The New York Criminal Compensation Board has received a claim for money damages. It comes from a former neighbor of the notorious and (given some book and movie deals) suddenly rich Sidney Biddle Barrows, known to headline writers the world over as the Mayflower Madam. The former neighbor claims she was forced to move because of Barrows' "all- night bordello operating full-scale next door." She is, she claims, a crime victim.
What a relief! For lo these many months we have been reading about the arrest and conviction of the well- born and well-connected Barrows as if the cliche about prostitution being a victimless crime were entirely true. Here, at last, is a woman asserting the opposite. It's true that, compared with many crime victims, hers is a minor complaint, but for the moment it will have to do. After all, the real victims of prostitution rarely complain.
Those are the prostitutes themselves. They are the invisible people of any prostitution saga, the ones who are never mentioned when prostitution involves rich men and glamorous-looking women and, especially, if the business is being conducted below 125th Street in Manhattan by white people. A darker skin color instantly transforms prostitution into what it always is -- a sordid affair often involving violence and the exploitation of women.
For some reason, that kind of realism did not intrude into the Mayflower Madam affair. Instead, call girls and madams who do business in the right Zip Codes are written about as if they are master criminals -- expert safe crackers, cat burglars like Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief." Sure, they're criminals, but only in a strictly technical sense. They either rob from the well-todo or from the well-insured -- supposed no-fault crimes in which no one gets hurt, physically, economically or emotionally.
That kind of prostitution requires the willing suspension of disbelief that college English professors tell you is necessary for certain kinds of fiction. It works. People seem willing to believe about prostitutes what they would never believe about themselves -- namely, that it is possible to be used and abused sexually and not suffer for it. They make glamorous what is really sordid.
The so-called Mayflower Madam is a perfect example of this sort of thing. You can bet, for instance, that no book and movie package worth an estimated $600,000 will tell anything near the truth about prostitution -- tell about pimps and their violence, customers and their weird demands. It will say nothing about sexual degradation, exploitation and the psychological damage suffered by women who earn their living acting out male sexual fantasies. It will not say how the glamorization of high-priced prostitution makes a mockery of attempts to control it everywhere.
Notice. This is not a moral argument against prostitution, although there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe it ought to be decriminalized and maybe prostitutes ought to be licensed, as they are in certain places in Europe. But morality aside, the fact remains that prostitution takes a toll both of the people involved in it and -- as the erstwhile neighbor can testify -- of the neighborhoods where prostitutes operate, especially the poorer ones. How would you like women in red hot pants parading in front of your children? How would you like pimps parked at your curb, showing kids that one way to wealth is to sell wholesale what the women sell retail?
In the end, of course, Barrows will tell her story her way, probably tailoring it to the ever-naive male fantasy. Nothing will be said to contradict the beliefs of those who think that prostitution is a victimless crime -- although, for sure, Barrows's close relatives and everyone else she shamed can testify to the contrary. So can Barrows herself. Behind that glamorous facade is probably a lady with some awful nightmares. There's a reason prostitution pays so well.
So a small cheer for the woman who has filed her claim with the New York crime victim's board. At least (and it is the very least), she reminds us that victimless crimes, like a free lunch, do not exist. The Mayflower Madam was no exception. Her victims include herself, her prostitutes and, soon, anyone who buys her book.