Even if you are not a current or former sex worker, or if you have never hired a sex worker, or if you have never met a sex worker, you should be angry that the U.S. government descended this week on a gay-owned business that has been operating respectably and profitably for two decades, all because sex work is still criminalized in this country.
The Rentboy takedown is a clear and present piece of evidence that federal prosecutors have not forgotten about sex work, even though it has historically been considered only a “quality of life” crime affecting certain neighborhoods. Given that Rentboy operated entirely on the web, and purely as a bulletin board of sorts connecting hookers and johns and thereby keeping them both off the streets, exactly what, besides the prudish moral objection to gay prostitutes, is the government going after here?
Short answer: They’re going after the livelihoods of thousands of gay, bi, and trans men, and the sexual lifeline of thousands upon thousands of gay and bi men (both out and closeted), who will now have to turn to shadier operations, or the shady street corners of yore, pimps and all, in order to get off.
As The Atlantic succinctly puts it, if prosecutors have their way and put the Rentboy Seven in jail, “The majority of the public whose lives are unaffected by the gay prostitution scene will be no better off, despite footing the bill; and the small number of people whose lives are touched by the scene will mostly be worse off.”
Why, if male escorting is a victimless crime, should Rentboy deserve this prosecution? And why, if they’re essentially a technology company like Uber, connecting lonely people with companionship and not even charging a commission for any services (save their membership fee, and advertising fees for escorts), should their website even be considered illegal?
Many people are going to argue that prostitution is not victimless because prostitutes themselves are victims, but this is of course bullshit, much like saying porn stars are all damaged or otherwise unemployable is stupid. People choose to go into sex work for many reasons, but one of them is that they may be good at, and it’s profitable, and it allows them the freedom to do other things with their days, be it art, or school, or whatever.
And, as Matt Baume argues in this new video today, “If sex work is so harmful, why is it that so many major medical and human rights groups actually support decriminalization?”
Sex trafficking, especially among young women from foreign countries with notorious sex trades, remains a problem, however as many pundits have pointed out since the criminal complaint against Rentboy went public Tuesday, “trafficking” and exploitation were not even mentioned in the federal indictment. The government isn’t making any bones about the fact that they are prosecuting one thing: male prostitution. But who besides tabloids and pearl-clutching conservatives even give a shit about this? Is male prostitution some scourge we now need to stamp out, as a nation, and Rentboy is just being made an example of? Or is there some more insidious motive for this case, like some kind of coverup or a fear of hacking, a la Ashley Madison, that would, as Dan Savage suggested, result in “Scores of Republican politicians, evangelical Christians, and Duggars [being] outed.”
The state of California was on its way to decriminalizing prostitution in 2008, and though that ballot measure failed to pass it is likely to come up again in the coming years, because when it all comes down to it the issue is a lot like marijuana most progressive places in the U.S. have already come around to the idea that these things should not be illegal.
And, regardless of how you feel about sex work, or whether it should be legalized, you can frame this purely around an issue of self-employment, and the government stepping in to kill a viable source of income for thousands of men, cis and trans alike. It should outrage all of you that Rentboy, which hardly operated in secrecy, has been allowed to operate freely for nearly 20 years, and suddenly the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI felt they had to step in and shut them down. What were they doing differently the previous 17 years?
As The Daily Beast writes, “[This] should become the ‘Stonewall’ of sex workers, the moment in which they and their allies say: Enough.” Also, we should compare this action by the federal government to the recent legalization of gay marriage nationwide. “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.”
Yeah, and FUCK THAT.
But to the point of employment, take for example this 30-year-old anonymous escort with a 10-inch dick who wrote a piece for Gawker today. He explains that he got into escorting entirely because he figured out that his dick made him an outlier, and desirable to many men, and, “I’m in the 99th percentile of dick size. If you’re in the 99th percentile of anything else, nobody faults you for using that.”
He says that Rentboy has been “making this kind of work safer for people” and “it’s not just that Rentboy’s intentions were good, their outcomes were good. What they achieved through this site, while illegal, was an absolute, unalloyed good. I don’t think that going after the least objectionable form of prostitution is going to reduce coerced prostitution.”
He also writes that sex work is a lot like nursing, and people who do it for many years need to be naturally good at dealing with people, accepting them for who they are, and trying to make them feel good.
I’m friends with some of my clients, which happens a lot more than people think. If you’re the kind of person who this work is a good fit for, you have to like people. When a lot of escorts/porn performers get to an age where they don’t think they should do it anymore or they can’t really do it anymore, they go to nursing school. I think it’s partially because both jobs require the same sort of patience and understanding and the ability to not get grossed out easily.
Justin Vivian Bond also spoke out about the raid, saying,
I think that to many in our community this feels like a throwback to when the police raided gay bars in the 50s and 60s. Despite the salaciousness of the language in the complaint I don’t think the charges will stick because basically the site provides a forum for people to meet and make personal arrangements on their own. Rentboy.com may be a provocative title but sexy, fun language is not illegal. This invasion of a consensual hook-up site which is run for and by members of the LGBT community feels like a real slap in the face after gentrification, and the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations drove so many NYC gay bars out of business and forced people to meet online instead of in person… This is about workers’ rights–labor rights and equal protections for all kinds of workers without basic access to legal and healthcare support because they are deemed criminals or denied access to banking, housing or Facebook, in all sectors of the Adult industry, not just escorts. It’s about sex phobia and public shaming.
Update: Also, the New York Times editorial board has weighed in on this “peculiar” prosecution, also wondering why the government would be wasting resources on this and writing a complaint that was full of titillating details that sound like a prudish indictment of gay sex itself. “[Prosecutors] have provided no reasonable justification for devoting significant resources, particularly from an agency charged with protecting America from terrorists, to shut down a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps. The defendants have not been accused of exploiting sex workers, featuring minors on the website, financial crimes or other serious offenses that would warrant a federal prosecution.”
Given that porn doesn’t really pay the bills anymore for pretty much any porn model, and that porn has served as a way for them, mostly, to advertise their work as escorts, you can expect this might impact the porn industry too. Hopefully most of them will be able to fall back on regular clients and begin to run that operation without the aid of a Rentboy page, but that means no new clients, which could spell doom for their business without a replacement site filling the void which is inevitable, by the way.
So if you were inclined to sit back and believe this was just a problem for hookers and a handful of people running a website in New York City, you’re wrong, and short-sighted. And even if you’ve never hired an escort and think you’re too good for it, just shut up. Wait until you’re 70, single, and horny and no one will look at you. If you have a couple hundred dollars to spare, you bet your ass you’ll want something like Rentboy around.