|"If you pay a prostitute you're financing human trading." |
A public service announcement created by Mikado Publicis, an add agency in Luxembourg
We’ve heard a lot of talk about secret service agents and their illicit activities in recent weeks. It’s the story that keeps on giving. Testifying at an oversight hearing for the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed that she would be surprised if the incident in Colombia were part of a pattern.
True to course, with the little cartoon bubble still floating in front of her mouth, additional allegations of sexual misconduct involving U.S. military and government employees emerged.
In one account, twelve secret service agents are said to have fraternized with prostitutes in El Salvador in March 2011. In another incident, U.S. Marines allegedly injured a Brazilian prostitute when they pushed her out of an embassy vehicle in November 2011.
While the news is disturbing enough, I have found the media’s failure to humanize the women involved incredibly frustrating. One Washington Post article used the words, “swarming,” “hissing,” and “hustle” when referencing prostitutes in Cartagena. These words evoke images of rodents, insects, cats, criminals, and more generally, pests.
During Napolitano’s briefing last Wednesday, Senator Lindsey Graham found himself flummoxed over how he should refer to the women. When describing the events in Colombia, he cited the “argument between one of the agents and [pause], I guess, a prostitute, for lack of a better word." For lack of a better word? Well, I can tell you Mr. Graham, the “better” word that escapes you is “woman.”
Women reside at the center of this whole mess: the economic plight of women; the abuse and exploitation of women; and the trafficking in women so blatantly supported by the American men in question.
Ironically, U.S. Attorney General Eric Hold gave a speech on human trafficking last Tuesday. He hailed the U.S. policy of “zero-tolerance” toward human traffickers with passion and sincerity. For all that sincerity, however, he never mentioned the recent behavior of U.S. military and governmental personnel abroad. How is that possible? You don’t have to be a drunken secret service agent to bump your head on the elephant standing in that room.
I think Hold got away with this gross omission in part because the media hasn’t framed the issue as a trafficking problem; instead, it has focused on the men’s behavior as it relates to security, duty, and national reputation.
Such a narrow view amounts to an opportunity lost. With so many heads turned to attention, news stories could have shone a light on the estimated 40 million women who work in the sex trade worldwide. Just some of the reasons for resorting to prostitution include poverty, lack of education, limited employment opportunities, and domestic abuse. In this light, stories featuring party-boys caught with their hands in the cookie jar also expose the vulnerability of poor women to the power of the American military and governmental personnel who travel in their countries.
Apparently, not only are these philandering men low down dirty scoundrels, they’re cheap too. Both the Brazilian and the Colombian incidents involved arguments regarding payment. In Brazil, when the U.S. Marines allegedly pushed the woman out of their car, it was during a conversation about money. She broke her collar-bone and two ribs; she also punctured a lung. In Colombia, when a secret service agent locked a woman out of his hotel room, it was also during a dispute over money. Both stories highlight the power that men exercise over women in such situations.
I wonder how these women ended up working as prostitutes? Do they have children? Do they have extended families who rely on their income for food, shelter and clothing? Do they have other means of paying the rent, buying food, or paying for college tuition?
If we don’t make an effort to fill in these blanks, then we perpetuate the stereotype of sex workers as promiscuous, diseased drug addicts who are no better than pests: devoid of morality or human worth. If we do that, then we also perpetuate the behavior of men who can’t see beyond a woman’s body to her person.
So sure, let’s be outraged about the behavior of these agents, let’s applaud when the heads roll and the stricter rules take effect, but let’s also talk about the bigger picture. Let’s not forget the word “woman” when we talk about prostitution.