The problem of sex tourism

Senator Bob MenendezThe FBI is investigating allegations that Senator Bob Menendez (D NJ) was flown to the Dominican Republic by a donor where he had sex with underage prostitutes. Blogs are running quotes, allegedly from the prostitutes, that he promised them $500 but only paid $100. These are, of course, only allegations, and in the world of social media rumor and gossip are available to all. Menendez denies all the allegations: prostitution, underage sex, and defrauding prostitutes.

The Washington Post reports the issue in its column The Fix, and despite the paucity (so far) of evidence, this seems a legitimate call. The column focuses on elections and politics. Even if it turns out the scandal is fairly minor, it could still have electoral implications. Simple cases of consensual, non-financial, marital infidelity have brought down politicians before. The Post, however, includes the word “underage” in its article but not in the headline. If it is worth including it should be in the headline. It is more significant than the mere fact of prostitution.

More facts will be needed before we can judge whether the word “underage” is justified at all. After all, under what age? The age of consent differs between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, and in New York is different again. One blog your columnist has tracked down alleges that Menendez had sex with the same prostitute on several occasions, both before and after her 17th birthday. In New York State, therefore, she was of age on the latter occasions. In New Jersey she was of age throughout (the age of consent is 16) but in the Dominican Republic the age of 18 prevails, and she was underage throughout. Prostitution itself is legal in the Dominican Republic, but not in New Jersey, or 48 other states. 

Prostitution is something in which some people like to engage and will travel some distance to do so. Common Sense takes the view that it is both wrong and counterproductive to prohibit a consensual exchange of harmless services for money. But the question of age remains troubling. And, while prostitution remains illegal in 49 states, law makers should not be law breakers.

But what of people who travel to different jurisdictions to engage in sex, perhaps for money, with persons under the age of consent in their home jurisdiction. New York has an age of consent of 17, but every one of the neighboring states and provinces, in both the US and Canada, sets the age at 16. It is hardly fair to arrest someone in New York for legal behavior carried out in New Jersey or Vermont. But if people from Nevada (a surprisingly restrictive 18) cross to the Mexican state of Sonora, where the line is drawn at puberty, is that something which Nevada should punish?

Some states in South East Asia, while theoretically maintaining ages of consent between 13 and 19, tolerate prostitution with much younger children, especially by tourists who bring hard currencies into the country. If Americans visiting these countries are not, in practice, prosecuted there, should the US bring prosecutions for these extra-territorial crimes? And, if so, what age of consent should apply? That of the country concerned, which might be as low as 13, or what prevails in the tourist’s home state, which might be 16, 17 or 18?


Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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