In short order, the scandal surrounding Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.) has gone from alleged child sex trafficking!!! to maybe he took MDMA and paid some adult women for sex. We still don't know all the details, and Gaetz may well turn out to have broken federal law. But it's telling that the focus of the story is already turning from sex trafficking of a minor to what looks, based on the details so far, like consensual activity among adults.
The New York Times originally broke the story of a possible Department of Justice (DOJ) probe into Gaetz by labeling it a "sex trafficking" investigation involving a 17-year-old girl whom the congressman allegedly had sex with and paid to travel with him. The Tuesday report quickly stirred up a journalism and social media frenzy in which Gaetz was roundly condemned as a sick sexual predator.
That may still be the case…but the latest report takes the story in a different direction. In a Thursday Times article on the DOJ probe, Gaetz's alleged relationship with a teen—a charge he denies—has been reduced to a much more minor and speculative role. Like the initial Times story, the new report is filtered through anonymous "people close to the investigation" without official statements or documents.
Whereas the first Times story made allegations involving a 17-year-old seem like the emphasis of the DOJ inquiry, the paper now says that officials are merely looking into the possibility of such a relationship existing, as part of prosecuting another Florida politician, ex-GOP official Joel Greenberg, for multiple crimes including alleged misconduct with the girl.
The bulk of the Times' new allegations against Gaetz involve sexual activity with consenting adults—activity that the paper now suggests is the real focus of the DOJ inquiry. Prosecutors are "focusing on [Gaetz and Greenberg's] involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments," the Times says. At the heart of this new narrative is a claim that Gaetz and Greenberg partied with women they met on sugar baby websites.
"Sugar" relationships—often involving wealthier men giving gifts to and/or subsidizing the lifestyles of pretty younger women in exchange for no-strings-attached relationships—and the websites that facilitate these arrangements are not strictly illegal. Like many escort businesses (and informal arrangements for time immemorial), they tend to be framed as "spoiling" and "support" in exchange for "companionship." In reality, sugar relationships tend to run the gamut, from deep connections that span realms to much more transactional exchanges of cash (or luxury items, or travel costs, etc.) in exchange for sexual trysts.
There's a long-standing debate over whether sugar babies are sex workers, and whether such relationships count as prostitution. But the only reason the distinction seems to matter is that it makes some parties involved feel better about themselves to pretend like there's a big difference and—more importantly—can mean the difference between the relationships being criminal or not. (The whole thing really showcases the silly and arbitrary nature of U.S. laws criminalizing sex work…)
In any event, Gaetz—who has denied ever paying for sex—is now accused by the Times of giving money to women with whom he may have done drugs and/or had sex.
The Times has reviewed receipts from Cash App, a mobile payments app, and Apple Pay that show payments from Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg to one of the women, and a payment from Mr. Greenberg to a second woman. The women told their friends that the payments were for sex with the two men, according to two people familiar with the conversations.
In encounters during 2019 and 2020, Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg instructed the women to meet at certain times and places, often at hotels around Florida, and would tell them the amount of money they were willing to pay, according to the messages and interviews.
One person said that the men also paid in cash, sometimes withdrawn from a hotel ATM.
Some of the men and women took ecstasy, an illegal mood-altering drug, before having sex, including Mr. Gaetz, two people familiar with the encounters said.
The identities of the people feeding the Times these stories seem like a pretty crucial factor in judging their veracity. If others in this story were caught possessing or selling drugs or engaging in prostitution, they would be on the hook for criminal charges themselves and may have an incentive to exaggerate the role of others in exchange for more lenient treatment.
For now, with the information we have, it seems possible that Gaetz and company were purchasing sex and/or drugs from the women, and also possible that there's an alternate explanation for all of this.
None of this should be construed as a defense of Gaetz per se, but it is a defense of due process, not rushing to judgment, and not taking mere investigations into misconduct (or prosecutor tales about them) as absolute truths. Unfortunately, that's a very unpopular position online and in the media.
Even as the narrative around Gaetz morphs into run-of-the-mill-scandal territory, a lot of people (including some folks who purport to be against the drug war and for the bodily autonomy of adult women) are divulging details of his alleged activities with the same level of disgust, urgency, and moral outrage they did over allegations involving minors. It seems that in their glee at having ammunition against Gaetz—a Trump stan and highly visible rising Republican politician—way too many liberals are willing to infantilize adult women and portray drug use and consensual relationships with sex workers as deviant and beyond the pale.
Unfortunately, a lot of stereotypes and misreadings wrt sex work… are being broadcast by our liberal friends because a Republican is at the center of a scandal.
— Tracy Quan (@TracyQuanNYC) April 2, 2021
A slew of other rumors about Gaetz's allegedly unsavory (but not necessarily criminal) behavior and sexual antics have also been making the media and social media rounds.
Meanwhile, the Times is still trying hard to work this story into a sex trafficking framework. While reporting that the FBI stopped questioning the women involved back in January, acknowledging that "no charges have been brought against Mr. Gaetz," and failing to raise any information suggesting that the women involved were forced or coerced, the paper still adds this:
It is not illegal to provide adults with free hotel stays, meals and other gifts, but if prosecutors think they can prove that the payments to the women were for sex, they could accuse Mr. Gaetz of trafficking the women under "force, fraud or coercion." For example, prosecutors have filed trafficking charges against people suspected of providing drugs in exchange for sex because feeding another person's drug habit could be seen as a form of coercion.
Over the past decade or so, the funding, political enthusiasm, and public appetite for "stopping sex trafficking" has outpaced the actual supply of such crimes, leading the feds to increasingly test and expand the parameters of what they can get away with in policing under this rubric.
Prostitution itself is not a federal crime, so if the FBI wants to stay involved in the Gaetz case, they have a vested interest in trying to define this as involving force, fraud, or coercion. In order for a federal sex trafficking charge to exist, commercial sex must be accompanied by either one of these elements or the presence of someone under age 18.
Gaetz is a terrible human being, and he should of course be held accountable if he had sex with a minor. But if this is "sex trafficking," then the term has no meaning. https://t.co/PO3PSwENh0 pic.twitter.com/mG0ElgpiIC
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) April 2, 2021
If no force, fraud, coercion, or minors were involved but Gaetz or Greenberg did pay for sex workers to cross state lines, they could be looking at federal charges under part one of the Mann Act. This is a law frequently used to harass sex workers and their associates and justify FBI surveillance and stings against them—not something to be cheered on just because its target may be someone you don't like.
Gaetz has said that he is aware of the DOJ looking into him but that he is not the target of an investigation, merely a potential witness regarding the alleged activities of Greenberg (who goes on trial for one count of sex trafficking and a wide array of non-sex-related charges this June).
New Mexico is on track to be the latest state to legalize recreational marijuana. From CNN:
Two related pieces of legislation—one which legalizes recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older in New Mexico and the second which expunges arrest and conviction records for some cannabis offenses—are heading to the governor's desk after gaining lawmakers' approval.
While much better than the current situation, the legalization bill still criminalizes carrying more than an approved amount of the drug, by setting "limits on how much cannabis, cannabis extract or edibles a person can buy or have outside their home at a time."
Republicans are coming for OnlyFans, a subscription-selling site for content creators that's best known for erotic and pornographic content.
Today I'm writing the U.S. Attorney General requesting an investigation into @OnlyFans for promoting, and profiting from, online prostitution. I encourage @TheJusticeDept to vigorously protect vulnerable people from platforms that promote coercive immoral and sexual activity.
— Rep. Paul Gosar, DDS (@RepGosar) April 1, 2021
- The Biden administration won't stop lying about Georgia's voting bill:
It's hard for any White House to admit error, especially when the president has three times repeated the falsehood. But this is becoming a pretty deep hole. https://t.co/BMidMOYyC0
— Glenn Kessler (@GlennKesslerWP) April 2, 2021
- Yikes—Vermont is now issuing COVID-19 vaccinations based on race:
If you or anyone in your household identifies as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC), including anyone with Abenaki or other First Nations heritage, all household members who are 16 years or older can sign up to get a vaccine! Get yours at ⤵️ https://t.co/hVgb9rzQPn
— Governor Phil Scott (@GovPhilScott) April 1, 2021
• How would abortion access in the U.S. change if Roe v. Wade were overturned? Reason's Jacob Sullum explains.
• The Supreme Court upheld a Federal Communications Commission ruling regarding media ownership that (among other things) "included scrapping a rule that had barred a single company from owning a radio or TV station along with a newspaper in a single local market," reports The Hill.
• Nick Gillespie talks to Bridget Phetasy:
.@BridgetPhetasy is an incredible interviewer. Got me talking abt ghosting an advice column for @Alyssa_Milano back in the '80s, why covering zoning board meetings as a cub reporter drove me to libertarianism, & what it means to grow up lower middle class https://t.co/uUOVo8RbEA
— Nick Gillespie (@nickgillespie) April 2, 2021
• Ending civil asset forfeiture should be a bipartisan project.
• The European Union "is poised to ban 'terrorist content' or, more accurately, anything it tags with that label," writes J.D. Tuccille. "The end result will be to drive some information underground and to imperil online freedom of expression."
• In case you missed last week's congressional hearing:
dorsey entered last week's congressional hearing and said: i don't deserve the power to censor, you don't deserve the power to censor, and i will do everything i can to make sure no one ever has this power again. it was unexpected and amazing. full recap: https://t.co/C7V6gqe61r
— Mike Solana (@micsolana) March 30, 2021