Homeland Security must be itching for action—so to speak—because instead of monitoring terrorists or, like, keeping our borders safe, they instead decided to shut down a niche gay escort website.
On August 25th, federal authorities raided and froze bank accounts associated with Rentboy.com, a nearly 20-year-old website that offered sex workers a platform to safely promote their work. Seven current or former employees were arrested and charged with the promotion of prostitution, including the chief executive, Jeffrey Hurant, 50.
“As alleged, Rentboy.com attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution,” said Kelly T. Currie, acting United States attorney for New York’s Eastern District, in a statement.
The thing is, nothing in the federal authorities statement says anything about protecting the workers of the “brothel.” Where are the victims here? Just whom are the feds protecting, besides upholding archaic laws that they can choose to not enforce? In fact, it appears that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. The FBI reported data that showed a 50 percent drop in prostitution related arrests between 2004 and 2011, even though it continues to be a billion-dollar industry. It’s not as if these sex workers all suddenly got jobs at Starbucks.
So why now? Why Rentboy.com, when just last week it announced a scholarship program to help escorts get an education? And why, when leading health organizations and first world countries across the globe are advancing the decriminalization of prostitution, is the United States still focusing their attention on the purveyors of sex and not the system that forces the victims of illegal sex work into the shadows, or sometimes caskets?
Let’s put the actual sex workers into perspective.
The men that advertised their services on Rentboy.com did so on their own free will, working as free agents on a public platform that offered them guidance, respectability, and a community. Without Rentboy.com and other sites like it, these men are forced onto the streets or into the shadows, on their own. Statistics show that street workers suffer more violence, often turning to pimps for protection, only leading to more violence and possible sex trafficking. The visibility of their profile on Rentboy.com freed these sex workers from the violence of pimps and the sex trade.
This isn’t about a website or even money, this is about sex phobia and shame.
Just what about two consenting adults making an agreement to have sex where one party receives compensation is so wrong? We pay our dog walkers, our massage therapists, hell, I even once bought dinner for a friend in return for him shaving my back. Prostitution laws have a long and sordid history, too much to get into here, but just like our thinking on LGBT rights, marijuana laws, abortion, assisted suicide, and many more have all evolved, why are we still so focused on outlawing sex for money?
Because we’re a patriarchal culture that refuses to think of sex in a secular way. Our Judaic-Christian background won’t let us want sex, need sex, just for the fun of it. Guess what? In case you’ve never had it, sex is really, really fun, and even therapeutic (as I experienced during chemo).
Adam Ramzi, an adult film performer with a masters degree in clinical LGBT psychology, says, “In fact, it's often therapeutic and healthy for its customers and clients. It's a transaction that benefits both the buyer and the seller in ways that most people don't see… Raiding a service that provides its clients with sexual and emotional relief they otherwise would not have is an unnecessary use of resources and security.”
Decriminalization of prostitution is a workers’ rights issue.
“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse,” said Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, in a statement.
When sex workers are able to legally disclose their work, as they can in Germany and a number of other countries, they are allowed to receive government services that all workers are afforded: police protection when something goes wrong, health services, taxation benefits, even union representation. And because prostitution is legal, customers can use credit cards, lowering the chance of violence with an anonymous illegal encounter.
Rentboy.com was the closest thing male sex workers had to legalization and protection, and now the feds have made the decision to take away that protection, and potentially thrust these workers into violent encounters or incarceration that could impact their lives for years to come.
“Arresting people who are taking agency over their own bodies and earning a living only creates this cycle of violence in which they find it harder to leave sex work when they need/want to,” says Danny Cruz, 30, a sex worker and activist. “Having a prostitution charge on a criminal record is a huge barrier to mainstream employment and sex workers who were previously arrested for this end up turning to sex work to pay fines, court fees, etc. it's a vicious cycle built by people who think they are "rescuing" us by arresting us. I'd rather skip that rescue.”
Could this be because of the Ashley Madison leak? Or maybe a gay bias?
Let’s get real, Rentboy.com never tried very hard at hiding what it really was doing. Advertising that escorts exchange money for time spent together, and if sex happens that’s between the escort and the client, is a thinly veiled way of promoting sex for money. Or could it have been an awesome, in-your-face, statement of independence on the current state of legalized sex shame from state and federal officials? Regardless, it’s surprising that after nearly 20 years of basically blatant promotion of prostitution, the feds decide to raid now, just mere weeks after the Ashley Madison leak.
Coincidence or not, there’s a renewed focus on sex shaming, and the feds are joining the shame bandwagon. And because Rentboy.com targeted a niche and largely marginalized clientele, gay men, with profile langage detailing everything from penis size to personal fetishes, what better way to steer attention away from federal officials emails contained within the Ashley Madison leak? Just like George W. Bush used the issue of a federal amendment banning gay marriage during the 2004 presidential campaign, could people within the federal government be using the Rentboy.com raid to sensationalize the news away from other distracting Ashley Madison related nuggets of news?
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I did watch Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, so I know a shady move when I see one.
Many in the LGBT community are feeling a deep sense of personal bias. Performer Justin Bond posted on Facebook, “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….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…”
In a perfect world…
Prostitution would not only be legalized, but it would be regulated and taxed, guaranteeing the workers and the purveyors security, safety, and accountability. It’s really that simple.
The reality is it is not. The feds can shut down Rentboy.com, but that’s not going to solve anything. Another website, or app, will be created and the oldest profession in the world will grow older. Instead of focusing on sites like Rentboy.com, the feds should look to the ever growing international sex trade that’s happening all around us, in addition to the exorbitant number of trans men and women forced into sex work because of discrimination elsewhere, many of which are getting murdered. Because targeting a young man with a nice body using it to make a dime in a legit and safe way on a harmless website is like arresting the mother of a little girl selling lemonade on the corner for child slave labor.
H. Alan Scott is a writer/comedian. His work has been featured on MTV, The Huffington Post, and Thought Catalog. Oprah said his name. halanscott.com