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Due Process, Adult Sexual Morality and the Case of Rep. Matt Gaetz
The Florida Congressman has not been charged with any crimes. But the reaction to this case raises important questions of political, legal and cultural judgments.
That Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is a pedophile, a sex trafficker, and an abuser of women who forces them to prostitute themselves and use drugs with him is a widespread assumption in many media and political circles. That is true despite the rather significant fact that not only has he never been charged with (let alone convicted of) such crimes, but also no evidence has been publicly presented that any of it is true. He has also vehemently denied all of it. All or some of these accusations very well may be true and, one day — perhaps imminently — there will be ample publicly available evidence demonstrating this.
But that day has not yet arrived. As of now, we know very little beyond what The New York Times initially reported about all of this on March 30: that “people close to the investigation” told the paper that “a Justice Department investigation into Representative Matt Gaetz and an indicted Florida politician is focusing on their involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments.” The article also said the DOJ “inquiry is also examining whether Mr. Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and whether she received anything of material value.” Both the NYT and, later, The Daily Beast, indicated the existence of financial transactions involving payments by Gaetz to his associate Joel Greenberg, currently charged with multiple felonies. The New York Times article made clear: “No charges have been brought against Mr. Gaetz, and the extent of his criminal exposure is unclear.” That is still true.
But no matter. One is hard-pressed to find people willing to urge that his guilt not be assumed before evidence of it is presented (amazingly, just six months ago, many of the same people now treating these accusations as proven fact had no trouble casually asserting or strongly implying that Gaetz was having sex with a 19-year-old male whom he said he had been parentally raising for years, all without the slightest regard for the impact of such innuendo on that other person). So reckless is the discourse around this case that it is now frequently asserted in major outlets that Rep. Gaetz faces "charges” of sex trafficking and sex with a minor, even though that claim is, at least as of now, blatantly untrue. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) said that explicitly this morning without contradiction on CBS News’ Face the Nation, and it was then repeated without contradiction by numerous media outlets:
That is because — as many people learned in the case of 31-year-old Mayor Alex Morse, accused by the left’s creepy sexual morality police of the moral crime of consensually dating young adults only to be subsequently vindicated as the victim of a political hit — those who urge caution or basic precepts of due process are immediately accused of sympathy for the crimes themselves. Like free speech, "due process” is both a Constitutional guarantee (i.e., the state may not deprive someone of life, liberty or property without it) as well as a vital cultural norm (i.e., people should not be assumed guilty of heinous crimes without evidence being publicly presented). It is that latter sense of due process being mauled by prevailing discourse surrounding this case.
But this case also raises interesting and important questions of sexual morality and political ideology about the right of adults to engage in consensual behavior without the state and societal moral judgments intervening to punish or castigate them for it — once a foundational view of left-wing, libertarian and even some strains of right-wing politics. It goes without saying that if Rep. Gaetz or the adult women he hired violated prostitution or drug laws, then they should be treated like anyone else who does so (in 38 of 50 states and the District of Columbia, the age of consent for sex is 16 or 17; only in 12 states is it 18, though Florida, Gaetz's home state, is one of those; prostitution remains illegal in all U.S. jurisdictions except parts of Nevada).
But legality aside, what are the moral principles that ought to govern how consenting adults have sex with one another, choose to engage in or patronize sex work, or ingest substances into their own body? That “sex work” should neither be criminalized nor stigmatized has been a growing view within leftist politics for years now (it is a major cause of the ACLU), and has long had significant support among libertarians and even some "limited government” conservatives.
To explore all of these complex and quite fascinating legal, political and cultural issues, I discuss this case in the video below, roughly 30 minutes in length. In addition to the above-referenced questions, I examine how the liberal-left view of private adult consensual behavior has radically shifted within the last ten-to-fifteen years (the USA Today article I referenced about the 1994 sexual relationship between the married-but-separated California House Speaker Willie Brown, 60, and county prosecutor Kamala Harris, 31 years his junior, is here). My discussion in this video also explores the state of the law and relevant moral principles applicable to Rep. Gaetz’s case and those like it: