The real secret service scandal: NOT paying for sex

The Secret Service debacle has been politicized, sensationalized and commodified. Spirit Airlines has launched a “more bang for your buck” ad, with an “upfront payment is required” warning.  The Republicans have made it an Obama issue, the president is angry and the press has covered it as a salacious scandal.  Meanwhile, neither the politicians nor the press have covered the real transgression. This was not about  U.S. government workers paying for sex; this was about refusing to pay for it.  In Colombia’s “tolerance zones,” the sex trade is legal. And yet, a U.S. citizen and government worker thought it was all right to break the law by giving a sex worker $30, less than a twentieth of the $800 fee agreed upon the night before. After the woman raised a justifiable ruckus, she was paid $225, not enough to cover the $250 fee she pays to the man who “helps find her customers.”

This is hardly surprising. It’s one more instance of an American (or, more accurately, Estadosunidense) going into another country, ignoring its customs and laws, exploiting its people, and expecting impunity.  Interestingly, the only reason we even know about this scandal is because one sex worker felt safe enough to tell a police officer that she had been underpaid, something that would never happen where prostitution is criminalized. Food for thought.


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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  • Julie
  • Lyanna

    Don’t they normally take money upfront always?

    • Terry

      Lyanna- That’s what I thought when I first heard about this story. The only thing I can think of is that maybe it works differently if it’s legal to pay for sex. It seems like one of the main reasons you pay first is to get around legality issues. If you pay before sex, you can say you were paying for companionship and then coincidentally, during that time you happened to have sex.

  • Robert

    The prostitute may have been trying to charge more than the agreed amount, I say this because it is in the agent’s best interest to pay the agreed price and referring to Lyanna’s question, they do take money upfront especially in poor countries. I have a lot of family in Mexico where this “profession” is common and the women take money upfront so they don’t get screwed by a local with no money or an American that refuses to pay after.

    Worth noting is I heard a guy on the radio with inside knowledge and he says this has been going on for a long time. Normally this incident would be kept hidden but Obama has such a bad relationship with the secret service that he let it get big. The secret service has derogatory nicknames for the first family and hates serving them. This is a little alarming because what is to stop the secret service from letting him get assassinated? I’m not a conspiracy nut but there’s a possibility that happened with JFK.

    • Angela Reid

      While I would agree that it would have been in the best interests of the agent to pay her what her fee was (not to mention that in any other business we call that ‘theft’), to suggest that she was the one with the balance of power in this situation is hardly credible.

      This is the Secret Service, of the President of the United States, versus a call girl. I’m actually amazed that the police did anything – I’m not sure what the relationship is between sex workers and police in Cartagena, but I’d imagine it’s pretty rare for authorities of any kind to stand up for sex workers.

      • Robert

        “I’d imagine it’s pretty rare for authorities of any kind to stand up for sex workers.”

        It’s not rare where prostitution is legal. It’s actually pretty common if the client is known to have money or a reputation to protect because there is a potential for a large payoff. I have family very knowledgeable in this area from living in Mexico. Americans are a constant target for scams for example: a prostitute may say the client owes her more and a police officer will say the client has to pay her or he will go to jail. 99% of the time no one goes to jail and sometimes there is some extra money paid. This could range from $10 to hundreds if the client beat the crap out of the woman. If a client stands his ground he is let go most of the time, the police just want money and will pick an easier target. Men that go often get familiar with the police and don’t get messed with after a while.

        • Angela Reid

          I have to defer to your knowledge of the local situation there. I’m not sure if the cops colluding with the prostitutes in a shakedown scam really counts as standing up for them though. Assuming the article’s figures are correct, $800 (the claimed original price) wouldn’t be out of a reasonable range for a whole night with a high class in-call for high-ranking clients.

          And I still wonder about the wisdom of targeting the secret service (!) for a shakedown attempt. Of course, it’s possible that they didn’t know who they were with, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, like with Dominique Strauss-Kahn…what happened with that one again? Oh right, a powerful man was cleared of wrongdoing in a foreign country and the accuser was implied to be a liar and a scammer…

          • Robert

            I’m not an expert in prostitution pricing but $800 for one night is ridiculous in a poor country like Colombia even if the woman was high class. Even in a relatively rich country like Mexico this is a lot. I am not excusing the secret service, they should be punished either way for being with a prostitute considering their duty to protect the president. I’ve been to poor countries during my time in the military and know first hand an American man is highly sought after. Looks and job are irrelevant, being an American is enough status (this is why losers go find a hot wife in places like Thailand). Anyways, I have a hard time believing these men would agree to pay that much when they could easily find a cheaper prostitute or get sex for free at a regular club.

  • Smiley

    I am puzzled.

    This site, and contributors, consistenly denounce prostitution (sex work), on the ground that the (woman) worker is not free, and is oppressed (by society, her lack of money or prospects, patriarchy, etc.).

    And now, hey presto!, the argument is about the method of payment: up front or after delivery?

    Where is the consistency? Why is the method of payment the focus? If she is oppressed, then the fee is irrelevant – 800 bucks does not make oppression all right. Does it? If it did, then expensive prostitution is OK.

    Is it because it happened outside the USA?

    (I don’t have a problem with prostitution, but I certainly do with stealing and defrauding.)

    • Jos

      I’m baffled to hear that “This site, and contributors, consistenly denounce prostitution (sex work), on the ground that the (woman) worker is not free, and is oppressed (by society, her lack of money or prospects, patriarchy, etc.).”

      There is no singular Feministing voice, but I know the majority of the crew takes basically the opposite stance on sex work.

  • khw

    As someone who has lived in Colombia for many years, I can state that the ‘prepagos’ or high class prostitutes are used to dealing with foreigners and / or high class Colombians. Here, the idea that these men didn’t pay just shows how ‘low class’ they were and how entitled the idiots felt themselves to be.