor. We can get them into rehab or get them mental health assistance. Uh, really just trying to get them out of that lifestyle and kind of a more productive and happy life.

Uh, in turn, when we, when we do that, we’re able to see where they are, who they are. And we’ve been able to make cases against traffickers. Uh, I believe since we started, we for rested a little over 60 traffickers, uh, and that’s, that’s still with our goal in helping the victims, not necessarily making cases and arresting.

Music transition: Fade in 


The United States Department of State website links data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. 

This data found that the top venue or industry for sex trafficking is pornography, with 939 reported cases in 2020 as well as hotel-motel based trafficking with 520 cases. 

In Suffolk County, Murphy has found places or venues like this raise the prevalence of sex trafficking. 

JAMES MURPHY: I would say that it’s probably more prevalent now. It’s easier with the. It’s easier with sex ed sites. It’s easier with the hotels. Um, you know, years ago you couldn’t just set up at a hotel because there was no way to get a buyer. There’s no way to get a job. So, they had to do, you know what we called street?

It will be out on a street corner. The Johns would troll the neighborhood. Now they troll the sex ed site. They text them; they make the date, and they go to the hotel and they do their business in a hotel room. Uh, that makes it a lot easier. You have a lot more control over this. And the trafficker now has a lot more control and can make a lot more money. So, I think it’s more prevalent now than it wasn’t at one time.


The National Human Trafficking Hotline found that in 2020 alone, there were over 7,500 cases of sex trafficking reported in the US. 

This number may seem high, but not when compared to the over 50,000 contacts made to the hotline.  

When the Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative started, it was the first of its kind and responded to what Murphy and colleagues were seeing while on duty. 

This was a first for Suffolk County, and even New York which speaks to the severity of the situation on Long Island. 

JAMES MURPHY: We were the first dedicated units looking into human trafficking in New York state. Uh, so it just wasn’t there. Uh, and to take the leap of faith and understand that if we have one victim, that’s one victim to many, I think it was a bold move with the administration. So, I give, I give the administration credit.

So, I think it was everything. Aligning properly, uh, having an advocacy agency there to, to help us build this model. Um, the right personnel, we were able to handpick the investigators, uh, that were able to come to it with some empathy and not judgment and be able to do these interviews and gain the trust of the victims on the street and the administration that, that bought in and understood what we were trying to do.


In establishing an understanding of the community, they set out to help, they started talking to individuals in what Murphy refers to as the ‘lifestyle.’

JAMES MURPHY: In doing these interviews and talking to them, we’re coming up with. The same stories over and over again. Um, meaning most of them had the same type of background. Most of them had a sexual assault or rape in their background.

And that was usually in their own house. Before they were 12, uh, usually at the hands of their father or stepfather or a father figure. And now this is probably 85 or 90% of mostly the girls we were interviewing were telling us that same story. So, we knew that it had to be a tie into them getting into this lifestyle because of that prior trauma that they had.

And that’s how this, this really started getting going that. Understanding that these girls aren’t out there as a choice that they’re being manipulated. And it’s because of their prior trauma that makes them vulnerable to these traffickers and their traffickers know this, and they seek these people out that are depressed, that are lonely, that feel, you know, broken inside.

So that’s really what started us going down that road. The goal that we made when we started the unit was to try and get part of the support system that these victims that are out there, that, that they need, which is a lot different than most units in the police department. You know, usually you’re looking to make arrests and making cases, and we decided to go down a different path.

And, uh, that’s kind of how we started this off.


Shannan gilbert wanted to be a singer and was the oldest of four girls. She began working for an escort company to pay for her new jersey apartment. Soon, she was purchasing lavish gifts for her family and her mother questioned where this money was coming from.  

After Shannan’s murder, Shannan’s mother Mari fought Suffolk County relentlessly until her own death to have Shannan’s case re-examined and the 9-11 calls released. 

Maureen Brainard Barnes was tenacious, she loved poetry and began escorting after being introduced to modeling. She had two children. 

Maureen’s sister, Melissa Cann told New York magazine in 2011 that when she told the police of her sister’s disappearance, she was not taken seriously because of Maureen’s work in the sex industry.

Melissa Barthelemy was working toward owning a salon of her own after obtaining her cosmetology license.

Her mother, Lynn and her sister, Amanda, continued to receive jarring phone calls from a man who claimed to be Melissa’s murderer while the SCPD carried out their investigation.

Megan Waterman’s mother, Lorraine Ela, told New York magazine that her daughter was fun, caring and a loving mom.

Lorraine attributes Megan’s entrance into the sex industry to her boyfriend, Akeem Cruz who Lorraine believed to be posting as Megan on Craigslist. 

Amber Costello was seeking resources to aide with drug addiction. Her sister, Kimberly Overstreet, also worked in the sex industry and was urging amber to receive treatment.  

The families of the victims found on Gilgo beach expressed discontent with the media portrayal of their daughters and sisters. 

They saw their loved ones be minimized to a headline, a statistic, a victim. 

The families of these women continue to fight for the Suffolk County Police Department to work at the investigation and honor the lives of their loved one.

Music fade out 


The approach Murphy and the Suffolk County Anti Trafficking Initiative take in Suffolk County aligns with what the Sex Workers Project found in a 2009 report.

This 2009 report found that when law enforcement takes a right based and victim centered approach to anti-trafficking that prioritizes the needs, agency, and self-determination of trafficking survivors, they are more successful in aiding the victims and therefore eliminating trafficking. 

When Geraldine Hart first became Commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Department in 2018 just as the Suffolk Anti-Trafficking Initiative started, she found that these sorts of initiatives are essential to changing the culture of Suffolk County.

GERADLINE HART: I think there’s a saying that culture eats policy for breakfast because you can make all the policy you want, but if you’re not changing that culture, it’s just not going to take hold.


This quote rings true when looking at the sex industry as well. 

Changes need to be made to the way we as a society view sex work to fuel better access to health and social services for vulnerable populations. 

Hart made these changes to police ideology as Commissioner.

GERALDINE HARTIt was, uh, I felt like we really did make some progress, uh, but for a department that big and it’s the 11th largest in the nation, it is, it is definitely a battleship that you have to turn solely. Um, but you’re just constantly out messaging to, to the folks and, um, and making sure that they understand, you know, what that means, and what’s not going to be tolerated.

Uh, what’s acceptable and what’s not. And you know, for me, I had a, I had an appreciation for the idea of, and we see it here on the success of it is here on college campuses, the idea of active bystander ship and what that means in the police department, because it’s one thing to have policies in place where misconduct is to be reported up the chain.

And that’s what. But I think what’s more effective is to empower the officers themselves, to stop the misconduct before it starts to step in and say, that’s not okay. That’s not how we do things here. Um, and that to me is more effective. Uh, certainly has to coexist with, um, a strong misconduct policy, but I was really trying to work towards that in the department.


            Hart was in a unique position entering as Commissioner. 

She was not only joining the force after a career with the FBI, but she served as the first female Commissioner in Suffolk County.

Hart also was dealing with the complexities of the Gilgo case and an unsettled department after the actions of former police chief James Burke as we discussed in Part Two. 

In 2012, James Burke beat Christopher Loeb, a Smithtown man, in a holding cell after Loeb stole a duffle bag from burke containing items that potentially links Burke to the Gilgo murders. 

Once again, Geraldine Hart. 

GERALDINE HART: You know, going in before I actually stepped into the role, but I had. In my mind, I was thinking, which is going to be the more difficult challenge being the first woman commissioner or being from the FBI, because we had just arrested their chief of department.


However, her ability was not impeded by being a woman or her previous work with the FBI, and she was able to step directly into supporting the Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative. 

GERALDINE HART: Suffolk County did an amazing job with the human resources, human resources on this, on the brain, the human trafficking task force. Um, that’s how you get at it. That’s when we say you’re not going to be put through the criminal justice system, you’re going to get services and that’s when you have people cooperate with you and that’s how you go up the chain and get you and traffickers because it, it, we should not be punishing the women who are left to, to this.

GERALDINE HART: I was very proud of the human trafficking initiative that we had and to get these women, the services that they need and not to criminalize them because it’s not useful, it’s not useful to them and it doesn’t help the investigation if we stop there.


Hart and Murphy share a similar sentiment about the mentality law enforcement must maintain when working on task forces such as this. 

GERALDINE HART:  These are not, these are not criminals. These are victims.


The Suffolk County Anti Trafficking Initiative aims to aid victims of human trafficking, and may fail to see that sex work is a form of labor and not always a form of sex trafficking. 

Victims of sex trafficking and individuals who consensually sell sex both fall under some of the labels we talked about before.

Language is important when being used to represent those in the sex industry as it can hold strong connotations. 

Language in the media and language in the law can shift the entire perception of what sex work is or who sex workers are. 

NEWS CLIP: 00:45:


Once again, Penelope Saunders. 

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: This whole representations of sex with sex workers going back, you know, more than a hundred years in newspaper story serialized, you know, the fate of the prostitute, you know, and it’s, uh, sensationalized, it describes the sex workers physically, but no one else, you know what I mean?

Like the sex workers, image and body is always described and the police officers never is. Right. Um, you know, once you start seeing this, you can’t unsee it. So, uh, these tropes have existed for a very long time. And we’re at the point now where people are beginning to break out of those narratives.

MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: Prostitute, I think of skewers, whereas like a term like sex worker or even streetwalker kind of reveal things. 


Rhetorician Mary Anne Trasciatti, is a professor of labor and women’s studies at Hofstra University.

MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: Um, prostitute isn’t quite as explicitly revealed. So, streetwalker reveals that someone is out in public space, kind of Hawking their wares. Right. Um, sex worker reveals that, uh, this is, uh, labor, right? A, a kind of a, that somebody who is a sex worker is somebody who is actually engaging in a kind of labor but is a labor that involves sex and sexuality.

So, prostitute obscures the nature of the work as work and the nature of the work as something that is sold in public. Right. Um, and I think it is more of a pejorative term. I think the term sex worker is designed to remove kind of the negative connotations and to. Highlight the fact that this is a form of labor.

It’s a more neutral term, obviously. So, you can even use prostitute in other areas, right? If somebody is doing something that, um, involves kind of self-exploitation for the purpose of financial rim income, we say, oh, they’re prostituting themselves for X. Right. Um, whereas sex work, it’s kind of hard to manipulate the term. And I think that that’s deliberate, right? That’s why the move from, uh, prostitution to sex work, uh, was made was to kind of remove the stigma and emphasize that this is a form of labor.


However, Professor Trasciatti says a shift in the language is not enough. 

MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: What ultimately would strengthen the community of sex workers is labor protections.

That means language shifts alone don’t accommodate. Anything. There has to be a shift in, in also, you know, material conditions and policy and all these other things to go along with the language shift. And then they’re mutually reinforcing.

I think that. Um, that language is important and that terms can be weaponized. But I also think that we’re in a moment that may in fact be putting too much emphasis on language. So, you can call sex workers, sex workers, all you want. Um, but if they don’t have the right to organize a union, um, and if they don’t have, you know, the right to, um, you know, uh, protections under the law, then just changing the language.

Isn’t really gonna do that. So, yeah. Okay. Call me a sex worker, you know, call me a food service worker, a fucking pay me, um, and allow me to organize, um, because that will actually strengthen me more”


Like Molly and Penelope, Trasciatti finds that the stigmas about sex workers we discussed before act as hurdles in the fight for decriminalization.

MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: I mean, part of it is, is, uh, an issue of like, um, are you going to be able to get people to sup to, to get over the whatever kind of moral issues they may have with sex work, right.

To actually recognize sex work as work. I think that that’s part of the struggle, right. Is recognizing that sex work is in fact a work and that’s part of the task that sex workers have to do have to. Haven’t before them, right. Is to, to, it’s not a kind of a, a terrible, horrible thing that people do, um, giving into the loss of, of, you know, evil men typically, right. Is envisioned as the, as the, um, or recommend. Um, but it is in fact actual legitimate labor. So, I think one of the big hurdles they have to overcome is convincing. And that’s part of what I think the language change is designed to do obviously is to convince people that this is in fact legit labor, but you know, it’s tied up with sex.


When looking at the trope of sex work being inherently exploitative like we discussed before, Trasciatti finds that sex workers are exploited because they are a part of a system that exploits workers in general. 

MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: Well, the first thing is obviously, uh, recognition, right? Uh, self-recognition that, okay, we’re a class of workers, I guess Marx would call that class consciousness, right?

The recognition that we are a class of workers, we’re not individuals who happen to do a job, but we’re a class of workers. Um, and we are exploited, and we are not exploited by individuals or not exploited because of the nature of the work that we do. But we’re exploited because we. And work within a system that exploits workers.


This idea that sex work itself is not exploitative, but the conditions in which society has created around it make it exploitative, is supported by Molly from SWOP Brooklyn. 

MOLLYA lot of people are in the sex industry because the capitalist society that we live in doesn’t allow them to, uh, really exist in anything else.

Right? Like the sex industry has almost no barrier to entry. So, you don’t need papers. You can be disabled, you can be neurodivergent, you can be using drugs. You know, you don’t have to have consistent access to like medical, um, or like mental health care. Right. All these things that would require someone to get a quote unquote, normal job, you don’t have to have.

To enter the sex industry and a lot of people, in fact, most people who are in the sex industry, like aren’t capable of like working 40 or 50 hours a week, whether it’s for physical reasons or family reasons or childcare reasons. Like it’s just not possible for people to go from working a few hours a week to 40 to 50 hours a week, um, you know, for minimum wage to try to support their lives.

Um, so I mean, we find the best, just like a super unsustainable model. We don’t support any viewpoint that tries to argue that sex work is inherently exploitative. It’s only exploitative because of the societal conditions we’ve created around it. And we’re at to not be criminalized exploitation with one, be easier to spot and to be easier to resolve and like the numbers would decrease dramatically.


With decriminalization comes the right to be protected under labor laws. 

Laws that would provide sex workers the health, social and legal services without fear of repercussion. 

Trasciatti believes one of the first steps to decriminalization and creating a class of laborers is understanding how the system in place works around you, so you can work it

MARY ANNE TRASCIATI: I think necessarily, uh, developing a consciousness of yourself as a class of workers, developing a consciousness of how the economic system I E capitalism, um, is set up to exploit you. Is the first, the first step then, uh, joining with other workers, um, and articulating to each other this kind of shared understanding and then, uh, figuring out what, or how you are covered or not under the law and how you can exploit whatever provisions exist under the law, um, to your advantage and recruiting public support for whatever, um, organizing and advocacy work you want to do. Um, I think is essential knowing your history. Um, obviously is really important.


Sex work is considered one of the oldest professions in history and has continued to face similar challenges that it does today. 

Trasciatti links these historical challenges to a labor movement in 1909. 

MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: In the early 20th century, when women workers would go on strike, they would be called streetwalkers and prostitutes because they would go out and play.

There was a big strike in, in 1909 called the uprising of the 20,000. It was 20,000, mostly Jewish immigrant garment workers in the city striking because they were working in dangerous conditions and, and they were called because they walk the streets as pickets. They were called prostitutes because there was this equation of prostitution with being out in the street and publicly advertising that you used her body to make money.

And a woman factory worker was essentially. They were told, doing the same thing. How dare you be out here, you know, advertising that you’re a laborer and you want more money. You’re like a streetwalker. And so it just, you know, so working women have actually, when they get to quote unquote uppity in demand too much from their bosses, they were called, um, sluts and prostitutes and streetwalkers.

Oh, wow. That’s so interesting. Oh, my God, the prostitutes actually said to the workers when, cause they got beaten like one, the organizer of the strike Clara Lemlich had six ribs broken and they would be thrown in the Patty wagon and sent to jail. And the prostitutes that’s, what they were called at the time were streetwalkers and what we would now call sex workers said to them, wow, you guys even have it worse than we do because we make more money than you do.

You guys take all this abuse, you get called streetwalkers and prostitutes, but we are actually. Get more money and, uh, and the cops are not as nasty to us as they are to you. So, there’s like this historic connection between working women demanding better and being called prostitutes and streetwalkers cause they’re out in the street demanding, you know. That’s so interesting to watch how it’s kind of evolved over the past 100 years now.


A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the legal status of sex work can be a critical factor in shaping patterns of violence against sex workers.

This means decriminalization would shift the level of violence sex workers face as we’ve heard extensively throughout this episode. 

The effort toward decriminalizing sex work has grown significantly in recent years, especially in New York. 

In early March 2021, Mew York District Attorney Melinda Katz moved to dismiss nearly 700 cases against people charged with loitering for the purpose of prostitution, and on the same day, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed to decriminalize sex work. 




New York State Senator Julia Salazar is currently sponsoring senate bill s6419 along with Decrim.NY, an organization dedicated to fighting for the decriminalization of sex work. 

MOLLY: There is a bill on the floor that was introduced by Julia Salazar. SBSTTA, uh, I don’t know how people pronounce that acronym. Um, and I know that it’s like still kind of in the works and there is some work that needs to be done on it, but we personally feel very, uh, competent about the outlook of like the decriminalization bill in the next year or so.

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: I know that the bill, I haven’t done an analysis of it. I know that, uh, activists have worked for a really long time with Salazar, um, on her perspectives, activists coming out of New York city, especially I think it’s Decrim NYC and she’s being present at a lot of those rallies, so I would assume the bill is good. Um, because this politician is linked to strongly linked to that organizing.”


The purpose of this bill is to amend the New York State penal laws around sex work to decriminalize selling sex.

The official legislation of the bill states it is meant to eliminate prior criminal records, repeal certain provisions of the criminal procedure law in relating to the prosecution of sex work. 

This bill is the first of it’s kind in the united states and strips criminal penalties from sex work. 

However, it maintains penalties related to human trafficking such as holding traffickers and people who seek to buy sex from minors accountable for their illegal actions. 

S6419 is currently sitting in the code committee of the New York State Senate.

Music transition

PENELOPE SAUNDERS: Sex work is work. People are out there in various kinds of work to make money. There are labor rights abuses, and there are abuses by state agents, such as police officers imported gods, right. That problems happen.

But those problems would not happen. If sex work is recognized as work and people can then seek labor protections, right? That’s what’s happening all around the world. And the idea that films are still being made and, and shows are still being made with this older idea. Um, It, you know, like everybody get with the times, it’s time to make the new representations of sex workers and a pathway.


The idea of sex work is changing with the introduction of online platforms like Only Fans which allows users to sell content with a secure transaction of payment.

Many sex workers began using Only Fans as an avenue of sale because it met their needs for dealing with clients. 

However, in August 2021, Only Fans announced it was going to ban any sexually explicit content from being sold on the platform because of continued payment transfer issues with banks. 

But this policy change was quickly forgotten when sex workers took to social media to speak out. 

Catherine MacKinnon, the law professor who studies the sex industry discussed this in her September 2021 article I mentioned before. 

MacKinnon has found that consensual sex work is not found commonly in the sex industry and denies the term sex work itself. 

She sees the online sale of sex no differently and compares the percentage that the platform takes from its creators as a pimp’s cut. 

Although the voices of sex workers are beginning to be heard, but their profession is still criminalized, and they are still being targeting at disproportionate rates. 

When looking at the Gilgo murder case, it is important to remember that this is not the only case where sex workers are being targeted. 

We could look at the case of Joel Rifkin, who murdered 17 women on and around long island in the late 80s and early 90s that was discussed in Part Two. 

When Rifkin was being questioned by authorities, he mentioned he would never have stopped killing if he hadn’t gotten caught.

We could also look at peter William Sutcliffe, better known as the Yorkshire Ripper. Sutcliffe was found guilty of murdering 13 women between 1975 to 1980. 

Or Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer that Molly mentioned before. Ridgeway was convicted of killing 48 sex workers but confessed to killing 71 between 1982 and 1998. 

The list goes on, as does the disproportionate rate in which sex workers are murdered.

Men like Ridgeway, Rifkin and Sutcliffe target sex workers because they know that sex workers cannot turn to legal authorities without facing repercussions themselves. 

If sex work was decriminalized, sex workers would be able to turn to the police regarding men like Rifkin and Bittlroff without fear of legal repercussion. 

Bittrolff was only tied to the murders of Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee because of advances in DNA evidence. 

But it took twenty years. 

Rifkin only stopped murdering women because he was caught, which he has admitted in interviews from prison, where he remains today. 

And the murders of the women found on Gilgo beach are still unsolved. 

MOLLY: People prey on sex workers because we are uniquely vulnerable in that. Like nobody persecute, nobody really like pays attention when bad things happen to us, they sort of just like blame it on our circumstances. Um, and that’s why killers like the green river killer or, um, the Gilgo beach Gilgo beach Are allowed to get away with it for so long because they know that nobody’s trying to like, make the connection between like different sex workers who have been murdered.

Music transition 


The future of the Gilgo investigation is now in the hands of newly elected Suffolk County officials like District Attorney Ray Tierney and police Commissioner Rodey Harrison 

Newly elected Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison formed a new inter-agency task force in February 2022 which includes FBI state and local investigators.

Prior to this in January 2022, Harrison announced that he plans to release Shannon Gilbert’s 911 call as long as they do not negatively affect the ongoing investigation reported Newsday. 


JOHN RAY: He’s got a clear mind about this. He doesn’t have any of these positions. And so, uh, he comes in, starts off in. Of the investigation. And first thing he does is pull together all the different police agencies that he could to work on this. I mean, that’s, how could that be bad? I don’t see how it could be.

And you know what, even Suffolk County, he pledged it. He told me he pledged that, uh, he would bring new eyes in from the county police. So it’s Suffolk county, you know, the old, the log jam from the old. It is over Spanish to get different people. What, I think one or two of the people in the same, and they were people, you know, the, uh, the old regime, but they had integrity.

So, he kept them on. No, you brought, you brought it into bed, you would have to imagine. Cause its homicide. So, he brought in the best minds from these different agencies and I’m kind of pleased at his creativity and even bringing in the Sheriff’s office as part of the investigation. So how can it be anything but good. 

You know, this is a good development. Yeah. If he’s best minds, can’t solve this and it’s not something that’s likely to be solved.


That was John Ray talking about Commissioner Harrison’s new initiatives in solving the Gilgo case. I recently spoke with the long island attorney who represents the gilbert family we heard from before.

We also discussed the call he so relentlessly fought the SCPD for being released to the public. 

JOHN RAY: I mean, the problem that, that the public will have is what inevitably you can’t help it.

No, that Shannan’s about to be murdered, is about to be murdered and there’s the evidence of it as clear as a bell, as soon as they go back and compare that fact with what the police should have that’s in writing. How could you, how could you not say that somebody was willfully lying about the event, somebody from the police report. 

Music fade in 


Ray Tierney was elected to the position as Suffolk County DA in November 2021 and clamed his first order of business upon entering office would be to reassure the families of the victims that he is committed to solving their loved ones murder. 

Tierney has made claims that finding justice for Maureen Brainard Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Jessica Taylor, Valerie Mack, Megan Waterman, Shannan Gilbert, Amber-Lynn Costello and the 3 unidentified victims found on Gilgo beach is his top priority. 

However, sources have hinted that this newly energized search for justice was just a campaign tactic.

Christopher Loeb, the victim of a civil rights violation at the hand of the SCPD who we heard from in Part Two, has begun to take finding justice into his own hands. 

Loeb created Unite & Expose, a campaign dedicated to uniting the people of Suffolk County and exposing the political and police corruption he has continually witnessed. 

CHRISTOPHER LOEB: The divine forces are strong in the world. Good and bad. And we’re in a fight between this black and white it’s good and evil. And. The evil is just, it’s starting to be, it’s becoming real. It’s always been there, but it’s now just becoming more. I’m seeing it was unseen for so long and people.

Yeah. Right. Only in horror movies. No one is real life. And we need to come together as a unit to expose these criminal actors that are inside the judicial system. We could do it. Listen, I’m one person, right? I single-handedly by the grace of God, because I listened to my intuition. No matter how scared I got my angels were there protecting me and God was there guiding me.

I single-handedly took down the most powerful district attorney’s office. United States of America. And I say that it’s the most powerful district attorney’s office because it’s, there’s no one else on the other side, looking over at them, controlling them and, and the human trafficking and the, and they said, listen, you have a long island serial killer.

Yeah, Gilgo is unsolved because the players involved are powerful politicians. They control the narrative.

Music transition  


Although the Gilgo case is still unsolved, laws toward sex work are changing in New York however the reality of sex work will only change when destigmatizing and decriminalization begins. 

When society begins to change the way we view sex workers from notions that the word prostitute connotates to a laborer, selling a service the same way a nurse or a teacher would, laws will begin to reflect this change. 

Decriminalization will open doors to better healthcare and social services for sex workers as well as the opportunity to unionize and gain labor protections. 

Sex work is not inherently exploitative but exploited due to the condition’s society has created around the profession. 

December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Each year, sex workers, allies and advocates organize against discrimination and remembering victims of violence. 

This day was first recognized in 2003 as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington. 

Years later, December 17th is still globally recognized and made to empower individuals through awareness about violence against sex workers. 

Thank you for listening to part three of Sex Work After Gilgo. 

I’m Alexandra Whitbeck. 

Music fade out