How Serial Killer Aileen Wuornos Became a Cult Hero
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How Serial Killer Aileen Wuornos Became a Cult Hero

Shortly before Cardi B released her single “Press” back in May, she revealed the track’s controversial cover art—a recreation of an infamous photo of Aileen Wuornos in a prison jumpsuit, handcuffs raised around her neck. Wuornos was a sex worker who fell in love with a woman and spent a decade on death row after a jury found her guilty of seven charges of first-degree murder, though she maintained that she committed these crimes in self-defense. The lurid story of a sex-working, man-killer stirred an unrelenting media frenzy. Following her death by lethal injection in 1992, the press dubbed Wuornos “the first female serial killer.”

While some critics dismissed Cardi B’s tribute to Wuornos as tasteless, in certain corners of the internet, the response was celebratory. “Yea props to Aileen Wuornos!!” one fan tweeted. Referencing a previous Cardi B tweet, another responded, “Sources has it saying that Cardi B’s character from ‘Press’ is inspired by a notorious serial killer named Aileen Wuornos. I say that’s genius as fuck.”Activists like Dani Love, an outspoken advocate for black women’s liberation and sex workers’ rights known online as @BlackSapphic, saw the image as a powerful symbol of solidarity and survival in the face of male violence. “This is so political,” she Tweeted.” I actually strongly support this. I respect it. I’m actually mind blown by this.”

In the decades since Wuornos’ death, some people have argued that her story deserves a more compassionate, nuanced examination. Born to a working-class family in Michigan, Wuornos endured a childhood marked by horrific violence, poverty, and sexual abuse. Turning to sex work for survival, Wournos hitchhiked down Florida highways where, as she later argued in court, she survived rape and violent assault. Over the course of her arrest, trial, and incarceration, she claimed men she killed had attempted to sexually assault her, and that she shot them in self-defense.

Though her testimony was contradictory at times—and she ended up pleading “no contest” to five of the murder charges—her supporters, many of them familiar with the violence sex workers face on the job, still take Wuornos at her word.

“This woman was a lesbian sex worker who k*lled a client who she thought her life was threatened by,” Love told VICE. For Love, Cardi’s callback to Wuornos sent a powerful message—especially in light of the rapper’s own experiences working as a stripper as a young woman, often facing threats to her own safety from dangerous clients. “Aileen is bad-ass, and so is Cardi,” Love said.

While this may have been the first time a high-profile musician invoked Wuornos’ image as a symbol of defiance, sex workers, lesbians, feminists, sexual assault survivors, and those whose identities intersect these experiences have been quietly looking to Wuornos as a cult hero and feminist icon for some time. “Today marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Aileen Wuornos, a beautifully humane woman who will forever hold a place in my heart for her strength and courage in living through the horrific life cards she’d been dealt and that were completely out of her control,” read a post on the now-defunct blog Feminist Rag in 2013, later reposted on a Men’s Rights forum.

“I’ve always been kind of obsessed with Aileen Wuornos because one of my aunts was a truck stop hooker too,” actor and drag performer Willam Belli told Billboard in 2018, shortly after releasing a Wuornos-inspired musical parody video. “I’ve done all the things that she’s done, except kill people. I’ve hooked. I’ve bleached my hair. I’ve walked down I-95. Done all of it.”

In an email to VICE, Belli said he empathizes with the trauma and abuse Wuornos experienced. “Aileen’s upbringing of abuse and neglect seriously handicapped her chances of ending up a productive member of society without a serious redirect somewhere,” Belli said. “She was obviously held responsible for her actions by the court, but I’m hoping the people that turned her into the troubled individual she was also reap some sort of karmic punishment, if Aileen’s bullets already didn’t seal that deal.”

Eric Lee runs the online clothing shop Comeonstrong, where he sells original designs including a t-shirt juxtaposing that iconic image of Wuornos in handcuffs with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign slogan “I’m With Her” Lee created the image in 2016, following the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. At the time, he was working two blocks away from the Convention Center, and he remembers the constant pro-Clinton buzz. “I was fed up with the phony agendas of neo-liberal politics,” Lee said. “Career politicians that pretend to give a shit about poor people while supporting legislation that kills them. I wanted to say something about it and happened to be reading a lot about Aileen Wuornos at the time. She was the definition of disenfranchised.”

Three years later, Lee says the “I’m With Her” shirt is still one of his most popular designs. “Her story speaks to the experience of sex workers in this country who are constantly in danger from clients, societal stigma, and the punitive state,” he said of Wuornos. “Bernie Sanders voted for FOSTA-SESTA, which has made sex work far less safe. The shirt has stimulated more dialogue about all of these intersecting issues than I could foresee.”

But Lee’s interest in Wuornos goes beyond superficial fandom. A survivor of sexual assault and abuse, he says that reading about Wuornos’ life helped him identify the ways toxic masculinity fueled the violence and abuse he experienced at the hands of the men, as well as acknowledge these patterns in himself. “I had to recognize and unlearn this behavior of accepting terrible men,” Lee said. Her story felt like a catharsis. “I had fantasized about maiming and murdering my abusers, desecrating the graves of these monsters,” Lee said. Whether it was a psychotic break, self-defense or both, it didn’t matter because I empathized with her. I was ‘with her.'”

Studies indicate that fantasizing about murdering or causing violent harm to an abuser is a shared experience among many survivors of sexual assault. “For many, experiencing anxiety, guilt, or loss of control leads to revenge fantasies, and these kinds of thoughts and feelings offer satisfaction, relief, and a sense of agency,” said Deborah Serani, Psy. D., professor at Adelphi University.

Since it isn’t socially acceptable or safe to wish death on rapists, though, many victims never get the space to acknowledge those feelings. “It is important to normalize these thoughts because people who have these fantasies are often scared, or feel bad about themselves for having these thoughts, and as a result try to push these feelings away,” Babbel said. “Survivors might be afraid that they are becoming like the perpetrator or have something in common, but they don’t.”

As such, stories like Wuornos’ can offer a powerful example of a survivor who defies the respectability politics of victimhood. “What Wuornos did that nearly all other survivors of sexual assault do not do is act on her revenge impulses,” said Serani. “When we read or watch such stories like hers unfold, research suggests that our own revenge fantasies get transferred or displaced. We find comfort or satisfaction that someone evil has received justice at the hands of another person.”

Of course, some survivors will understandably stop short of celebrating Wuornos’ descent into actual violence. Leading up to her sentencing, Wuornos’ defense team argued that Wuornos’ traumatic childhood and adolescence had produced serious consequences for her psychological health; expert witnesses for the defense claimed that Wuornos exhibited symptoms consistent with antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, complicating the prosecution’s portrayal of her as a rational actor. (Ultimately, these psychological considerations failed to sway the jury against recommending the death penalty).

Still, there’s no denying that Wuornos’ story sheds light on the societal structures and circumstances that can force victims into a position where they feel that retaliation is the only option. “It’s really easy for society to paint women and other oppressed people as villains when they react in unhinged ways that are often violent, but it’s important to look at how capitalism, cis heterosexist patriarchy, and misogyny really put her in many of the positions she was in that made her murder,” Love said. “She was a victim of so many structural oppressions. Sex workers in her field lack protection, which allows violence to happen. Sex workers cannot go to the police for help because they are directly connected to the oppression of so many marginalized groups who often are sex workers: women, black and other people of color, LGBT people.”

As reports of powerful men who abuse vulnerable women continue to surface, it’s hard to deny that survivors are craving stories of revenge—stories where victims not only live to survive the abuse, but fight back. “I think part of her appeal to me personally, in this cultural moment, is that Aileen Wuornos was a woman that men feared,” said Bailey. Wuornos’ memory offers hope that terrible men like Jeffrey Epstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and countless others will ultimately get what they deserve. “A prostitute hunting men instead of being hunted is a deeply comforting story.”

Wuornos refused to be silenced, and for some, she lives on as an icon, a patron saint of the socially and politically inconvenient who refuse to be cast aside. “She stood up for herself with all odds against her,” Love said. “She said, ‘Not this time.'”

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