Sex Work in the Wake of the Rentboy.com Raid

BY NATHAN RILEY | What happens now that rentboy.com is gone? Will the federal Department of Homeland Security follow up with additional raids on similar businesses?

The advertisers on rentboy met a well-heeled clientele, and the income they lost has hurt. As these things go, the most dire impact has fallen on sex workers with the least income –– and often the least education, as well. Others are bouncing back, one young man telling me he is going back to porn to make up for his reduced income.

Other escorts are gravitating toward existing alternative sites. Rentmen.com advertises its safety by pointing out, “Our company is based in Netherlands, where escorting is legal and we follow strictly the respective legislation.” Men4rentnow.com makes no such claim, but both sites offer advertisers a chance to post photos and describe their likes and preferences. They satisfy the basic advantage that rentboy offered over other forms of sex work –– giving advertisers and their prospective clients a chance to negotiate over the terms of their time spent together.

Amnesty International, UNAIDS, the Canadian Supreme Court, leading LGBT legal advocates, and hundreds of other organizations support sex workers’ rights with a common argument –– that the right to communicate with prospective clients is an essential safety issue. It allows sex workers to screen against customers whose comments betray an undercurrent of hostility or danger and those who are absolutely blotto. Nightmare encounters can be avoided by identifying sketchy characters before a physical encounter takes place.

Are you looking for bear or a twink, a top or a bottom, vanilla or kink? The federal complaint issued in conjunction with the rentboy raid turned these choices into a sordid narrative. In fact, establishing what customers want and escorts are willing to provide is essential for safety, something Congress simply ignored when it enacted its most recent offensive in the war on prostitution in April. Already, it was illegal to hire security personnel to protect a brothel, even though sex behind closed doors is far safer than random pick-ups that occur on the streets.

Rather than adopting best practices, as some other nations are doing, the US is effectively pushing sex work into the underworld –– a situation that has plagued the drug scene for decades. For 18 years, the New York Police Department ignored rentboy.com but when Homeland Security became interested, it joined the raid.

What’s next is anyone’s guess. Police have a mandate to pretend to be buyers or sellers of sex in order to entrap people partaking in commercial sex. A company based in the Netherlands can’t stop the US government or localities here from bottom-feeding with “buy and bust enforcement” on the Internet. It’s worth noting that the seven rentboy defendants face penalties of five years or more, simply for acting as brokers between adults deciding what games they wanted to play.

Since the rentboy raid, several advertisers on that site have told their stories online, emphasizing how the site offered them superior opportunities to the minimum wage economy and allowed them to be their own boss.

The present moral panic –– as is clear in Congress’ most recent legislation –– is caused by alarm over trafficking where children and adults are forced into sexual slavery. There is, however, no reason to believe that independent sex workers, like those on rentboy, have anything to do with trafficking. Trafficking has no more to do with the sex work on rentboy than pedophilia has to do with homosexuality. The linkage between online sex work exchanges and sexual slavery is a myth created by those hostile to casual sexual encounters. And their approach is naïve, in thinking that they can make the behavior go away by prohibiting it in ever harsher terms.

The thinking undergirding the movement for sex workers rights is a simple truth: sex work can be practiced safely and a just society owes a duty of care to help create such a safe environment. The overwhelming majority of commercial sexual encounters occur without anyone being harmed, but the Congressional mandate willfully ignores this truth and encourages government to step up a campaign of intimidation and harsh penalties. Once again, it’s clear that one of the greatest harms related to sex work comes from law enforcement efforts to eradicate it.

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