The Secret Service Prostitution Scandal – More Women Won’t Fix It

Posted on May 2, 2012


You know, I was going to write something along the lines of guys patronizing prostitutes where it is legal not being such a big deal.  I confess, when I read Elaine Kamarck’s article at CNN, I initially snorted at her statement that “Paying prostitutes for sex is, of course, sordid, immoral and pretty embarrassing in and of itself.”  I know, I know.  I should hang my head in shame.  But consider this:  I joined the Army in the 1980s when this was a very, very common practice.  For most of my 21 years in the Army, it was pretty  normal for soldiers to openly take advantage of prostitutes wherever prostitution was legal.  And it’s legal in lots of places, as I found out.

The Secret Service scandal showcases a culture shift that only happened recently, and only because of George W. Bush.  I hate to give Dubya credit for much, but he did sign Executive Order 13387 in 2005 amending the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), making it illegal for military members to patronize a prostitute, even if it is legal in the local jurisdiction.  If convicted, military members can be dishonorably discharged, lose all pay and allowances, and go to jail for a year.  So, well, now it is a big deal.  This change had little to do with security risks, and everything to do with human trafficking.

I don’t know if the Secret Service civilians were barred by law from patronizing prostitutes, but I do know this:  once the UCMJ was changed to support US policy on trafficking in persons (TIP) and make patronizing a prostitute illegal, the military instituted a training program to inform everyone about the change, and made it an annual training requirement (Power Point slides here).  The military guys involved in this scandal have no excuse for their involvement, and they may be made to pay heavily.  There might not be much legal recourse against the civil servants, but since this was made a cornerstone of the US policy on TIP, there should have been annual training for them too, and there sure as hell should be career repercussions.

As for the security angle – the Mata Hari type of risk which we have heard so much of in the press is somewhat overestimated.  It is a concern, but consider this:  drinks at a bar, a game of tennis or golf, a ride together in a car – any of those situations with a man or a woman can easily result in just as much bean-spilling as a sexual encounter.  This is why people are thoroughly investigated before receiving a security clearance:  because pragmatically, you can’t baby-sit people with clearances 24 hours a day.  To do their jobs, they have to be able to interact normally with their foreign counterparts without blathering all of our secrets away.  No, the reason that security clearances have been pulled in this case almost certainly has to do with misconduct – the violation of the amended UCMJ – rather than because of a direct security risk.

Kamarck’s article is titled “One answer to Secret Service scandal? Hire more women.”  I disagree.  The presence of women does have some effect in “calming” a formerly all-male environment, but it’s no cure-all.  In my experience, even in combat support units with a roughly 25% female component, things like patronizing prostitutes and going to strip clubs were par for the course, completely open and accepted.  Crude jokes or comments about sexuality were not condoned, but such things went on.  There also were a number of men who had temporary duty (TDY) assignments in neighboring countries, and similar to the “wheels up, rings off” motto of the 1960 presidential campaign plane as noted by Ms. Kamarck, there was a saying:  “What goes on TDY stays on TDY.”

That sort of thing gradually faded over the years, in my experience anyway, but I’m not sure if that was because of better training and enforcement of harassment policies, or just because I was rising in rank and becoming more removed from the grittiness one sometimes finds at the tactical unit level.  I suspect the latter, given all of the headlines we continue to see about sexual assaults in the military.

Ms. Kamarck writes, “Isn’t it funny how having to work alongside a woman who, for instance, knows your wife — seems to inhibit old fashioned male fun?”  Meh, not so much.  For one thing, the guys I knew might have laughed and winked and nudged each other within my earshot, but they weren’t going to give me all their gory details.  Second, I had no way of knowing what was true or embellished, and much was only hinted at.  Third, I certainly did not know these men’s wives well enough to butt into their business when I didn’t even have solid information about what really went on (or didn’t).  And finally, and this is a big obstacle for all leaders everywhere, male and female – you can emphasize the law, your philosophy, and consequences all you like, but if your subordinates don’t want you to know something, it’s certainly not going to be obvious.  You may get wind of misconduct from a third party, or by noticing something incongruous, or from a complaint – which is what happened in this Secret Service scandal.  One of the ladies didn’t get paid, and complained – to the police, which then involved the US Consulate.  Oops.  If not for that, this would probably never have come to light.  The young guys I knew overseas pre-2005 had no reason to hide their activities with prostitutes, so everyone knew about it.  But today, it’s a pretty safe bet that the bosses did not hear anything about this back in Washington.

The point is, it’s not the presence or absence of women that makes the workplace culture.  It’s the commander’s policy, how he communicates it, and how it is enforced.  Bush set the bar in 2005, so check that block.  The main thing now is to follow up with consequences.  And if the Secret Service does not have the same policy and training as the military has had for the past six years, it’s time to start.

Originally published at The Color of Lila.