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Last Tuesday, federal agents raided the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com, arresting seven people, including its CEO. Kelly Currie, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said this: “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.”
This pulpit language of puritanical moralizing is a fair indicator that the raid was little more than a publicity stunt. This “brothel” has been publicly advertising its business on social media since 1996. Why have the feds now decided to act?
The site has apparently been under investigation for some time. Rentboy, for its part, is challenging the prostitution allegations by saying that its services advertised are for “companionship,” not sex. There’s even a no-sex disclaimer when you enter the site — see below.
However, the business name rather damningly points to the contrary, since “rent boy” is an old British term for a male escort. According to NBC New York, the site bills itself as “the world’s destination to meet the perfect male escort or masseur” and boasts a database of more than 10,500 men in 2,100 cities worldwide.
[NOTE: At the that this post was written, I was not “out” yet as a sex worker and did not include the fact that I was one of the 10,500 men on Rentboy.com who lost business with the raid.]
Funnily enough, a close friend messaged me last Saturday, three days before the raid: Hey, bugging you for a spare second of your time. No rush. Just take a few sentences and describe me, physically. No pressure, just looking for a place to start.
I texted back. Is this for a profile of some kind?
I described him. Bulldog build with thick arms and a cock to match.
His reply: I could kiss you for that.
My friend has been selling services on apps like Scruff or in-person at the bar where he dances for years. He’s a mature adult who has consensual sex for money. Where’s the crime?
Shutting down the site puts people like him out of work. But he’s a white, cisgender male. He’ll probably be fine. The people who will be most hurt by the raid are the men with disabilities or insurmountable medical bills or staggering debt who depend on Rentboy for basic survival needs. Men of color, undocumented men, men trying to escape the prison system — Rentboy’s raid and shutdown will harm and further disenfranchise the most vulnerable.
Criminalizing sex work harms those most at risk and raids like this only cause greater harm. Why punish a victimless crime, particularly when doing so only endangers those who are already endangered?
Think of the sex workers who may be incarcerated because of this raid. This will keep them in the vicious cycle of being unable to find work, since they will have incarceration on their records, and force them to return to sex work. And this feedback loop is intentional — a way to keep for-profit prisons full. And it’s cruel. We live in a country with a booming for-profit, private prison industry and we permit this system by doing nothing and abandoning those locked up for petty crimes like marijuana possession and consensual sex work.
Rentboy.com was known and celebrated in the sex work community for keeping its workers safe and giving them the option of screening clients (helping them weed out the dangerous ones). Without the site, they may go back to more dangerous ways of conducting businesses. Sex workers already face a high risk of violence.
Though prostitution is currently illegal in the United States, this site was fairly transparent and visible to the public. Less visible, underground, unregulated alternatives exist which take fewer pains to keep its workers safe. As options dwindle, needs become desperate, and in such situations, people get coerced, deceived, exploited, and risk falling prey to sex trafficking.
There is an underground sex trafficking market that destroys lives every day. Rentboy operated far above that. Men joined the site freely, paid a fee, and arranged business with clients via email, text, and instant messenger. If something seemed wrong, they could move on to another potential client.
So why Rentboy? Why now? Countless sites across the internet advertise “Russian brides” and “horny Latinas” and young Asian girls. I get spam emails from them all the time. I haven’t heard of any of these sites getting shut down or raided by cops. Comparatively, Rentboy seems clean and legitimate. The only difference between these sites and Rentboy is the fact that Rentboy catered explicitly to a gay clientele and has since its founding. It was the only widely successful gay escorting site besides RentMen.com, which is not based in the United States.
This was a gay raid, nothing less than police entrapment, and smacks of the era of the Stonewall Riots. It feels dangerously out-of-place — and telling — in the same year marriage equality passed. We should have anticipated a backlash, and I can’t help but feel that this is just an ugly start to a long and dark road of social repercussions for LGBTQ progress.
The New York Times reported that “the criminal complaint [against Rentboy.com] is so saturated with sexually explicit details, it’s hard not to interpret it as an indictment of gay men as being sexually promiscuous.”
“Based on my investigation,” Susan Ruiz, a Homeland Security special agent, wrote in the complaint, “I have learned that a sling, also known as a ‘sex sling,’ is a device that allows two people to have sex while one is suspended.” Later, she helpfully explained that “the term ‘twink’ is a slang term for a young, gay man with an effeminate manner, thin build, and no body or facial hair.”
Welcome to our world, Susan. Choke on your pearls. Friend, we have to fight this. There are protests being organized in every major city from New York to San Francisco. Go to one. Let’s defend our spaces.
Support your friends and lovers in sex work. They need your support now more than ever.