Policy

Maybe Freaking Out Over Secret Service Agents and Sex Isn't the Way To Go

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Sorry, ladies. We're going back to our room to engage in self-denial instead.

Shocked, shocked we are to hear that there's gambling … err … patronizing of prostitutes to be found among the loyal and true ranks of Secret Service agents and military personnel whiling away their off hours while preparing to protect the president in Cartagena. After all, armed Americans on the Uncle Sam vacation plan have never been known to belly up to the world's various sexual buffets. Well … almost never. Oh, OK. It's part of the deal, even if officially discouraged. Part of the deal it may be, but Americans still make an awfully big ruckus about two consenting adults doing what comes naturally, and one paying the other for what just transpired. Maybe, just maybe, we could stop pretending that exchanging money for sex is such a terrible thing.

As it is, politicians and headline writers are having a field day with commercial copulation in Cartagena. President Obama promising a "rigorous probe" in the case (isn't that how all this kerfuffle started?). And Rep. Darrell Issa raises the dread specter of "blackmail five, 10, 20 years from now…. If you look at how you get somebody to do something wrong, you do it incrementally — something small, something bigger, something bigger." Growing … throbbing … exploding into further scandal!

Now, let's step back for a moment and admit that employers have a right to set certain parameters of behavior for employees who are on the job. If the Secret Service and the military don't want their employees engaging in some types of recreational activity as a condition of their employment — especially while they're on the clock — so be it. But why is commercial sex — a perfectly legal offering in Cartagena, Colombia — so scandalous?

Let's emphasize that legal part. The protective-detail types sent home in shame may have violated their employers' rules, but they hadn't broken any laws in Colombia. Just what were they to be blackmailed with? Stepping out on their spouses? But torpedoing your own marriage is a well-respected tradition around the world; is anybody really going to put the president's life in danger to avoid, at most, divorce court? That's why the Christian Science Monitor responded to Rep. Issa's provocative musings by noting, "[i]n today's relatively permissive society, it may be hard to believe that a limited peccadillo could lead to treason decades hence." Likewise, former Secret Service agent Dan Emmet dismisses blackmail concerns as "espionage novel stuff."

The fact is, Americans are really weird about sex. We may patronize strip clubs to the tune of $3.1 billion per year, and we may support an adult film industry worth $13 billion, but many of us still cherish a national image of righteous frigidity. Raising a national fuss because a few public employees chose sex over reading good books in their off-hours is an American pastime.

There's a better way, though. Maybe … we could just learn to shrug our shoulders. As noted above, prostitution is a legal business in Cartagena. It's legal, though heavily regulated, in the state of Nevada. Sex work existed under a similar regime in New Zealand until 2003, when it was decriminalized — read that as "deregulated" — and allowed to function in largely free-market conditions. A 2008 government report (PDF) on the results of the legal change concluded that "the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off." A 2010 Toronto Star article found that most New Zealand sex workers very much liked the deregulated regime, and that they were now far more willing and able to protect their rights through the legal system than before.

All of which is to say that treating the sex trade as normal and not freaking out over money for sex would be a good thing.

Yeah, employers have the right to say "no fun allowed" when their minions are on the clock, But let's not treat a mere employee-handbook violation as a national scandal if all they're doing is … screwing around.