Sex Tourism, the Secret Service and the Harms of Buying Sex

Over the weekend, Secret Service agents were allegedly caught buying sex while in Colombia to protect President Barack Obama. Right away, the media and politicians tried to parse out exactly why agents shouldn't be buying sex. The explanations were awkward at best:

CBS stated in their coverage: "Prostitution is legal in Colombia, but the concern is that the security of the president could have been compromised."

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., asserted that the problem wasn't that the agents were buying sex, but when and where they had been caught: "Whatever they do in their personal lives should not be done in Colombia," he said.

All of these remarks seem to ignore the fact that sex tourism (traveling to buy sex) fuels sex trafficking.

Thankfully, President Barack Obama's response indicates that he was concerned with more than security: "We're here on behalf of our people," the president said, "and that means that we conduct ourselves with the utmost dignity and probity and, obviously, what's been reported doesn't match up with those standards."

If these agents did indeed buy sex in Columbia, they've joined the ranks of thousands of men from the United States who travel abroad each year to seek out prostituted people. Sex tourists often travel to countries with weak internal economic structures that leave children and women extremely vulnerable to the snare of sexual exploitation. Many of those being purchased for sex are victims of human trafficking or individuals with extremely limited life options. Sex tourists disproportionately target children and inflict life-long physical and emotional scars onto them.

According to the "Trafficking in Persons Report," Colombia is a destination for foreign child sex tourists from the United States and Europe. The report also details that members of gangs and organized criminal networks force relatives, acquaintances, and displaced persons -- typically women and children -- into conditions of sex trafficking and forced labor, including in the illegal drug trade.

Conversations about buying sex must acknowledge the realities of sex trafficking and violence against prostituted people.

We don't know if the prostituted women involved in the incident in Colombia were trafficked. But we do know that sex tourism in general fuels the demand for the sex trade. When people travel to a certain area to buy sex, traffickers recruit and force more people into the trade to meet the demand, and the harms of the global sex trade continue.

CAASE works to empower communities to take action against exploitation. Our Demand Change toolkit has steps you can take to prevent and address sex tourism. To learn more, visit this website.