My street of shame: Prostitution in Maine

So I now have the distinction of living on the street with the highest concentration of men accused in the Kennebunk Zumba prostitution scandal: Morning Street, atop Portland’s Munjoy Hill.

Harry McMann, who resides on the corner of Morning and Moody, just a few houses down from my apartment, was on the first list released by police. I don’t know McMann, but before he bought the property at 76 Morning and thoroughly remodeled it, my girlfriend and I walked through the place with a realtor.

Then last week, when the second batch of names was released, there was Joe Lewis, McMann’s next door neighbor. I’ve known Lewis for at least a decade, having covered his decisions as a member of the city’s zoning board of appeals and, after that, the planning board, which he formerly chaired. I always stop to gossip with Lewis when our paths cross on the street, mostly about city politics. His alleged interest in alternative exercise programs has never come up.

My first thought when I saw Lewis’ name was, Eeewww. This is a textbook example of TMI.

My next thought was, How many other guys on my block will be implicated in this thing? Am I surrounded by leches?

Prostitution has not been a common topic in Portland for the 14 years I’ve lived in the city. There have always been a few scraggly, sweatpant-wearing hookers trolling the Parkside neighborhood, and I’ve long suspected that most, if not all, of the so-called “escort” services in town offer more than witty repartee to their customers. But that side of the sex industry is practically invisible and, from a larger social perspective, relatively harmless.

Now the Zumba scandal is forcing Mainers to confront the issue, and among the questions being debated is whether prostitution should be legalized.

Wendy Chapkis, a University of Southern Maine professor and author who’s written extensively on the sex trade, was on MPBN’s Maine Calling program last week arguing for legalization. “I think prostitution laws harm both women engaged in prostitution and the society in which prostitution is practiced, because it’s very expensive to criminalize prostitution offenses,” Chapkis said. Prostitutes menaced by abusive pimps or clients are hesitant to seek help from police due to the illicit nature of their work. “We enhance the risks of [prostitution] when we take the policies of prohibition,” she said.

Add to this the fact hookers don’t claim their earnings as taxable income. If we’re going to be outraged about millionaires not paying their fair share, are we willing to give high-class whores, who can earn thousands of dollars a night, a free pass?

Legalizing pot and gay marriage were considered politically unthinkable when I moved here in the ’90s. Not anymore. Is Maine now ready to debate legalized prostitution?

In a word, no.

Diane Russell represents Munjoy Hill in the Legislature. She’s outspoken, extremely liberal, and making a bid to be the next Speaker of the House. McMann, whom Russell described as a nice guy, was her landlord for a few months before the renovations beganWhen I ask her about legalizing prostitution, she replied, half-jokingly, “That’s such a great ‘Why do you hate America?’ question.” Although she’s very concerned about sex trafficking, and thinks legalizing prostitution could be one of the ways to address that scourge, Russell said, “We’re way ahead of the curve to even have that dialogue right now.”

Former Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, who serves with Russell in the Legislature and is making a bid to be majority leader if the Democrats retake the House next week, had a similar take. There “doesn’t seem to be an appetite” to discuss legalization at this point, he said, but he also thinks it would be worthwhile for state lawmakers to reexamine prostitution laws and ask, “What are we accomplishing?”

Simply fining prostitutes, as Maine does now, is not an effective deterrent. “They’re in a cash business, so all you’ve done is tax them,” Dion said. “I don’t think we’re winning any wars here.”

I agree that our weak prostitution laws are largely ineffective, but I’m not ready to join the legalization camp, either. A high percentage of prostitutes are drug addicts and victims of abuse. The most effective way to help them escape that horrible lifestyle, and reduce prostitution in the process, is to provide drug treatment and counseling. I’m not convinced the threat of a misdemeanor charge keeps these women from seeking help when they really need it.

I’m also not convinced that we’re spending too much money in Maine combating prostitution, or losing a significant amount of state tax revenue because it’s not legal.

The prospect of public embarrassment is still the most effective deterrent. On that point, I’m sure my neighbors agree.

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.