The reaction to the recent news that seven women were charged with promoting prostitution in Brewer is in some ways more interesting than the news itself.
Some people were appalled and outraged to learn this activity is going on in 21st century small-town Maine. Some, who are perhaps more worldly and less naive about this illegitimate subculture, are mildly amused at the news, and not at all surprised. And others are stirred to indignation on behalf of the defendants. After all, they note, the offense is categorized as a misdemeanor. Why all the fuss? And what about the clients? Are they not equally culpable, and shouldn’t they face similar humiliation, with mug shots on the front page of the newspaper? And last, there is a group of men, anxiously awaiting the phone call they know will come when police find their names among the business’s records.
Those who would claim the alleged prostitution is a new low in the slide toward decadence should think again — police officers who worked in Bangor in the 1960s while Dow Air Force Base was operating would tell a different story. Those who are inclined to smirk and suggest prostitution be ignored should consider the inevitable social and financial costs. Disease, robbery, assault, broken marriages and families, drug addiction and wasted lives are among them, along with the tax implications of an underground economy.
It does seem less than fair that the men who would pay for sex are, so far, escaping public scrutiny. But this may be less the result of sexism than the nature of police work; law enforcement agencies are wont to call in reporters and photographers when they bust a big drug dealer, not when they charge one of the dealer’s customers.
Inevitably, the notion of legalizing prostitution is put on the table for discussion each time one of these stories breaks. There is an argument to be made for such a libertarian approach. By bringing prostitution out of cheap motel rooms it can be better regulated. The only victims, some would assert, are those who have chosen to engage in the behavior.
But to legalize prostitution would be to give up setting standards for working conditions. And by prohibiting women from making a living catering to men’s baser instincts is to protect them from themselves.
The newspaper struggles daily with its decisions on how to present the news. The unusual or surprising trumps the routine when it comes story placement. If the paper is successful, readers will learn something they did not know about their community. That something may make them feel alarmed or reassured, angry or pleased, ashamed or proud. And sometimes readers may experience all of the above from one story.
Prostitution is often referred to as the oldest profession. If so, it is a story that still has the power to incite debate about values relating to sex, work and exploitation.