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Modern-day Puritans wring hands over Zumba Madam’s list of shame

A Maine court will consider whether a prostitution 'list of shame' is a punishment too Puritanical even for New England, where the fallout may include schoolyard teasing and public shaming.

By Staff writer / October 13, 2012

Downtown Kennebunk, Maine. The police department's plan to release some of the more than 150 names of suspected prostitution clients was delayed Friday by last-minute legal wrangling. Alexis Wright has pleaded not guilty to prostitution, invasion of privacy, and tax evasion.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

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In the big scheme of things, the names of the “johns” who allegedly hired Kennebunk, Maine, Zumba dance instructor Alexis Wright for sex are simply a matter of public record if solicitation charges are leveled.

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Yet on Monday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will consider whether what some have called Ms. Wright’s lengthy “list of shame” is a punishment too Puritanical even for New England, where the fallout may include schoolyard teasing and public shaming to add to the powerful intrigues of southern Maine towns and villages.

“We think there's a really important principle at stake here: These people are presumed innocent,” defense attorney Stephen Schwartz said. “Once these names are released, they're all going to have the mark of a scarlet letter, if you will.”

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In his fictional exposé of the Puritans who helped found New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in “The Scarlet Letter” that “there can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature – whatever be the delinquencies of the individual – no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.”

The Puritanical code shamed vices in order to improve the common lot and aid common survival, and that unerring view continues to permeate not only New England, but an entire nation that remains, critics say, both egregious in its excesses and churlish in its judgments.

In recent years, some US judges have returned to the “scarlet letter” idea by forcing convicts to publicly display what crimes they’ve committed. The US public, skeptical about the rehabilitative effects of prison, has largely applauded such sentences, according to the New York Law School’s Justice Action Center.

The Zumba Madam case is, of course, different. The names are to be released as a matter of legal course.  Soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor in Maine, meaning that those found guilty will face fines but no jail time. But the punishment of being publicly outed could be far worse for the politicians, policemen, farmers, accountants, and even a TV personality who are believed to be included on Ms. Wright’s client list.

“There's still some of that puritanical New England left around," Will Bradford, who owns a copy shop in town, told the Associated Press. "There are places in the world that would laugh at this."

Meantime, however, a counter-Puritan argument has emerged suggesting a more modern idea that the names should be sealed since it’s likely that innocent people will also be victimized by the release of the names.

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