Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How could such a nice, upper-class white man do such bad things?

(This post contains potentially triggering descriptions of violent crimes against women.)

Philip Markoff is white, upper-middle class, highly educated, and engaged to be married. There is also strong evidence to suggest that he's committed some deeply misogynistic crimes. Why are these two realities so difficult for some folks to reconcile?

Prosecutors have alleged that Markoff prowled Craigslist for vulnerable women (who'd posted services as masseuses or sex workers), made appointments with them, and then robbed them. He allegedly tied up one of his victims inside a hotel room, binding her to the inside of the door, after robbing her. When his second target Julissa Brisman put up a fight, he allegedly killed her. She had three bullet wounds and a massive head injury when her body was found.

In the NBC news video available with this article, the anchor expresses incredulity that a man with Markoff's background apparently has the capacity for misogyny, violence, and -- in an aspect of the case that has particularly fascinated our media -- that he fooled his fiancee into believing that Markoff could never hurt a fly.

I know it's a really predictable narrative: good boy gone bad. Markoff isn't the first white man to kill a woman and be the subject of armchair psychological analysis of "what went wrong," or how he "snapped." Indeed, it's interesting how Markoff himself - instead of Brisman, his victim -- is the object of such intense fascination. We can only imagine how differently this case would be treated if Markoff were a young black man, or from a poor background, or an immigrant. And his victims' status as sex workers reinforces their invisibility.

The Markoff case isn't being framed as an issue of violence against women. But why shouldn't it be? If we're going to psychoanalyze, why not start with the patriarchal field of medicine in which he's being trained? Why not start with the culture of date rape on college campuses, where Markoff has spent the last six years of his life? Why not ask why Markoff selected these victims -- women doing sex work, women living somewhat on the margins -- to rob and terrorize?

Most of all, it is a dangerous assumption that a man who looks nice (in this case, "nice" means young, white, and educated) could not be a predator. Nice-looking, affable men may beat their female partners every day. Nice-looking men may be misogynists. Nice-looking men may abuse prostitutes, or rape their dates. Unfortunately, violence against women crosses race and class lines. As a culture, we must recognize that the dehumanization of women, particularly sex workers, is an equal-opportunity social phenomenon.

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