April 23, 2012 -- Never mind the use of taxpayer dollars, the potential threat to national security, the embarrassment brought to the U.S. government. In one regard, at least, "Hookergate" was a good thing, at least to sex workers in the United States: It called attention to the plight of sex workers here, where prostitutions is illegal and practitioners have no rights.
"If it had happened here, the woman couldn't have gone to the police and said, 'These guys are trying to cheat me out of money.' Instead, she would have been hurt and cheated, and Mr. Agent Man would have gone home and patted himself on the back for having gotten one over on her," said Maggie McNeill, a former New Orleans call girl and the founder of The Honest Courtesan.
Last week, 11 Secret Service agents were recalled to the U.S. from Cartagena, Colombia, where they had been on assignment to help protect President Obama at the Summit of the Americas. They were placed on administrative leave after allegedly bringing prostitutes back to the Hotel Caribe, and their security clearance was later revoked. Ten U.S. military personnel are also being investigated for their role in the affair.
Interestingly, hiring a prostitute (and related adultery issues) was never specifically outlawed in the military until 2006, when the Bush administration made changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Today, it's banned even if prostitution is legal in the country. Military personnel who patronize prostitutes can receive up to a year in jail, get a dishonorable discharge, and lose all pay and allowances.
McNeill and others say the policy is ridiculous,and that criminalizing prostitution is not only a human rights violation, but also a safety and labor issue. Now is a perfect time to call attention to the plight of sex workers—which includes prostitutes, escorts, as well as adult film models and actors—in the U.S., where prostitution is illegal except in some pockets of Nevada. The repercussions of underground sex businesses can be dangerous, if not deadly.
"We've found in New York that when sex workers are criminalized, they are afraid to go to police when they are victims of crime, including theft, rape and human trafficking," said Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York, which advocates for sex workers and survivors of human trafficking.
"They are also subject to bad policing practices and police brutality," added Baskin, who recently returned from a day of lobbying in New York's state capital, Albany, to pass Bill A1008/S323, which would prohibit police and prosecutors from citing possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution.
Not only are Americans outraged by the use of taxpayer dollars in connection with Secret Service extracurricular activities, but there is concern that the agents, most of whom are married, violated their top-secret security clearances by boasting to the women about their affiliation with the president and that sensitive information could be passed to terrorists or drug cartel leaders.
But while they acknowledge the potential dangers to national security, sex workers in the United States think the "breach" argument is another form of discrimination against prostitutes. "If the issue is attracting attention or bragging about being in the security detail, then it would be a problem if they brought in any outsider," said McNeill. "If that's the case, then what difference does it make if she's a prostitute or an accountant?"
According to The New York Times, the incident was brought to light after one of the women failed to depart the hotel at 7 a.m., a policy for non-registered guests staying over. Hotel staff and police searched for her; they found her quarreling with an agent over her fee. She reportedly said they had agreed on an $800, but that the agent only offered her $30.
"I tell him, 'Baby, my cash money,'" the woman told the Times.
Colombian police officers argued on her behalf, while American officials tried to quell the situation. She was finally given $225, and left. But since the situation involved a foreign national, the police notified the Secret Service and U.S. Department of State.
Sex worker advocates say she was lucky to have gotten police support. And Norma Jean Almodovar, a retired prostitute and the founder of International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education, a non-profit organization, doubts the women in Colombia wanted the story to get out.
"Why would we want our clients to be arrested? They provide our living, they pay our rent," she said. "Part of what we get paid for is discretion."
Nor are they at all surprised that the situation occurred in the first place. "My friends and I have certainly seen our share of law enforcement officers and politicians," said Leigh. "If they fired or arrested every man in government who ever saw a prostitute, there would not be anyone left to run it."
Indeed, politicians from both sides of the political aisle have gotten in trouble for sex scandals: In 2008, then New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer quit after his involvement with prostitutes went public. The previous year, Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias resigned after it was confirmed that he frequented a Washington, D.C., escort service.
Almodovar looks at it this way. "On a scale of 1 to 10, if murder is the worst thing you can do to your fellow human, giving them an orgasm has to be one of the best things, unless one believes that giving or receiving sexual pleasure is a bad thing... which I do not," she said. "Why are so many people terrified of sex and sexual pleasure? I do not understand that at all."