Women and Consent: An Interview with Robert Kolker about Lost Girls

"One very valid way to read this book is as a book about class. When I read books like The Unwinding by George Packer or Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, I recognize that a lot of the people in those books are experiencing the same pressures the people in Lost Girls experienced. I’d hope anyone reading Lost Girls would see how it’s another way of telling the story of norms being destroyed, society being unjust to those most vulnerable, and those in power not paying enough attention.

"Lost Girls also is obviously about gender and consent, and the long debate within feminism about legalizing sex work—is it self-actualizing or self-negating?—and it’s not that far afield from the discussion we’re all having now about sexual abuse and power. This story is about a killer who has victimized women who tried to gain control over their lives and were thwarted at every turn—not just by the killer but by social forces they were born into...."


Wednesdays with Writers


Interview with critic and author Leslie Lindsay about Lost Girls and my next project, too.

"I absolutely believe that if these women came from a different social strata, the police would have taken their disappearances more seriously and worked to find them and solve their murders more aggressively. That aspect of the mystery is, at least to me, not unsolved. It’s crystal clear."

Wednesdays with Writers


...Kolker, author of Lost Girls, also believes that SCPD should have worked more closely with the FBI, and sooner, and says he thinks the department's "dithering was of great help to the person or people responsible for these murders."

"The Suffolk County police weren't prepared for the magnitude of this case, and the bigger it got, the more they seemed to retrench. They took several steps to downplay the case with the public," he says. "It's clear to me that if these victims came from a different social strata, the police would have worked harder and faster."

Rolling Stone


Observer: I read Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls and found it riveting. Is that what inspired you and Josh to start this series?

Rachel Mills: Such carnage, right? A year passes, two years pass, and you think there’s so many bodies this case would be solved. And it just continued not being solved. As we were doing Killer Legends together, Josh would go on the weekends to Long Island to start working on this story. He thought it was going to be a documentary, like maybe a two-hour documentary. He’s from the area: he was born in Sea Cliff, grew up in Glen Cove and then moved to Staten Island. I think it’s north shore, I don’t think it’s too close.

One of our first interviews was Bob Kolker, who wrote Lost Girls. We started with that, but then we started to see these eerie connections, these eerie similarities to cases across the country......

Joshua Zeman: I was really making the show for people who’d read Lost Girls, and then wanted to know what happened next. And I love to see Kolker write an after series.....

New York Observer


...Not long after “Lost Girls” was published, Mr. Kolker said, he was contacted by Mr. Zeman and Ms. Mills. The former is a veteran filmmaker who is best-known for the 2011 true crime documentary “Cropsey”; he and Ms. Mills, also a film veteran, teamed up after “Cropsey” for an anthology series, “Killer Legends,” for NBC Universal, which has been popular on iTunes, Netflix and Hulu.

The pair told Mr. Kolker they wanted to continue the work of journalists chasing the stubborn case of LISK in some documentary form; either a feature film or a series, they weren’t sure. “But they wanted to get to work,” he said. They enlisted renowned documentarian Alex Gibney as executive producer. 

The resulting miniseries took some three years to put together, and it expands the topic beyond LISK and Gilgo Beach to the general issue of sex workers being the target of serial killers throughout the United States—the filmmakers go to Atlantic City, Daytona Beach and other communities where similar crimes have occurred. The problem has grown as online listings have become a popular way for “escorts” to find clients. Many times, they are men and women “living off the grid,” Mr. Kolker noted, and thus often not immediately missed, nor easily identified.....

East Hampton Press


PEOPLE editors and true crime experts gathered for the People Magazine Investigates After Show, which aired Monday night, to analyze the series’s two-hour premiere about the Long Island Serial Killer case.

One conclusion from the group was about the “extraordinary” effect Shannan Gilbert had had on what happened. It was her disappearance, and the subsequent search for her, that led authorities to the 10-plus bodies in the Gilgo Beach area on Long Island, New York.

“Shannan Gilbert, whether she was a victim of this killer or not, has really done something extraordinary in our society,” Lost Girls author Robert Kolker said during the after show.

“I don’t think any of us can name one of the victims of Joel Rifkin — or of Jack the Ripper, for that matter,” he said.

Kolker continued, “And the fact that is, from the Green River Killer to the Southside Slayer in Los Angeles, the victims in these cases are often sex workers and escorts — people who are living unsafe, risky lives but who are overlooked by police and aren’t helped by police.

“And Shannan puts a face on these people.”

Gilbert’s relatives felt the same: Her mother was featured on Monday night’s premiere episode of People Magazine Investigates. As she told PEOPLE in a recent cover story, “I hope [the case] will bring awareness to any police department anywhere that regardless of who you are and what you do for a living that you are not judged, and that all cases are handled equally.”



Robert Kolker’s LOST GIRLS is getting some special television attention this fall.  LOST GIRLS introduces readers to the Long Island Serial Killer and the women he targeted, all forced to turn to prostitution via Craigslist.

Investigative reporter Robert Kolker delved into the stories of each of these women, and his research is used in upcoming projects that bring these stories to the screen:

· The 8-episode documentary series is about the Long Island Serial Killer, and the author will appear in 3 episodes.
· It premieres Saturday, November 12 at 9 pm ET.

· The Long Island Serial Killer is the subject of the first episode of the new 10-episode series. The author was interviewed for this episode.
· It premieres on Investigation Discovery on Monday, November 7 at 9 pm ET.

-- HarperCollins


Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime.... Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.

Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.

— The Millions


This week marks the launch of the paperback version of LOST GIRLS.  I'm grateful for the added visibility this book has brought to the case -- how it has brought added pressure on law-enforcement, inspired more news coverage about the case, and raised important questions about how these women and others became so vulnerable.  I continue to hope that keeping this case visible will help lead to a resolution.

WNYC: The Economics of Sex Work

The Department of Justice released a massive study earlier this week about the sex trade, with a focus on pimps and human trafficking. On WNYC's "The Takeaway" today, I talked with host John Hockenberry and author Melissa Gira Grant about what the study does and doesn't reveal.

"I think [the sex trade] is fundamentally different—it's as different as the book industry has been over the last 10 years," says Kolker. "The internet has disrupted sex work, in my opinion, almost as substantially. There are a lot of people that aren't working walking the streets anymore, they aren't working with a pimp anymore, they aren't working with an escort service anymore, and they're just using the internet—BackPage or formerly Craigslist—to be solo practitioners or freelancers."

Kolker says while this report sheds light on some aspects of human trafficking, he says this report ignores this substantial change in the sex trade.

"Anyone new who might be getting into the business, if they're not being trafficked or coerced, they're probably doing it on their own," he says. "This study seems to focus more on pimps than the high-end escort services or the freelancers."

Kolker says that the internet as a vehicle for casual sex work has grown since 2007 and believes that the report may have had an heavier emphasis on this if it were commissioned slightly later. 

"This study was commissioned in 2007, and in 2009, something like 30 different attorneys general got together and called Craigslist the new Times Square," he says. 

 Click below for audio from the segment.

"The Economics of Sex Work," THE TAKEAWAY

Sex, love and commerce

Readers of Lost Girls who are interested in learning more about the debate over sex work and its place in society may be interested in this well-written and very thoughtful article by Benjamin J. Dueholm in The Christian Century.  The article does an excellent job of analyzing the arguments for and against legalization, giving lots of attention to all sides of the debate (and including some excellent observations about Lost Girls). 

- "Sex, Love and Commerce," by Benjamin J. Dueholm, THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY.

Year-end praise

As the year comes to a close, I wanted to express gratitude for all the praise Lost Girls has received, and to note a few new places beyond the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly where the book has gained attention. Thanks to all.

• Jacquelyn Mitchard, the Oprah-celebrated author of The Deep End of the Ocean, was kind enough to recommend Lost Girls to readers of the Miami Herald.

• Reporter Stephanie Mencimer singled out Lost Girls as one of the year's best books in Mother Jones.

• In Canada's National Post, Lost Girls made critic Philip Marchand's list of favorite (er, favourite) books of 2013.  

• Also in Canada, Lost Girls made the Globe & Mail's list of the year's best books: "Kolker’s investigation into a still-at-large serial killer on New York State’s Long Island is a riveting piece of true crime writing. But more than that, it’s an indictment of a society that turns its back on women in danger."

• Columnist Diane LaRue of the Auburn Citizen was also kind enough to mention Lost Girls in her year-end list of "most compelling" books.

Garth Risk Hallberg, writing in The Millions, called Lost Girls one of the "great works of narrative journalism" he read in 2013, noting how the author's "patient unfolding of his story gives the reader room to become outraged."