October 26, 2012

Sex scandal clashes with image of small-town Maine

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Mark Nedeau of Kennebunk created this T-shirt to make light of the prostitution scandal that has plagued Kennebunk over recent weeks. “It’s like deer season,” he said. “Get your deer yet?”

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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A pedestrian crosses Route 1 in downtown Kennebunk. Alexis Wright, a 29-year-old fitness instructor from Wells, has pleaded not guilty to prostitution, invasion of privacy and other charges at her downtown Kennebunk business.

Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

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It would be hard to overstate the level of interest outside of town. NBC's "Today" show has covered Kennebunk, along with The New York Times and People.com. Papers around the globe picked up on it, although some seem to confuse the town with Kennebunkport.

Someone even updated Kennebunk's Wikipedia entry, adding the allegations against Wright to a history of the town that recounts the early settlement by Abenaki Indians, the story of an elm planted in honor of the 1825 visit by Lafayette and an in-depth explanation of how Mother's Beach got its name.

Matthew Killmeier, an associate professor of communication and media studies at the University of Southern Maine, said already strong interest in the story was likely elevated when an attorney for two of the suspected clients tried to block the release of the first list of summonses issued in the case.

That led people to think that there was a cover-up under way, heightening interest. It also sparked an ethical debate over whether the list should be released and whether it might hurt the families of the suspected "johns" even more than the accused. That debate, he said, kept the issue alive during the few days before a court ruled that the names of those charged had to be released, and then attention turned toward figuring out who was who on the list -- and who might be on the next list, expected to be released Friday.

Killmeier said the idea of a sophisticated prostitution operation in small-town Maine runs counter to how the state is typically seen, by residents as much as by people from away.

"It flies in the face of that mythical image of Maine, which is manufactured," he said. "We like to see ourselves as this state comprised of small communities somewhat stuck in the past -- in the good ways, and not the bad ways. This sort of scandal suggests that's not the case."

Read said the story strikes a chord with Gawker's readers. Even a Kennebunk Zumba story put up at night -- normally a slow time for the site, he said -- shot to the top of the most-read list.

"It outperformed my expectations," he said, adding that readers' comments suggest they see the tale primarily as a diversion from the day's more serious news.

One comment read: "It looks like the only fun thing in Maine was shut down," Read said.

Paul Harris, a U.S. correspondent for the British paper The Guardian, said the story is "universal." It's "a dirty secret that likely involves some of the community's most esteemed members," Harris said. "It thus combines sex and hypocrisy, which is a killer combination."

British tabloids, in particular, have followed the story avidly. Those papers, Harris said, are especially keen on a "secret sex story, and one set in a small, picturesque, idyllic town is perfect. Then you have the added Zumba element. That just makes headlines easier to write -- and more popular with the readers."

Harris said technology also drives the story to an extent.

"Previously, that list of bigwigs would be available only to those who went to court and even then, you would have had to spend a great deal of time tracking them down," he said. "These days, the list of names disseminates rapidly on social media and anyone with Facebook, Google and Twitter can then search for those involved. Again, that gives the story a great lift with people, meaning newspapers will chase after it."

But Killmeier said Kennebunk residents should rest easy; this, too, shall pass.

"If this was going to have any effect (on Kennebunk's image), this is the right time for it to break," Killmeier said, because it will likely be forgotten by the time summer people start returning next year.

At the Main Street Sunoco, owner Mark Boynton hopes the town's days as front-page news will fade. He thinks it will, although it might take a few months.

"Once the final list is out," he said, "I expect that within a few weeks after that, it will be something else."

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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