Turning Point

Will the RentBoy.com Bust Be the ‘Stonewall’ of Sex Work?

When the feds targeted a gay escort site, it wasn’t to rightfully address sex trafficking or exploitation, but a suspicious, cruel, and unwarranted attack on male sex work.

08.26.15 8:25 PM ET

Yesterday’s raid on the offices of Rentboy.com, resulting in the arrest of seven employees, was a bizarre, unprovoked crackdown on people it’s easy for “respectable” folks to stigmatize or ignore.

On the contrary, this thoroughly unnecessary bust should be the impetus to legalize and regulate consensual sex work.

It should become the ‘Stonewall’ of sex workers, the moment in which they and their allies say: Enough.

There is much that we still do not know about the arrests, coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security and the New York law enforcement. 

DHS’s involvement is the most curious element. If anything, this should be a matter for a vice squad—like the “Public Morals Division” now featured on cable television. 

Ostensibly, Homeland Security got in because of interstate/international commerce.

But that still doesn’t quite add up. Since when is prostitution a matter of Homeland Security?

So there may be more to these arrests than what we currently know.

It’s also true that Rentboy.com pushed the envelope of the modus operandi that has long governed “escorting.” 

Legally speaking, escorts are being paid for their time, not for sexual services, and so they’re not, technically, prostitutes. 

But Rentboy got cocky, categorizing advertisers by sexual services (as described in the government’s almost pornographic court documents), sponsoring events for sex workers and porn stars, and, basically, flaunting it.

One can easily see this bust as the government drawing a line in the sand, a line which Rentboy had carelessly crossed over the years.

Still, progressives, libertarians, and small-government conservatives should be outraged by this mass arrest, which highlights the absurdity and tragedy of the current legal regime.

First, this is not about sex trafficking—the usual specter raised by conservatives and liberals alike.

 Sex trafficking is, of course, horrible. But it’s not alleged in the government’s complaint in this case, and, as we reported last spring, the very real horrors of sex trafficking have long been used as a pretext for conservative Christian moralizing, sex shaming, and government-subsidized religious proselytization.

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Want to fight sex trafficking? Fight sex trafficking. Not Rentboy.

Nor is this about exploitation. Rentboy’s business model empowers, rather than exploits, the escorts who advertise there. Escorts pay Rentboy a monthly fee (scaled according to ad placement), and that’s it. 

Prospective clients contact escorts directly. Escorts decide how much to work, how much to charge, and who to work with. Rentboy doesn’t take a cut. The website isn’t a pimp—it’s eliminating the need for pimps. It’s not a brothel—it eliminates the need for brothels. Really, it’s hard to imagine a less exploitative system.

So, what this is about is consensual sex work, and male sex work specifically. The immediate question to ask is, why now? 

Even if Rentboy was flaunting the “understanding” between escort services and law enforcement, this sudden set of arrests is a far more egregious rejection of it. 

For decades, the “escorting” shell game has been tolerated, and now suddenly it’s out the window. Now the Rentboy employees—not just the CEO, but administrative and marketing staff—are being charged with felonies carrying five-year prison terms. That’s not a warning, or a slap on the wrist.

And then there are the more profound questions.

The Rentboy bust comes just as a consensus is building that harm-reduction, rather than criminalization, is the best way to deal with international sex work and sex trafficking. 

Earlier this month, Amnesty International voted in favor of the legalization and regulation of sex work. 

The World Health Organization (PDF), UNAIDS, and other international health organizations agree, noting that criminalization increases risks of HIV transmission. Perhaps most importantly, organizations of sex workers themselves have made similar calls for years.

No one is disputing that prostitution can be exploitative, especially to women and minors, and that the global sex trade is often a kind of slavery. Even legal prostitution can trap women in exploitative power relationships. The question is how best to address these problems, and the emerging answer is that legalization-and-regulation (I’m hyphenating them because the two are inseparable parts of the policy) is better than criminalization.

Too often, criminalization hurts the ostensible victims of the sex industry: vulnerable, poor, exploited people, disproportionately women (both cisgender and transgender). 

They don’t report exploitative pimps or abusive johns, for fear of being prosecuted themselves. They can’t get the counseling and public services that they need, because they’re considered criminals. They have no resources, no leverage, no safety.

Besides, if we wanted to help those for whom “survival sex” is the only option, we’d address the conditions that bring that situation about: like stigma and violence against transgender women of color and LGBT homeless youth, for example. 

Criminalization also hurts those for whom sex work is a choice. Many sex workers have other options, but choose sex work for any number of reasons: it pays well, the hours are flexible, and compared with mind-numbing service jobs, it can be emotionally satisfying. 

Some of the best sex workers are also ad hoc therapists, connecting on emotional as well as physical levels with their clients. Some find this work rewarding, dignified, and profitable.

And why do we condemn it, exactly? Because of a religious ideology of repression, which, as we see again and again, leads to abuse and hypocrisy? Because we’ve been raised to think that whores are dirty? Or that somehow it’s the government’s legitimate role to enforce a certain kind of morality?

This is none of the government’s business. 

Where sex work is exploitative, it should be carefully regulated—just like work safety rules and minimum wage laws regulate other potentially exploitative work. 

It should be kept away from children—just like pornography, cigarettes, and alcohol. It should be regulated with the health of workers and clients in mind, with appropriate licensing, health care, taxation, and benefits.

Based on evidence from other countries (PDF), it’s unlikely that the “world’s oldest profession” will really experience a big boom thanks to legalization. 

It’s already a huge, unregulated, shady business—regulation will just turn it into a huge, regulated, non-shady one, with the added bonus of tax revenue for the rest of us.

None of this is to say that Rentboy didn’t break the law. Rather, it is to argue that the law is unjust and unjustified, and that this sudden, selective enforcement of it is suspicious, cruel, and unwarranted.

The only thing that would redeem this bust is for it to become the Stonewall of the movement to legalize sex work. This should be the moment that progressives rally behind sex workers, listen to what they have been telling us, and work to protect them.

It is probably coincidental that the bust happened two months after marriage equality became the law of the land. 

But let’s learn from the coincidence. Same-sex marriage was an important victory for the LGBT community—but it was also what academics call “respectability politics,” which is when a stigmatized group protests that, in fact, it is totally respectable, and deserves equality on that basis.

But respectability politics excludes those who are not “respectable,” including sex workers, non-monogamists, gender-nonconformists, and those with “weird” sexual tastes. 

They are the people left behind by the advances in LGBT equality, and they have often paid the price for our community’s overall success, in the form of backlash, violence, or government action like the Rentboy bust.

And these are the people most deserving of our support, precisely because they are the easiest to ignore.