The Real Secret Behind The Secret Service Scandal Is That Men Are Insecure

Eric Sentell argues that the real reason for the Secret Service’s use of prostitutes in Colombia isn’t necessarily about a man’s need for sex, but that men crave validation from their peers, and never want to be the “wet blanket” in the group.

The recent scandal of U.S. Secret Service and military personnel carousing in Colombia vividly illustrates a simple, regrettable fact about our society as well as a more fundamental truth about men: First, sex is just sex for many of our men; second, deep down, all men are so insecure.

Arguably, the current shock and outrage arises not from the banal fact that groups of men sometimes drink to excess, visit strip clubs, and hire prostitutes, but rather the realization that men in positions of responsibility sometimes engage in such antics. If a band of frat-brothers had done this, it wouldn’t be news; it would be another instance of “boys being boys.”

But the media and the general public can’t believe the men who protect our President would engage in such irresponsible behavior. Besides its sheer idiocy, it legitimately risked our national security. One or more of the prostitutes could have been spies. Had their “service” remained secret, some of the married agents and soldiers could have found themselves blackmailed for access to sensitive information. These highly-trained professionals should have known better. But then again, sex is just sex.

Some might suggest that they couldn’t resist temptation, peer pressure, or the testosterone-group-think of male-dominated cultures. As a relatively young man with many military friends, I think each of these points bears some truth but is ultimately a piss-poor excuse.

Temptation is more about opportunity than anything else. Sure, men are visually-stimulated and thus highly-susceptible, but they aren’t as likely to act until an opportunity presents itself. These men were in a foreign country with easy access to strippers and prostitutes. Their wives and children weren’t around. They trusted each other and knew their upcoming performance evaluations and security clearance background checks would not be tarnished.

Yet it is important to remember that they met the opportunity half-way by visiting the strip clubs and hiring the prostitutes. Perhaps some of them felt peer pressure to tag along despite their better judgment, but, ultimately, each man made a conscious choice to bow to that peer pressure. No one wants to be the “wet blanket” of the group, so everyone feels some pressure to conform to the group’s wishes.  

The magnetic “pull” of the group is even stronger in environments like the Secret Service and the military where everyone competes to be the alpha-male. The competition manifests itself in subtle ways, like talking loudly and quickly, bragging about accomplishments, or ridiculing others for their faults and mistakes. I can easily see a rogue member of the group being ridiculed and even ostracized for not wanting to visit the strip club or the brothel.

Of course, this assumes that everyone on this escapade was in his right mind. After a certain amount of alcohol, even the most upstanding alpha-male would probably carry a couple women up to his room. Binge-drinking and good decisions don’t often accompany each other.

Which returns to the subject of temptation-as-opportunity, which then revisits the problems of peer pressure and group-think. If you don’t want to drink too much, then don’t order shot after shot. If you don’t trust yourself to not order shot after shot, then don’t go to the bar. But many men—all the men on this trip, evidently—view drinking as just drinking, so they don’t anticipate any problems arising.

Similarly, too many men in American society view sex as just sex rather than something significant. They don’t emotionally bond through sex except perhaps in a long-term relationship, and they don’t often encounter physical consequences since many STDs are asymptomatic in males. Yet men also have a strong physical need for sex (yes, I know this sounds like a lame excuse, but it is biological). So, they don’t foresee any potential problems with indulging their physical desires in strippers, prostitutes, or pornography.

The only problem is that problems often occur. Pornography—whether video-recorded sex or live stripping—desensitizes its viewers, creates unrealistic expectations for one’s partners, and dehumanizes women. Prostitution adds potential legal and health consequences. And if your partner finds out about any of the above, then the relationship fractures—sometimes, sadly, beyond repair.

These attitudes that “boys will be boys,” “drinking is just drinking,” and “sex is just sex” need some serious rebooting. I’m not saying boys and men shouldn’t have a good time, but there has to be some foresight and responsibility. Drinking and soliciting sex has different but no less serious risks than drinking and driving—especially if you might be driving the President later on.

If temptation arises from opportunity, then don’t meet the opportunity half-way. If you don’t trust yourself not to take home a stripper or a prostitute, then don’t go to the strip clubs and brothels. And if you can’t tolerate the Agent-in-Charge or the Commanding Officer ridiculing you, then you probably shouldn’t have joined the Secret Service or the military in the first place.

But there’s that second truth this scandal lays bare: Deep down, men are terribly insecure.

We need to know that we have what it takes, whatever “it” might be, and we need to feel respected for having it. I would argue that soldiers and special agents suffer from these needs even more than the general population. Serving one’s country can take many forms, so why choose the grueling, violent, life-threatening professions? Paradoxically, it could be that these men have the greatest need to prove themselves, to show the world they have “it.” So even when they prove it by passing basic training, serving a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, or earning a place in the President’s protection detail, they just absolutely can’t f—ing stand it when someone teases them about staying at the hotel while everyone else hits the bars and strip clubs.

Every man, every day, has to find a source of validation that can strengthen his spirit, his heart, and his character against temptation, peer pressure, group-think, and just plain foolishness.

Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.

Photo credit Daniel Ogren/Flickr

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