When President Obama arrived in Colombia this weekend for the Summit of the Americas, he was greeted with less-than-welcome news: Eleven Secret Service agents had been suspended and sent home for soliciting prostitution in the city of Cartagena. After one of the women complained to the police about not receiving proper payment, the story turned into the “biggest scandal in Secret Service history.” As of yesterday, as many as 20 members of the Secret Service and U.S. military seem to have been involved.
That this happened, I believe, is a result of, and will add to, the image of overly sexualized Latin American women. The reputation Colombia has for “its women” is notorious and stereotypically sexist. Lonely Planet, for example, says of the city of Cali, Colombia: “While the city itself isn’t breathtaking, Cali famously claims to produce the most beautiful women in Colombia.” (Produce. Like sugar cane or mangoes.) Actresses like Sofía Vergara embody the stereotype, and to be honest, it’s kind of accurate. As a Colombian woman myself, I directly or indirectly know a lot of women like that and certainly see that image presented regularly in the Colombian media.
What many fail to notice, however, is that this “hotness” comes from a sad place, from a deeply patriarchal Catholic society that cannot see women outside the virgin/whore dichotomy. When I go back to Colombia, it’s hard not to feel inadequate because I insist on ignoring my feminine duty to always have my nails done and have everything waxed. There’s a saying in Colombia that there are no ugly women, just poor women.
The U.S. media also helps to perpetuate the stereotype. Only a few major hard-news outlets wrote about the summit at all, but who cares about a new free trade agreement when there are prostitutes to gawk at? The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey said it well: “We distracted the issue from what was a very important regional engagement for our president. So we let the boss down. Because nobody is talking about what went on in Colombia other than this incident.”
How did Colombian people take this? Commenters on El Tiempo and El Espectador, the leading newspapers in the country, focused on the agent who didn’t pay one of the women, but not out of support for the latter’s livelihood. The reaction was more along the lines of “boys will be boys” and “prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, get over it” (a favorite triteness of Colombians, via our Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel García Márquez). And some American commenters, it seems, actually agree.
Distraction or not, a beautiful moment of transnational bonding took place in this scandal: both sides of the Caribbean did their part to reduce women to their sexuality and perpetuate the stereotype of the over-sexualized Colombian woman. Observers may not have been able to come to terms on Cuba or the war on drugs, but many were able to agree that the sanctity and preservation of the age-old transaction of women’s bodies and dignity deserves the utmost attention. I guess we do share some common values after all.