“Scandal” is the term being used to describe the conduct of 11 U.S. Secret Service agents who allegedly brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms in Cartagena, Colombia. The arrangement came to light because apparently a dispute broke out with one of the women over payment.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, rightly drew immediate attention to the lack of focus on protecting the president, which should be the primary job of the Secret Service.
U.S. President Barack Obama walks to greet well-wishers, with Secret Service agents at his side, upon his arrival in Tampa, Florida April 13, 2012.
But in addition, this incident can also serve to draw attention to the deep and wide injustices that make up what is called “sex tourism.” Prostitution is legal is parts of Colombia, and it is a well-known sex tourist destination, sometimes called the “Thailand of Latin America.” Thailand is internationally famous for its “sex tourism” industry.
Rita Nakashima Brock and I wrote about sex tourism in Thailand, among other places, in our book “Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States.” Rita and I spent years researching the sex industry through travel, research and interviews in several Asian countries and in the U.S.
We wanted to draw attention to how religion and society have most often blamed those who are prostituted in the global sex industry, seeing them as “sinners.” Or, today, the term “sex worker” is used to make prostitution sound like ‘nobody gets hurt’ and it’s all about “fun” as a member of the Thai military once told us.
It’s not about fun. It’s not about individual prostitutes “sinning.” It’s not even really about sex. What’s deeply and profoundly wrong about the sex industry is that it is a system that grossly exploits human beings in their bodies, minds and spirits, and uses them to make money literally off of their backs. The sex industry in the U.S. and internationally is a widespread, and very profitable industry, and it is involved in the flagrant exploitation of women, children, and men all over the world.
In all the years I have spent talking with those who have been prostituted, I have never met the “happy hooker.” I have done Bible study with women at an organization in Chicago that works to help those who have been in, or who are still trying to get free of, the sex industry. The views of those prostituted can be summed up by what one woman in prostitution told me, “It sort of kills you, but it’s over fast.”
In parts of Colombia, prostitution may be legal but, as the U.S. State Department reports, “Colombia is a major source country for women and girls subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced prostitution in Latin America, the Caribbean, Western Europe, Asia, and North America, including the United States.”
Sex trafficking, the international transport of persons for sexual exploitation, is a crime. As the
United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons
indicates, it is a “crime that shames us all.” It often involves children and women in particular for forced sex and/or labor.
The “shame” and the “scandal” of prostitution is often rooted in the idea that sex itself is shameful, and sex for sale is a great sin on the part of the one who “sells.” This kind of sexual shaming actually serves only to keep the sex industry running, as those who are prostituted feel enormous shame, and feel that they cannot escape because their situation is their own fault. Sexual shaming, and actual sexual exploitation by authorities, is common.
No, what’s sinful, what’s wrong about prostitution is what I call the “commodification of the body.” It is taking a human body and turning it into an object for sale. This is exactly what is wrong about slavery. Slavery takes a human being, who, in Christian theology, is a created in the image of God and thus has dignity and worth, and makes him or her into an object, a thing, a means to an end. Through threats, and often physical violence, this exploitative arrangement is sustained. Those who are enslaved, or those who are prostituted, are often injured and killed by those who are exploiting them.
Sex tourism? That’s far too benign a term. No, to travel to a foreign country and pay money to use someone else’s body for sex is profoundly immoral. To offer a human body for sale as a form of tourism is deeply, deeply corrupt. And as is clear from the country-by-country State Department report, to engage in “sex tourism” is to be involved in an industry that feeds huge international criminal activity.
So what does it say about the American Secret Service if it is proved that these agents did indeed do what is alleged?
An On Faith panelist and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.