From China to Colombia, the use of sexual favors and vulnerability to blackmail is key to widespread corruption of public officials.
BOGOTÁ — Sexual favors are an ancient form of persuasion, and may also be the most effective form of political corruption. Here in Colombia, sex is both a popular currency and a symptom of wider corruption among people in positions of power.
A married person who has a stable extra-marital relationship is dishonest, per se. Anyone who can deceive his or her own family can do the same with others, not to mention with institutions where we're told "nobody" is hurt when money goes missing. Of course politicians playing on the side are not just corrupt but also vulnerable to blackmail.
In China, links have been found between extra-marital affairs and thieving from public funds. A study of a sample group of corrupt Chinese officials who'd been disciplined found that almost every one had also cheated on his wife, and three out of five had full-time mistresses. Ming Li, a woman who heads a marriage counseling firm, is clear on one thing: "When a man has a lot of money, he's always looking for a lover."
Within Colombia's bureaucratic nomenklatura, which is less stable than China's, officials typically cannot afford to maintain several households simultaneously. The best our officials manage seems to be the odd indiscretion or paying a hooker during a trip. It is no surprise that an escort girl here should have cited certain congressmen with whom she had worked as an "assistant" as among her most assiduous customers. Luckily for these girls, in the world's "happiest" and most carefree country, delving into private lives is still avoided, even when it affects the public purse. Nobody will know how many municipal contracts or provincial posts have been paid for with sexual services. Corruption fueled by prostitution, which requires go-betweens, can cost the public purse far more than regular concubines whose costs are basically a home and living expenses, without intermediaries.
Paying off politicians, judges and entrepreneurs with "feminine charm" is nothing unusual in Colombia. The former head of a state agency with an enormous budget says that decades ago, when visiting regional offices, he was usually met by the local notable (and presumptive partner of state projects) in the company of pretty girls placed at his disposal. He refused not just out of respect for his family, but also to avoid shady situations.
Another former technocrat says he attended a party outside the capital where the president, the cabinet, magistrates and businessmen had two escorts each, paid for by the head of the regional prosecution service apparently familiar with such operations. Though he did not use his "gift," he recalls, several politicians gave him friendly pats on the back, as if to say, welcome to our world!
A female district official, one of the biggest prostitution experts I know, once told me about a brothel that "specialized" in magistrates. Her husband who was a lawyer, used to tell her that an excellent way to win a court case was always to use women to "prod" the judgment in the right direction.
The modalities of sexual favors are often ignored in public discussions of corruption, amid the strident talk and the drama surrounding the victims. For very often it all is taken care of quite smoothly. Indeed, the drug cartels don't have two, but three weapons in their persuasive arsenal: cash, bullets and girls.
I am no moralist, and believe people should be free to engage in private activities of their choice. But what's the price when sexual favors become the currency that shapes public life?