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Should Maine Legalize Prostitution? Kennebunk Case Ignites Debate
11/05/2012   Reported By: Keith Shortall

As Kennebunk Police continue to release batches of names from the list of so-called "johns" in connection with a high-profile prostitution case, people in Maine are talking about the laws that govern the crime. And there are differing points of view on the issue among feminists. Keith Shortall has more.

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As Lois Reckitt sees it, prosititution is - and should be - against the law. "I tend not to talk about it as prostitution," Reckitt says. "I tend to talk about it as prostituted women."

Reckitt serves as executive director of Family Crisis Services in Maine. And she says "prostituted women" are at risk of violence at the hands of men they meet, and the pimps who often control them.

"But I also come at it from the years of working with teenagers, and my concerns around the growing problem of human trafficking - which, when we looked at our own statistics, in the last six months we've helped 31 victims of trafficking in Portland," she says.

In these cases, says Reckitt, young girls in Maine are lured into prostitution. They are often then taken to other states, such as Florida, to engage in the sex industry for the profit of others.

In addition, Reckitt says for the 4,000 women in Cumberland County who come to Family Crisis Services for help with domestic violence issues, "In the cases that are involved, over half of them - well over half of them - have sexual components, have pornography components, have women being forced into acts that their partners believe are appropriate because they've seen them in pornography," she says. "We dance around this topic perpetually, and I don't think that it's a healthy way to live."

At one time, Wendy Chapkis agreed. But after living in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, and later studying the subject in graduate school, Chapkis says she came to a different conclusion.

"I guess in short I would say that I think prosititution laws harm both the women engaged in prostitution and the society in which prostitution is practiced."

Chapkis is a professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine, and director of women and gender studies. She says for women selling sex in nations where prostitution is legal, but highly controlled, police are a resource rather than a threat.

"So I became convinced over the course of 10 years or so of research that it was much before for women in the sex trades to work in places where the sex industry was not criminalized," she says.

What's more, says Chapkis, it makes little sense to criminalize one very small segment of a booming sex industry that is already legal in the U.S.

"And it became very clear to me you can sell sex, you can sell the sex act, as long as its being filmed by somebody for broadcast somewhere, but if you have that same sex act with that same person, and it's not being filmed, it's prostitution and it's illegal," she says. "It makes very little sense."

And from a fiscal point of view, Chapkis says instead of spending taxpayer money on prosecution of the sex trade, governments could bring in additional taxes and fees.

But for Lois Reckitt, that doesn't take care of the bigger issues of violence and human trafficking.

"I mean, we would not allow, you know, people working in a machine tool shop to get the crap beat out of them, so I think it's like we have to look at our views on prostitution in general and whether or not we want to take this so-called 'industry' and have it be in the mainstream," she says. "And I don't want it to be there."

But Reckitt says she doubts the issue will come before lawmakers at the State House anytime soon, and she says women will continue to be victimized. Chapkis says that under the current laws, people who engage in so called "non-normative" sexual practices will continue to be shamed and blamed.


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