KENNEBUNK — “Kennebunk was like a well-stocked laboratory for me,” Jon Ronson writes in the introduction to his chapter, A Town Abuzz over Prostitution and a Client List. “Who would incur the crowd’s wrath, who its mercy? Who’d be shattered? Who’d emerge unscathed?”

Ronson, author of “Men Who Stare at Goats” and “The Psychopath Test,” is perhaps better known for his candid profiles of people on the fringe of society ”“ 9/11 conspiracy theorists, death squad leaders and U.S. Army squads trying to harness paranormal powers ”“ but his latest book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” explores the lives of people more of us might have fleeting knowledge of: the targets of Internet rage.

These are the publicly shamed ”“ people who find themselves facing judgment of powerful, seemingly leaderless social networks with few restrictions. Ronson was interested in the ways that public shaming functioned ”“ what were the new transgressions that the Internet took it upon itself to shame? What off-line damage was inflicted on these people? He features Jonah Lehrer, the New Republic staffer and plagiarist, Justine Sacco, whose racially insensitive tweet led her to lose her job and receive death and rape threats, and Lindsey Stone, who received similar treatment after a picture of her being disrespectful at Arlington National Cemetery went viral.

Ronson generally visits these individuals after their shaming has begun.

The Zumba prostitution case was an important real-time study for Ronson.

The story of the Kennebunk prostitution case is a story at least partially enabled by the Internet. For one, it can be reduced to an extremely SEO-friendly headline, combining the most popular dance/exercise trend of the time with sex. It also promised scandal.

Vanity Fair and the New York Times reported that the list of johns included several community leaders, and there was a perception that Kennebunk and southern Maine were Puritan relics ( a label advanced by the defense to keep details of the case private.)

If there’s anything the Internet loves, it’s exposing anything or anyone with a holier-than-thou attitude. As Nick Denton, the founder of the prominent news and gossip blog Gawker likes to say, “hypocrisy is the only modern sin.” It’s no coincidence that Gawker got more than a million hits compiling Alexis Wright’s many uploaded tapes of amateur pornography.

With the media finding the story successful on the Internet, Ronson went into his reporting expecting something similar out of the Kennebunk prostitution case: anonymous threats, a cold shoulder from the community and individuals who had to try and rebuild their lives under the burden of shame. He attended their trial, watching each of the 68 men and one woman plead guilty, and finally made contact with one of the johns: James (Andrew) Ferriera, the former pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Wells.

Since the sentencing, Ferriera lost his job at the church and his wife left him. He was tired and “lost-sounding” according to Ronson, and had no idea to what extent he would be rejected by friends, the rest of his family or the town of Kennebunk as a whole. The public shaming hadn’t yet begun for Ferriera.

“Unfortunately, I’m forty-nine years old and I’ve turned a great deal of my life into a cautionary tale ”¦” Ronson reports Ferriera as saying. “The expectation. It’s horrible.”

Ronson told him to check back with the journalist when it had begun.

Three months passed, and finally Ferriera reported back ”“ the public shaming never materialized. His relationship with his daughters was “has never been stronger.” In fact, when Andrew was brought in to testify against Wright’s business partner Mark Strong, he had his first face-to-face interaction with six other clients of Wright, and none of them said they faced any public shaming. They joked about buying new cars, cruises and remodeling kitchens for their wives, but nothing much beyond that.

The primary reason for this, according to Ronson, was that a sex-positive culture had brought acceptance to certain privileged members of society.

“The shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals ”“ if you’re a man ”“ to work improprieties and perceived white privilege,” Ronson wrote. In terms of consensual sex, “(n)obody cared ”¦ not liberals like me, not the online misogynists who tear apart women who step out of line”

Ronson doesn’t really knuckle down on the double standard in the treatment of women in this particular case ”“ but he notes that while Ferriera and the other clients sat chatting before the trial, they all began joking about the one woman who had paid to visit Wright. The jokes came to a halt when one man quietly mentions that woman was his wife.

One inherent irony of the chapter is that the central figure to the case received the most public shame and barely appears at all in Ronson’s book. All one needs to do is check the comments of any article about the case ”“ her videos and online persona were sensationalized and received far more attention than the client list ultimately did. Her videos and blog posts were picked apart by those same online misogynists and family values fanatics that target some of the other subjects in Ronson’s book ”“ for whatever reason, prostitution remains one of the last professions that comes with inherent shame.

Ronson’s book follows a self-described journey to the end of shame, ultimately arriving at a series of therapeutic communities in Massachusetts prisons that help rehabilitate prisons and reduce prison violence, applying a theory that reducing shame among prisoners restores their respect for other people. This is certainly the strongest case study of his book. But had he followed up again on the Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case, he might have found another antidote to shame. According to the Associated Press, Judge Nancy Mills, after convicting Wright, had some positive words of encouragement for Wright in the face of her public shaming: “Based on what you have to say and what I know about you from your attorney, I know that you will succeed when you’re released and that you will prevail. I wish you success.” In the same article, Wright responded, “It’s my intention to stand up for what is right. When I’m out, I’m going to pursue helping people fight through situations that are similar to mine. I’m optimistic that something good will come out of this.”

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