PORTLAND, Maine — It’s called a victimless crime. The world’s oldest profession. And promoting it is now defined as a form of human trafficking, under a state law signed July 11.
But for police and some city residents, prostitution in the city is simply a challenge of day-to-day life.
The problem made headlines again recently after a July 7 police sting operation in Parkside netted four arrests for engaging a prostitute. The arrests came less than two weeks after a similar operation resulted in two other “johns” being arrested in the same neighborhood after allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover police officer.
The incidents bring the total number of john arrests made so far in 2013 to eight, according to police data. That’s equal to the number made during all of 2012.
“We are seeing more prostitutes on the street, even more than in 2012,” Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch said in an interview last Friday. “That brings out more johns.”
While street-level prostitution hadn’t been a significant problem in Portland for several years, according to Malloch, there’s now a “resurgence.”
And police don’t know why.
The increase seems to be most focused in Parkside, the area between Congress Street and Park Avenue bordered by Forest Avenue and St. John Street. Five of the six recent arrests were made in a two-block area along Weymouth Street, on the neighborhood’s perimeter.
“The problem is very localized. We’re not seeing it branch out right now,” Malloch said. He said the area’s close proximity to two heavily traveled routes, Congress Street and Park Avenue, may partially account for the concentration of arrests.
But there’s no single reason for where sex is sold or where people seek to buy it, he said.
Malloch pointed out that a couple years ago, the area near Portland and Mechanic streets was another hotbed for prostitution.
Police are taking a multi-faceted approach to combating the problem, Malloch said. It includes the john arrests, enforcing an ordinance against drivers who “cruise” in search of sex, and working with the Parkside Neighborhood Association and other neighborhood groups to identify illicit activity.
Arresting prostitutes is difficult, since most know their clientele and can easily spot a police officer, he said. In fact, police made only two arrests of alleged prostitutes last year.
At the request of police, the Parkside Neighborhood Association has submitted statements to the Cumberland County district attorney’s office about the impact of prostitution, encouraging prosecutors to pursue cases against johns to the full extent of the law.
The statements have cited examples of women who live in the neighborhood being followed by “creepy guys in cars who are obviously cruising.”
“The impact of these activities [is] far-reaching, disturbing the safety and peace of mind, interfering with the quality of life and disrupting the comfortable daily activities of Parkside residents,” the group’s latest statement read.
But Parkside Neighborhood Association President Emma Holder cautioned against sensationalizing the problem.
“I have never felt unsafe in Parkside,” said Holder, who has lived there since 1998. “Unfortunately, the neighborhood has long been fighting this stigma. It’s a complex neighborhood, and [prostitution] here gets a little blown out of proportion by the media.”
Prostitution and related criminal activity aren’t limited to Parkside, she noted.
“Parkside is the canary in the coal mine of Portland,” Holder said. “A citywide problem will show up here or in Bayside first, [but] violence and unrest is a city-wide issue, driven by malaise and desperation from poor economics.”
Regardless of the incidence of prostitution in Parkside, Holder said she applauds the work of police to crack down on customers. “That’s absolutely the right approach,” she said.
State Street resident Eric Sommer agreed. “Prostitution begins with the guys who are willing to pay for it,” he said. “And that’s where it should end, too.”
But another Parkside resident — and expert on sexuality and prostitution — has a different view.
University of Southern Maine sociology professor Wendy Chapkis of Sherman Street said prostitution is a form of business that isn’t suited for every neighborhood.
“I’ve always felt as a resident and a researcher that the critical problem with street-level prostitution [in Parkside] is that it’s commercial activity happening in a residential neighborhood,” she said. “And the disruption caused by that commercial activity is compounded when it is illegal.”
Chapkis contrasts that type of prostitution with the infamous case of Alexis Wright, the Kennebunk Zumba instructor who recently began serving a 10-month jail sentence for prostitution and other crimes.
Chapkis said Wright was clearly an “aware, consenting adult” who engaged in prostitution in a place of business — her dance studio. Street prostitutes don’t have such an option.
“In the United States, on the streets, prostitutes are usually people who have very few other options,” she said. “Prostitution becomes a survival skill.”
“When police are a risk and threat to sex workers, it makes their dangerous work even worse,” Chapkis said. “Decriminalization [of prostitution] would be a better approach. In places where prostitution is legal, sex workers are organized and protect themselves more effectively.”
Legalizing the world’s oldest profession is unlikely to happen in Maine, Chapkis admitted. And she said she understands the reactions of her neighbors.
“I have sympathy for the neighbors. I appreciate that this is a complicated problem,” she said. “But I don’t believe the best solution is increased policing. There have to be alternatives. Besides, even if you go in and make arrests, it doesn’t necessarily have the effect of stopping prostitution. It may just move to another neighborhood.”
Regardless of where the problem goes, Malloch said the police department is concentrating on protecting the areas where prostitution is a problem now.
“This is more than a victimless crime,” he said. “When we hear from residents that someone’s wife or daughter can’t walk from the car to the house without getting harassed, that’s a negative impact for everyone.”