Florida Republican Matt Gaetz may be the first member of Congress under investigation for sex trafficking, and whether or not he is indicted, “investigated for sex trafficking” has now affixed itself to his name, perhaps permanently. Whatever kind of monster it is people picture when they hear “sex trafficker,” his opponents hope it is enough to sink his political career. Still, what we already know to be true about Gaetz—that he pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, that he has employed staff who took policy cues from a conspiracy theory–laden message board and who cheered on the January 6 insurrection—is plenty contemptible and corrosive. Matt Gaetz has quite publicly demonstrated a willingness to abuse power. There is enough here, too, without having to fall back on pernicious myths about sex trafficking in order to portray Gaetz as the kind of ready-made villain that may be, unfortunately, easier to run out of office.
A sex trafficker, in the popular imagination, may be someone more in the vein of Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide before evidence against him could be heard in court but who was accused by several young women of having trafficked them for sex, which prosecutors say spanned years of manipulation, deceit, and abuse. But Epstein is an exception: In fact, he evaded prosecution for a long time, in part because he was the kind of person who is rarely prosecuted for sex trafficking. He was white, by his own account wealthy, and he had powerful people to shield him—like U.S. attorney (and future Trump labor secretary) Alex Acosta, who in 2007 kept Epstein out of federal prison through a plea deal. Epstein’s story is the kind that fits more comfortably inside a conspiracy theory than the everyday mechanics of our criminal legal system.
Gaetz, meanwhile, seems to have come under investigation due to a less powerful associate, a former Florida official named Joel Greenberg, who has already been charged with sex trafficking, among other offenses, and whose prosecution may have exposed Gaetz. According to the indictment, when Greenberg was the tax collector for Seminole County, Florida, he “did knowingly … recruit, entice, obtain, maintain, patronize, and solicit” a minor between the ages of 14 and 17. The sex trafficking charge was reported in August 2020, but this March, The New York Times connected it to a Department of Justice investigation into Gaetz, which its sources say is focused on whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old and whether he gave her anything of material value. The sugar daddy website SeekingArrangement.com may have been where Greenberg and possibly Gaetz met women; as the Times reported, “The F.B.I. mentioned the website in a conversation with at least one potential witness, according to a person familiar with the conversation.” After this, Gaetz issued a memorable denial: “Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex.… Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”
Gaetz’s stature may be enough alone to cause some of the more common tropes about sex trafficking to wobble—about who a trafficker is and what trafficking looks like and who actually gets prosecuted. What the American public has been told for the past 20 years of the modern war on trafficking, inaugurated with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, is a jumble of religious right and liberal feminist messaging about vulnerable, innocent girls and amoral men driven by lust. In truth, that resembles neither the crime nor who is charged with it. Crimes that once may have been charged as underage prostitution, after new anti-trafficking laws were passed in the 2000s, now fell under the legal definition of sex trafficking a minor. Vice squads lead enforcement efforts, in some cases arresting the minors themselves. Gaetz hasn’t yet been indicted, of course, with trafficking a minor for sex. But if he is, as a white man, he would be one of the disproportionately few white men each year to face such charges. Typically, defendants in minor sex trafficking cases are Black men, not—as researchers have argued—because Black men are more often traffickers, but because those are the kinds of trafficking cases that carry the highest penalties and are “the easiest to prosecute successfully.” With a minor victim, prosecutors don’t need to prove that force, fraud, or coercion were present, as they do with adult victims. That means that essentially any commercial sex act involving a minor can be charged as sex trafficking.
Despite the pattern of prosecutions and the standards of proof, to call someone a sex trafficker is to conjure something almost cartoonishly sinister, like a rich man spiriting young girls off to his own island, or the idea of keeping children as “sex slaves.” Even anti-trafficking groups now take pains to point out that these scenarios are both unlikely and far from the norm, that someone doesn’t need to be taken over state lines or, for that matter, transported anywhere for it to constitute trafficking.
All this is to say: It may be easier to bring Gaetz up on sex trafficking charges than people think. If Gaetz did indeed send a cash app payment to a 17-year-old in exchange for sex—which is in part what the Times says investigators are digging into—whether or not that involved a plane or a hotel or even a Metro ride, legally speaking, he engaged in sex trafficking. The Times did not help clarify things much, though, by claiming that “if prosecutors think they can prove that the payments to the women were for sex, they could accuse Mr. Gaetz of trafficking the women under ‘force, fraud or coercion’”—which is a higher bar than prosecutors would actually require if the victim in question is a minor. No evidence of a conspiracy between Gaetz and his Florida friend (who is himself already facing at least 33 charges related to fraud, stalking, and identity theft, and more) is even necessary.
Gaetz may ultimately not have been involved in sex trafficking (and if he was, he may still not be charged). Still, Gaetz apparently regards women he (says he) has sex with as trophies to whom he may have the absolute right. After he fought a revenge-porn law while in the Florida state legislature, a fellow Republican lawmaker told the Orlando Sentinel, “Matt was absolutely against it. He thought the picture was his to do with what he wanted.… He thought that any picture was his to use as he wanted to, as an expression of his rights.” (It passed anyway.) At parties with Joel Greenberg, according to two people who spoke to The Washington Post, Gaetz would show off videos of naked or topless women on his phone to others involved in Florida politics. “Matt was never shy about talking about his relationship to Joel and the access to women that Joel provided him,” one of those people told the Post. For Gaetz, access to sex and access to power seem instrumental and interchangeable—not a crime, but still nothing worth defending. Members of Congress shouldn’t have to tolerate a co-worker who flashes nudes for cred on the House floor, as Gaetz has reportedly done since arriving in Washington.
“His unsolicited thirst is extremely weird,” wrote Miami New Times columnist Jerry Iannelli, after Gaetz told TMZ he would “swipe right” on the chance to work on a bill with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in 2019. At the time, he appeared to be trying to appropriate AOC’s social media prowess; now, it just seems like another bit of evidence demonstrating his outsize notion of both his seductive power and his proximity to influence. Was he banking, too, that this would protect him from allegations like this? Because he may not be wrong that he can hold onto his seat regardless.