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
Giving a voice to gay Arab men
I caught up with author Samer Bo to talk about writing erotic gay fiction in Egypt.
What led you to start writing erotic gay fiction?
I was forgetting what was happening. I noticed that when someone asked me about what happened to me the previous week, I couldn’t remember the details.
I think forgetting was my defence-mechanism for all the pain and trouble.
So, I started by writing my diaries, which ended to be quite erotic sometimes. Then that moved to erotic fiction.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your stories?
Inspiration comes from my personal experiences and sometimes my friends’ experiences. Other times, I just meet a guy or watch a movie, and it inspires me to write a story.
Who are your target audience?
I write for myself before anyone else. I’d love all gay men to read and get aroused by my stories.
But I guess I do write for minorities — people who don’t usually get represented in media, porn, or erotic stories. I want people to see themselves represented in my novels.
What sort of feedback do you get from your readers?
I get a lot of positive feedback from people in the Middle East who finally find a voice speaking to them. Some see me as a role model — a type of Egyptian guy that they never see in the media.
Do your friends and family know that you write erotic gay fiction?
Only some close friends know. I’m not in touch with my family anyway. Samer is my real name, but I changed my last name to Bo.
Have you had any negative reactions to the gay erotic fiction that you write?
I only tell people about my writing if I know that they’re either gay or gay friendly. So I haven’t had negative reactions in that respect.
However, I have had multiple incidents of homophobia. I was arrested once.
Son of the President isn’t an erotic story, how did that story come to you?
That story is based on the real-life story of an older friend that I met a few years ago. I told him about my erotic stories, and he asked me to write an erotic story inspired by his experiences.
However, I felt that if I wrote it as erotica, it would take away from the essence of the story. So I left it as non-erotic story.
What do you hope that people feel when reading your stories?
First of all, aroused from my erotic stories. Plus, I want people to feel represented.
Gay Arabs are not represented in any kind of media. We’re being suppressed and discriminated against. A lot of gay men in the Middle East feel that being gay is wrong, and that homosexuality is a sin.
This is my small way to help those men feel better about themselves.
What are some of your goals and ambitions for the remainder of 2018?
More stories, maybe some non-erotic ones. I’m also helping a friend of mine to change his non-erotic short story into a play.
Giving a voice to gay Arab men
Fuelling the thrills of an exhibitionist
The intimacy and brotherhood of men
The loose morals of the Prohibition-era
The dangerous allure of a Chacal
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