Russians still use gay sexpionage to blackmail spies, an old Cold War tactic

Russians still use gay sexpionage to blackmail spies, an old Cold War tactic

CultureFebruary 02, 2018 By George Hardwick

In spite of Russia’s current homophobic trends as a country, the KGB, and its successors in the country's security, have been using gay sex spies since the Cold War in remarkable fashion.

Homoerotica, double agency, lies, deceit — the stories of the men wrapped up in these scandals are about as Hollywood as one can get without Tom Cruise signing off on the checks. Damn, were those Ruskis clever.

Decorated individuals such as John Vassal, foreign correspondent Jeremy Wolfenden, Canadian ambassador to the USSR John Watkins, even a former Prime Minister David Cameron, were all approached by undercover operatives wanting to lure them into what the espionage community calls a “honey trap.”

And like every good spy story, these operatives had cool code names. Men were referred to as “Ravens,” while women were called “Swallows” (naturally). Their seductive methods were meticulously planned out, and heavily revolved around blackmail.

The use of gay sex spies was so pervasive in the mid-20th century even, that U.S. President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 asserting that gays (and drunks) were security risks through cleverly worded structure — one more in a series of myths the LGBTQ communities fought hard to work through over the next several decades.

British civil servant John Vassal is perhaps the most infamous of these victims around that time, however. The KGB used photographs of a raunchy gay orgy he attended to turn him into one of their double agents. In describing the evidence used to blackmail him, he once told The Telegraph newspaper, "There I was, caught by the camera, enjoying … a complicated array of sexual activities with a number of different men.”

Complicated array, well put. …

Though his behavior would hardly make anyone bat two eyelashes today, Vassal was trapped in a tough spot because it was illegal to be gay in Britain up until 1967; he couldn't simply walk away from the KGB because his lifestyle was punishable by prison back home.

He described his feelings about the honey trap to The Telegraph as “like a spider's web. It was done very, very cleverly. At no time could I have escaped. I just got more and more entangled.”

Over the course of seven years, the KGB used these photographs and money bribes to blackmail Vassal into double agency. On the plus side, the money bribes afforded him the lifestyle of the rich and famous for near a decade. The downside, he was sent to prison for 11 years.

After Vassal had been drug through the mud by the scandal, Britain turned a more discerning eye towards gay rights in the UK. Before, in articles highlighted by the BBC, homophobic quotes were the norm:

“How to spot a possible homo,” is one such case. It describes the technique as looking for “a gay little wiggle” to further ostracize the community from “normal” society.


Reports of the Russians using a honey trap continued well past the Cold War, one of the more recent of which happened in 1985 to a then teenager later turned prominent UK politician. 

David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016, almost found himself a victim at the age of 19. On a gap year visiting Russia, he speculated that he was the target of two strange men who were overly polite and fishing for too much from him.

“They took me out to lunch and dinner and asked me about life in England and what I thought about England,” he told The Telegraph. “When I got back I told my tutor at university and he asked me whether it was an interview. If it was, it seems I didn’t get the job.”

While this may initially have appeared like a harmless friendly gesture towards him at the time, Cameron now sees himself a lost target in the primary steps agents take to begin grooming individuals for becoming a double agent.

Igor Prelin, a retired KGB agent, describes David Cameron’s encounter differently — as any ex-KGB would. He says he wouldn't “necessarily call it recruiting, but it might have been a meeting aimed at making friends. We had a good system of databases and a simple check of the name could have brought amazing results.”

Uh huh, friends. ...

It’s true, Russia has its reputation of being a hyper-paranoid, overly masculine network of anti-LGBT, anti-female societies. But like with any oppressive group in power, they were (and likely still are) using those facets of their people to spy on anyone they can.

James Bond who?

[cover photo: Gay Clown Putin via KnowYourMeme]