The Secret Service announced yesterday the retirement and resignation of three employees connected to the prostitution scandal last week in Cartagena, Columbia. Twenty-one Secret Service employees and military personnel are suspected of visiting strip clubs and prostitutes on April 11, two days before President Obama was scheduled to arrive at an international summit.
Although the men’s conduct violates the agency’s ethical and personal conduct rules, prostitution is legal and regulated in Cartagena. According to The Washington Post, all 21 Secret Service and military personnel are suspected of having women in their rooms at the Hotel Caribe on April 11. The only reason that the news broke at all last week is that one of the men was in a dispute over pay with one of the women, who stayed in the hotel room past the 7a.m. curfew. Hotel staff and Columbian police reported the incident to the U.S. Embassy, and here we are a week later, worrying about whether or not this incident compromised President Obama’s security, if these sex workers could have been spies, and speculating about the culture at the Secret Service agency. A CNN article flirted with the idea and wishful thinking that having more women agents in the Secret Service would change the agency’s macho culture.
Clearly, the behavior of the men involved in the scandal was never meant to get out. It leaves us wondering if these men had engaged in prostitution before Cartagena, and if so, for how long? The news that men who are sworn to serve and protect our President and nation buy sex from women abroad should not be surprising. For feminists who study international politics, there is a sexual politics that underlines and reinforces unequal relations between nations. For example, feminist international relations scholars have long studied and written about the prostitution that occurs around U.S. military bases in South Korea. (Check out Cynthia Enloe’s seminal work, Bananas, Beaches and Bases).
Prostitution may appear to be inconsequential and irrelevant to the workings of international relations, but it’s not. The commercial sexual transaction that happens between American men (whether they’re soldiers or federal employees) and local sex workers reinforces unequal power relations between nations and is often essential to the more powerful state’s military readiness and operations. Individual relationships across international borders that rely on social hierarchies of sex, race, gender and class also construct and influence international relations as much as the actions and decisions of nation states. The international becomes personal when looking at international relations through a feminist lens. In an interview with The New York Times, the woman at the center of the dispute (who identified herself as an escort), told the reporter that she had no idea that the presumably rich American man who invited her back to his hotel room was a part of President Obama’s security detail:
“They never told me they were with Obama,” she said, addressing published reports that some agents may have openly boasted to prostitutes that they were there protecting the president. “They were very discreet.”
What’s important about this personal, individual relationship between a man and a woman is not simply the commodification of sex and the agency’s embarrassment of having the news splashed across 24-hour news cycle, but the sexual politics of international relations. This scandal is not confined to the fleeting actions of one man and one woman, but rather it speaks to a larger pattern of gendered relations within an international system that has real political consequences.
As the prostitution scandal continues to intensify with rumors of more resignations coming in the next few days, the reason why the Secret Service employees and military personnel were in Cartagena has been overshadowed. Leaders throughout the Western hemisphere attended the sixth Summit of the Americas to discuss important anti-drug, monetary and trade policies – the stuff of international relations that defines the relationship between our country and our neighbors. Instead of wondering if the scandal compromised our national security, let’s talk about the ways sexual politics and gender underpin our own international politics and reinforce our standing in the international system.
This piece originally appeared on Feminist Conscience, and is cross-posted with permission.