KENNEBUNK, Maine — While public scrutiny has focused on the men accused in the alleged prostitution scandal casting a national spotlight on Kennebunk, the spectacle also has entangled families, friends and loved ones of those named.
“There will be a great deal of humiliation for the men who have misstepped, and unfortunately for the wives and the children and the friends — they’re going to carry some of that shame for them,” said Julie Allen, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Kennebunk. “That’s really tragic.”
So far, 21 men have been named on charges of engaging a prostitute as a result of the high-profile investigation. Police are due to release more names on Oct. 26, and a defense attorney has indicated that at least 150 more johns could be involved in the case.
Police allege that Alexis Wright, a local Zumba instructor, used her exercise studio as a cover for a prostitution ring and secretly filmed many of her encounters. Her client list is rumored to contain the names of prominent community members. The names of a local lawyer and businessman, along with a former South Portland mayor, were among the first to be made public.
Wives of men implicated in the case may face uncomfortable questions about whether they will end their marriages. Children might be quizzed about their reactions to their father’s criminal charges. Many will likely experience stress over what others will think of their choices.
Amid all the curiosity, families should remember that they can decline to answer uncomfortable questions from others, said Rebecca Brown, a child and family therapist with Community Counseling Center in Portland.
“Despite it being a public issue, they still have a right to their own privacy in whatever ways they need to set boundaries,” she said.
Whether the names of the remaining johns should not be published, to spare the other family members the upset and hurt, is debatable, said Renate Klein, an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Maine in Orono.
“Johns who kept their use of a prostitute secret from family members are lying to their families and possibly keeping up considerable pretense and hypocrisy,” she wrote in an email. “Is that better or worse than open discussion about the issue?”
Individuals roped into the scandal will all react differently, both to the public scrutiny and to the effects on their personal relationships, Brown said. Children in the community will look to adults for cues about how to respond, and as more names are released, demonstrating compassion will be crucial, she said.
“The No. 1 thing is to be sensitive and empathetic and supportive to the families, rather than judging or scrutinizing or criticizing,” Brown said.
As difficult as talking about the scandal with children may be, parents should provide the truth, in an age-appropriate way, she said.
“One of the things that comes up is what should we tell kids?” Brown said. “It’s a very adult subject; what should children know? I think it is really important that kids have accurate information. They don’t need all of the specific, nitty gritty details of what’s going on, but they [shouldn’t be] told things that aren’t true.”
As the prostitution scandal has heightened, the community has displayed an impulse to support its own. Many mothers who belong to a Facebook group for Kennebunk moms have made a pact to support the families of the johns. Several came together to develop a “Kennebunk Pride” logo that was printed on stickers and distributed at a recent festival, an expression that locals stick together not only amid the prostitution investigation, but also during other times of crisis.
While the johns’ alleged bad behavior shouldn’t be excused, the men remain members of the community, Allen said.
“We mustn’t shun them, we mustn’t pretend like they don’t belong and we mustn’t break off ties with them because they ended up on the crime blotter,” she said.
While the men have been labeled as suspected criminals, people in Kennebunk know them as more than that, Allen said.
“We know them as our neighbors, we know them as local businessmen … That doesn’t change for us, because that’s our everyday reality,” she said.