President Obama has called them “knuckleheads”. A CNN columnist says the actions of a dozen Secret Service agents in Colombia amounted to “stupidity”. United States Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the episode, also involving military personnel, was a “huge disappointment”. The official message seems to be that consorting with prostitutes in Colombia while on an official mission is dumb, embarrassing, but not really bad.
To be sure, the moral character of the men’s behaviour depends on what standard of conduct is being applied, and when you look at this incident in context, it does seem hypocritical to be particularly scandalised by it, or even surprised.
From the beginning two weeks ago, commentaries on the affair have raised the question of “culture” in the service which is responsible for the safety of the US president. Ms Napolitano said a review of Secret Service records showed no similar episodes of misconduct that might have warned of problems brewing at the agency, but journalists have dug up evidence that trouble was brewing all the same.
The Washington Post cites a 2002 US News & World Report investigation which found an agency “rife with problems”, including “alcohol abuse, criminal offences and extramarital affairs between agents and White House employees. Male officers had viewed pornography on White House satellite channels… Supervisors in two field offices had authorised professional strippers at office parties.” (Two of the agents who misbehaved in Cartagena also were supervisors.) Former Post reporter Ronald Kessler wrote a book about the agency, In the President’s Secret Service (2009), which indicated a lax culture and poor leadership. It was Kessler who gave the Post its scoop about the recent incident. New reports allege a similar episodein El Salvador prior to the President’s visit their last year, and expose an incident involving marines and a prostitute in Brazil.
All this points to a view of sex as a recreational right -- particularly in places such as Cartagena where prostitution is legal -- regardless of any security risks or the effect of marital infidelity on families back home. The majority of agents are said to be married men, and the Post has characterised the attitude behind the current scandal as “wheels up, rings off”, despite the fact that an extra-marital affair jeopardises an agent’s security clearance. Not surprisingly, the divorce rate among agents is said to be high. Where did this culture, if that’s what it is, come from?
As others have pointed out, there is a long history linking war, armies abroad and the condoning of prostitution. It is only quite recently that prostitution itself, and the related issue of adultery, have been specifically addressed in military law and regulation. In 2006 the State Department banned engaging with prostitutes for all Foreign Service personnel and contractors, even where prostitution is legal, and penalties include up to a year in jail. Rules at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, are more vague. Employees are prohibited from engaging in any “criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, or other conduct prejudicial to the government,” an official told the Washington Post.
Needless to say the new rules for the military were not universally popular. When they were floated in 2004, reports the Christian Science Monitor, “many US troops reacted bitterly, calling such sanctions ‘harsh’” and a sergeant stationed in Germany, where prostitution is legal, complained that, “Next they’re going to be telling us we can’t drink, or only on the weekends.”
Indeed, given the signs that casual sex was (and is) regarded as an entitlement in these sectors and no big deal, and given that Western countries such as Germany were increasingly legalising prostitution and treating it as regular “work”, there might not have been any new rules, except for one important development: the growth of human trafficking and the part that prostitution plays in this modern form of slavery.
A United Nations protocol designed to control and stamp out trafficking came into force at the end of 2003 and was ratified by the US along with -- by 2010 -- 116 other countries. The State Department strictures of 2006 were part of the Bush administration’s effort to give effect to this commitment. The moral issues of casual and adulterous sex, whether with foreigners or other state employees, do not appear to have played any part in it.
Nor do they seem to feature in criticism of the posse of Secret Service agents and their military counterparts who disgraced themselves in Cartagena. (No-one, by the way, seems to have taken the security threat very seriously.) Columnist Kirsten Powers takes them to task for fuelling sex trafficking, indirectly at least, not for cheating on their wives. She quotes the US State Department which says that forced prostitution of women and children from rural areas in urban areas remains a problem in Colombia, which is “also a destination for foreign child sex tourists, particularly coastal cities such as Cartagena” -- the reason why Colombia is known as the “Thailand of Latin America”. Says Ms Powers:
Representatives of the U.S. government should be setting the standard for the world, not feeding the problem of sex trafficking. The chances that the women or girls the Secret Service agents procured for their pleasure were there by free will is very low. Most likely, they were sex slaves.
Most likely she is correct. It is hard to believe that there is much if any freedom in the sex industry, anywhere, but where there is poverty and social dislocation, as in developing countries like Colombia, so much the less. And Kirsten Powers is certainly right to say that Americans abroad should be setting a high standard -- of respect for women, protection of children -- for the world. Sex trafficking is a hateful crime and we must do all in our power to stop it.
But let’s not forget that the war on trafficking starts at home. A couple of years ago Hillary Clinton observed that drug trafficking from Mexico would not be stopped by measures at the border as long as there was an appetite for drugs in the United States. It’s the same with sex. If servicemen work in institutions that wink at the appetite for random sex, those institutions exist in a wider culture where practically any sexual activity that is not forced is permitted -- and in this thicket forced sex also finds shelter in which to grow.
Just one example: Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times last month that America’s leading website for prostitution ads, Backpage.com, has been partly financed (by a 16 per cent stake in the owner, Village Voice Media) for more than six years by none other than Goldman Sachs. The leading financial firm, which had a representative on the board of Village Voice Media for four years, cannot have been unaware that the site is notorious for ties to sex trafficking.
While it is good to see the moral fervour going into the war on sex trafficking, one cannot help feeling that it is doomed to failure. If coercion is to be the only criterion for illegitimate and destructive sex, a huge source of sexual mayhem and human misery will go unchecked. Use of pornography, hooking up, marital infidelity -- these are symptoms of unruly appetites that lead to nights of debauchery in foreign cities and the destruction of families at home. Until the public voices of conscience start dealing with these broad cultural trends, Cartagena-type scandals will continue to embarrass and distract Western governments. Or worse.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.