In November 2016, 41-year-old Stephen Port was convicted of the murders of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor.
Port was named ‘The Grindr Killer’ by the tabloid press because he connected with his victims through the popular gay hook-up app.
Professor Elizabeth Yardley, criminologist at Birmingham City University, has been studying the case of Stephen Port. I spoke with Professor Yardley to see what insights her studies are revealing.
What do we know about Stephen Port’s motivation for killing his victims?
Port enjoyed the sense of power that killing gave him. He enjoyed having complete control over his victims — both in terms of the multiple sexual assaults for which he was convicted, and in terms of the murders. He simply didn’t care whether his victims lived or died, all that mattered to him was his own gratification. He had no empathy for his victims, they were simply there for him to abuse and fulfil his own need for power and control.
What do we know about his psychological profile?
Port would have been all too aware of the stigma that still exists around homosexuality in suburbs and communities away from the bright lights and big cities. He took advantage of this, knowing that the men he met online would not likely be shouting about what they had planned for that evening. He preyed on these individual vulnerabilities — which in turn are created by cultural homophobia.
These murders were about ownership, possession and control — he has much in common with Dennis Nilsen. Nilsen referred to his victims as his ‘tragic products’ — they were his, he felt entitled to do what he wanted with them. Equally, Port didn’t care whether his victims lived or died.
Does the ‘hierarchies of victimisation’ appear to apply in all of the gay serial cases that have been studied?
It does appear to be the case with Dennis Nilsen. The men targeted by Dennis Nilsen had lost touch with family and friends, some of them had substance misuse issues, some were unemployed and homeless. They regularly went off the radar anyway, this was part of their lifestyle so their acquaintances weren’t alarmed when they went missing.
This was late 1970s — early 1980s Britain, where the ‘new right’ were extolling the virtues of the traditional nuclear family, and Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that ‘there’s no such thing as society.’ The zeitgeist was one of increasingly selfish neo-liberal individualism. The gap between the rich and the poor began to grow, the marginalised became more marginalised — vulnerable people mattered less. Only a few years later Charles Murray would begin speaking disparagingly of the emergence of an ‘underclass.’ The political rhetoric of individual responsibility, rolling back the state, and standing on your own two feet was wholly inconsistent with caring about those left behind — when they became the victims of crime it was their fault and they had no one to blame but themselves.
Three decades later, and there’s something of a broader cultural anxiety about young, working class men. We fixate on issues of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and ‘toxic masculinity’ without really understanding the economic and social forces that have given rise to these concepts. Young working class men are the new marginalised in the wastelands of capitalism — termed ‘chavs’ and ‘pikeys’ by the tabloid press.
Port did however make some misjudgements in terms of hierarchies of victimisation — his victims weren’t homeless drifters, isolated from their friends and families. They had jobs, support networks, people noticed when they disappeared and reported them missing to the police. The families and friends of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor are the reason why more men didn’t lose their lives. They were tenacious and determined, they didn’t let the matter drop — when the police dismissed them, they went to gay rights campaigners and the media. They shouldn’t have had to do this.
Of the gay serial killers that have been studied, do we have a sense of how aware they were of the impact of the hierarchy of victimisation on their victims, and how they could use this to their advantage?
In many of the cases of serial homicide in which gay men have been targeted, these men have been particularly vulnerable and this is something that the killers have preyed upon. They deliberately target people who they believe are vulnerable, people who they believe won’t be missed, people they see as ‘beneath’ them.
In the Stephen Port case, was the socio-economic status of the victims the key driver of the hierarchy of victimisation, or was it their homosexuality? Or did the combination of those two factors have an exponential impact on the response of the criminal justice system to this case?
It was a combination of gender, social class, and sexuality. When young, working-class men are murdered in gang homicides, confrontational homicides, and fatal altercations in and around the night-time economy — we often don’t hear about these cases. They don’t receive as much media coverage as a murder of a white, middle-class woman. Throw in homosexuality and this further tarnishes their ‘ideal victim’ status — or how deserving of sympathy we feel they are.
Often their families are highly critical of the police investigations. This isn’t just about the decisions made by newspaper editors or individual police officers either. This is about the broader culture in which people make decisions — the values, attitudes, and beliefs that endorse or excuse particular courses of action or inaction. This tells us about the value that we as a society place on people of a particular gender, social class, and sexuality.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct hasn’t completed its review of the handling of the Stephen Port case. When are the outcomes of that review expected?
Whilst the IOPC investigation is still ongoing, I think what we can say is that these men and their families were massively let down — hierarchies of victimisation are very much still with us.
I’m dreading the words ‘lessons learned’ — which surely will be part of the official response. Lessons were not learned from Dennis Nilsen. Lessons were not learned from Colin Ireland, Michael Lupo, or Peter Moore. Lessons may not be learned from Stephen Port.
We need to dig deeper and ask — “Why have lessons not been learned?” That will involve taking a good look at ourselves and the society in which we live. When some people are murdered — particularly young, working-class, gay men — they are no less dead than any other murder victim, but they are somehow seen as less valuable. This isn’t good enough.
One of the main commonalities between the victims of Stephen Port is the use of gay hook-up apps to connect with potential victims. Have we seen any response from dating or hook-up apps to this?
This is certainly a time to have conversations around these apps and safety. However, I’m always keen to emphasise that Anthony, Gabriel, Daniel, and Jack didn’t die because they were engaging in risky behaviour or putting themselves in harm’s way. They died because Stephen Port decided to kill them.
All too often after cases like these, we shift our emphasis onto the victim’s behaviour, when it’s actually the perpetrator’s behaviour and our response to it that needs addressing.
The questions we really need to ask are — “What are the wider social values, attitudes and beliefs that enable a serial killer not only to begin killing but to continue killing and go completely unseen?”
We want to hear your opinion
I caught up with my LinkedIn buddy Peter to talk about his first date.
Can you remember your first date with a guy?
My fist date was with a soldier I was 17 he was 27.
I’d gone to a gay bar. You had to be 18 to get in, but I’d convinced the doorman that I was 18.
I met the soldier in the bar. He took me back to the barracks. He stripped me off, got me to stand up against his bedroom wall, then forced his big cock into my tight ass. He then pumped away until he shot all his spunk into me.
When you’re dating, how do you typically meet guys?
Generally at pubs, or the gym.
What’s your idea of a perfect date?
A lovely day out with a stranger, ending up in hot sex.
For a young guy who was just starting to explore dating in the gay world, what advice or guidance would you give them?
Take it slowly. Go with a friend. Only do what you feel happy with.
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