Robert Kolker’s ‘Lost Girls’ and Sex Work in the Internet Age

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Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is the story of five women whose remains were found in a 15-mile strip of beach in Long Island. In the book, Kolker doesn’t just piece together the police investigation and the media’s response to the crime, but also gives the reader an inside look into these women’s lives: their childhoods, their families, and their dreams.

In the first half, we are introduced to Maureen, Melissa, Amber, Megan, and Shannan–five sex workers in the Northeast. The author’s background in investigative journalism allows the reader to push aside misconceptions in order to view these women as complex human beings. Kolker explains why the women ended up working in the industry and how society failed them. The biggest takeaway for me was poverty’s role in these women’s decisions: they had to take care of their children, their parents–and sex work provided a fast way to cash.

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Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman, and Shannan Gilbert

Some parts of the book stuck with me more than others, specifically how sex work has changed as a result of the Internet. The women that Kolker focuses on all used online ads on Craigslist and Backpage to find clients. This meant the women would keep a larger share of the money, usually only having to split a small percentage to a driver. Without extra fees for escort services, pimps, or any other middlemen, they could keep more for themselves and for their families.

While the Internet seemed like the best way for this transaction to take place, it also had major downsides. With Craigslist, there was less protection for the workers and it limited the amount of information they knew about the clients before a meeting took place. These five women met the killer through Craigslist–the anonymity that Craigslist provided meant they couldn’t trace the john.

The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they’re stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on. -Robert Kolker

To further complicate the matter, the killer specifically targeted sex workers because he knew the police would not go searching for a “missing prostitute.” Some of the bodies had been in the 15-mile stretch for years before one of the missing women’s cases brought to light a multitude of bodies dumped in the same stretch of land.

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I was dumbfounded by the police response–that it took that long to search for these missing women just because they were grown and because of their profession. Kolker documented detectives saying “Most of them are in the business that they’re in because it’s an easy way to make money, and because they’re greedy.” He also wrote that a cameraman said that he couldn’t believe they’re doing all this “for a whore.” It showed the reader the nitty-gritty of how sex workers are viewed by society.

I thought it was interesting how the author focused on the media response as well. From CBS News’ 48 Hours, to an A&E documentary, to HLN/Nancy Grace, we got to see the victim’s families not solely as heartbroken, families-in-arms, sticking it together until the investigation was done. Instead, we got to see how the families sort of became part of the circus act: they started getting their hair and their make-up done before interviews. It felt very human to see these families change in an oftentimes selfish way as a result of the investigation.

The only thing I could pinpoint as a negative concerning this book is how many subjects there were to remember: all five victims’ names, their working names, their families’ names (mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, sons, boyfriends). It all got confusing and I found myself Googling to put names to faces. I wish the book had provided pictures or diagrams to better represent the 25+ subjects involved.

Regardless, the book does a wonderful job of presenting a world not many of us have connections to and, as a result, teaches us just how normal many of these women were (and are) despite public perception of their profession.


You can check out Lost Girls on Goodreads here.

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