Sex and the Secret Service

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.


Kony 2012 & The White Savior Industrial Complex

I’m a bit late to the Kony 2012 party and I’m now feeling very uneasy about Invisible Children’s narrow-minded solution to ending child soldiering in Uganda – just arrest Joseph Kony by December!

Much has been written in the past two weeks about Invisible Children’s lack of transparency and video producer Jason Russell’s recent health problems (read Rhyme et Reason’s post on the topic). What I haven’t read about until today is the campaign’s most glaring and problematic aspect – it perfectly illustrates the White Savior Industrial Complex, as brilliantly explained by Teju Cole, a writer for The Atlantic. (Cole wrote the piece defending a series of tweets he wrote after watching the Kony 2012 video).

The White Savior Industrial Complex centers around white people or people of privilege who enter a country, community or cultural context that is not their own with the sincere and misguided conviction that they are “doing good” for the people they want to “help.” These do-gooders often ignore, gloss over or are ignorant of the complexity of situations or problems they want to solve. They also don’t examine their own locations and privilege (race, sex/gender, nationality, class) and how that impacts their relationships with the communities they want to “help.” (Examples of the White Savior Industrial Complex are also abundant in international women’s rights campaigns. Anyone remember Western feminists’ crusade to “save” Afghan women from the Taliban by advocating for U.S. military intervention?)


Teju Cole@tejucole

2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

In the case of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video, Cole writes that the first principle in “making a difference” is doing no harm. Second, it’s imperative that the people we help should be included and consulted. Cole also writes,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa toThe Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”

What struck me most about Russell’s narrative about Joseph Kony and child soldiering (which is not exclusive to Uganda) is the utter simplicity and childlike enthusiasm of the campaign’s goals. If I understood the video correctly, it goes something like this:

  1. Make Joseph Kony’s name famous in the U.S. by leveraging social media, individual actions and targeting celebrity culture and influential policy makers.
  2. Put pressure on lawmakers to keep American military advisors in Uganda so that they can help find and arrest Kony.
  3. Kony’s arrest = an end to child soldiering in Uganda 
  4. Children return to their families in a joyous reunion.
What’s missing from Russell’s narrative of the problem (child soldiering in Uganda) are the international and national political, economic and social factors that create and contribute to it in the first place. Abducting boys and girls to serve in a resistance army in Uganda doesn’t happen in a vaccuum as Invisible Children presents it. What are local Ugandan activists doing on the ground about the problem and where are their voices? What do they see as the solution and what do they need from Westerners? The viewer only has Russell’s white savior idea of “making a difference,” which sounds increasingly self-serving.
I’d also like for more Americans to be aware of international issues and to be more engaged, but I’m afraid that Kony 2012 and its White Savior mentality will only do more harm than good. Only time will tell what the video’s impact will be. After all, we’re the ones sitting at a comfortable distance and won’t feel the blowback of a misguided white man’s crusade.

(This post first appeared on Rhyme et Reason.)

How to involve, educate and inspire girls on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day, a holiday that goes back to 1910 when a German woman named Clara Zetkin proposed that every country devote a day to the needs and political demands for women. Call me a pessimist, but I’m not in a celebratory mood today and I don’t want to shout “Happy International Women’s Day!” on Twitter or Facebook because the work is not over in any country. The past few weeks of Rush Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of women, transvaginal ultrasounds and conservative Republican attacks on birth control are real reminders that women’s needs and rights are under attack. It also underscores the importance of honoring today as a day to remind the world of women’s political demands. In the words of my feminist, Kurdish friend who so eloquently wrote today, “When all inequalities between sexes vanishes on earth, when women have an equal say in every stage of life; that day we can celebrate women’s day and toss for a merry future! BUT, alas! we are not there yet!”

International Women’s Day focuses on women as its subjects, but we often fail to include girls in our celebrations and analyses of this “holiday.” It’s short-sighted and foolish to ignore the potential of girls, who will one day be young women like myself and hopefully involved in feminist movements as leaders, thinkers and activists.

I’ve been thinking about the question, “How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate and inspire girls in a positive way?” And I’ve decided that the best way to involve girls is to ask them for their thoughts and opinions and value what they say instead of judging how they look or act or what they wear. This gives girls permission to be outspoken and unapologetic about their intellect and to feel as if their opinion and their voice matters.

It’s not enough to devote time, energy and resources into educating girls with academic skills if we also don’t educate them about loving their bodies and equip them with scientifically based, comprehensive sex education. As adults, it’s our responsibility to lead by example and show girls how to love and appreciate our bodies and our diverse beauty. Easier said than done, I know. But if we don’t love ourselves and our bodies, we won’t stop tearing down other women as enemies and we won’t see them as full, equal partners in the struggle for equality. We need to educate girls to not divide themselves from one another, because then we are conquered and divided as a sex. Nurturing girls’ voices and educating them beyond textbook smarts will inspire them to value and love their mind, intellect, body and other girls and women.

I realize that these answers sound simplistic. But they are extremely hard to implement when so much of our patriarchal culture and global community pays lip service to gender equity and doesn’t do the hard work of actually making it happen, no matter how many treaties are signed or conferences are held. That’s why I believe that these simple truths are so personal, radical, revolutionary and life changing for a girl. By nurturing her voice, mind and love for herself and others, a girl who grows up to be a woman makes her needs and demands known everyday, not just on International Women’s Day. She is healthier, happier and smarter. And that is work I want to do with passion and celebrate.