“Trial starts for 2005 murder of prostitute found in Marsa” was the headline on this morning’s Times of Malta’s front page reporting on the start of the trial of two men accused of killing Sion Grech nearly 20 years ago. One of the men had been her lover.

As a matter of fact, their victim had indeed been a prostitute. The headline is factually correct. If the term ‘prostitute’ was unburdened by normative implications the use of the word ‘prostitute’ would merely be loading more ambivalent information to the rest of the words chosen for it. Substitute ‘murder of prostitute’ with ‘murder of nurse’ or ‘murder of volleyball enthusiast’ or ‘murder of church volunteer’ and you’ll get my meaning. Nice. Now we know something more about the victim. Ah well.

Unless the characteristic the victim is illustrated by in the headline is included for the conscious suggestion that the detail is relevant to the cause of the murder: ‘murder of school-teacher by class-room assailant’, say, or ‘murder of a journalist’.

The evidence clearly shows that the victim of this murder had been a sex worker. The evidence also suggests that her killers knew her and at least one of them had an intimate relationship with her that lasted over time and that relationship had not been transactional in nature. In other words, she wasn’t killed by a punter who had only just met her. She was killed by people who knew her and whom she knew.

My point I suppose is that though it is factually correct that the victim of this murder had worked as a prostitute, she wasn’t killed because she had done so.

She had been a prostitute until she became a murder victim.

Irrelevancies are not always harmful. Consider the nurse or volleyball enthusiast mentioned above. Sometimes, however, irrelevancies, when loaded with stigma, ride on misguided perceptions, confirm them, and make it harder for people to have a fair and objective view.

There can be no doubt prostitution is stigmatised and the label ‘prostitute’, in the eyes of many, is sufficient to dilute in their judgement the status of a victim as such. That stigma takes away from sex workers not just the sympathy of people but the very protection of the legal and justice system. It is almost as if being a prostitute means one is asking for violence and abuse.

There’s a rapid unconscious logic, a self-satisfied syllogism, that fleshes out in the eyes of the beholder of a headline like that.

Prostitute murdered.
If she hadn’t been a prostitute she wouldn’t have been murdered.
The murder is the prostitute’s fault.

I realise then that the headline is factually correct. But the headline does not exist independently of the prejudices of our society. One scared woman was stabbed 20 times in her neck and chest at the hands of people she knew and as she felt death painfully creep up on her, it’s unlikely that what defined her awareness of her suffering and dying self, had been the work she did.

One final point. Sion Grech’s body was found in a field in Marsa nearly 20 years ago. The men facing trial for her murder as you read this were first interrogated by the police hours after her body was found. I’m sure there are many reasons for the delay to hear their case but frankly whatever those reasons are 20 years waiting for trial is nothing like justice. This is not working.