Every new piece of reporting on Congressman Matt Gaetz seems more unbelievable than the last these days. The allegations are shocking in their apparent brazenness and almost cinematic corruption. A prominent member of government brought down after getting caught paying for sex is practically a political cliché.
But the heart of the story is not the clandestine exchanges of cash. It is a powerful man preying on very young women and girls — which is still devastatingly common.
While all but one of the women Gaetz is accused of paying were technically adults, many were still teens, all at least a decade younger than him, often in college. The issue is not that Gaetz allegedly paid for sex. The issue is that he, allegedly, pursued teen girls who could not have the influence, financial independence, or life experience they would have needed to enter into these transactions on an equal footing. If these allegations prove to be true — if Gaetz was secretly exchanging not just cash, but often necessities like rent and tuition money, for sex with girls who were barely 18 (and in one case 17) — then that is predation, not a mutually beneficial arrangement.
On Thursday,The Daily Beast revealed documents obtained from Gaetz’s former associate, Joel Greenberg. These documents included an incriminating letter allegedly authored by Greenberg, detailing the crimes and misconduct he accuses Gaetz of committing. The piece ran with the headline “Bombshell Letter: Gaetz Paid for Sex With Minor, Wingman Says.”
In one particularly revealing passage, Greenberg claimed that he and Gaetz believed this minor to be 19 years old at the time, and when he discovered her real age to be 17, he chastised her for putting him and his associates in danger. “She apologized and recognized that by lying about her age, she endangered many people,” he wrote, according toThe Beast’s reporting.
As others have noted, the very idea that an adult can “have sex” with a 17-year-old is flawed. The correct term for such an activity would be “rape,” because a 17-year-old child is still a child. By definition, a child is incapable of engaging in an adult, consensual sexual relationship. And the idea that a child should be the one apologizing to the adults who raped her — the idea that she is somehow the one who abused her own position — is on its face absurd.
The letter follows up with: “There was no further contact with this individual until after her 18th birthday.” But a person does not magically obtain the maturity and resources to enter into an arrangement of this kind the minute they turn 18. Greenberg, Gaetz, and others, had already allegedly begun fostering this relationship when she was a minor, which suggests at least some level of grooming and exploitation.
An important distinction to be made here is the difference between sex work and predatory behavior. There is nothing inherently morally objectionable about sex work, and focusing on the fact that payments were made, instead of who they were paid to and what the money was used for, does a disservice to adult sex workers who already face deep-seated stigma and often persecution.
There is a danger of conflating the allegations against Gaetz, and the very young women and girls he accused of paying, with legitimate sex work. Certain right-wing headlines have leaned into the salacious angle, such as a Fox News story titled “Orgy, underage girls, sex games, and extortion,” which evokes “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes,” more than it does exploitation and accusations of sexual abuse.
Gaetz also allegedly used the website Seeking Arrangement, a site that matches “sugar babies” (usually young, attractive women) with “sugar daddies” (generally older and wealthy men), who pay for the privilege of their company with expensive gifts or financial support. It’s not precisely sex work, but it’s also not precisely not. It is certainly possible to have a mutually beneficial relationship of this kind, but it is by no means guaranteed.
Taken together, the implication is that Gaetz erred in entering a seedy underground world populated by tempting young women of loose morals, including the minor child he claims lied about her age. In reality, if the accusations are correct, Gaetz created this seedy underground world himself, recruited its inhabitants with care, and relished in his own power.