Last Tuesday, federal agents raided the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com, arresting seven people including the 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.”
“Internet brothel.” Kelly, keep clutching your pearls. Ignoring this language of puritanical moralizing, the raid makes no logical sense. This “brothel” has been publicly advertising its business across social media since 1996. Why now have the feds finally felt stirred to act? Something about all this feels like a political stunt — one that is absolutely related to the passage of marriage equality earlier this year. A right-wing backlash against the recently victorious fags.
The site has apparently been under investigation for some time. Rentboy, for its part, is challenging the prostitution allegations by saying that the services advertised on the site are for “companionship,” not sex. There was even a no-sex disclaimer upon entering the site — see below.
Their own name rather damningly points to the contrary, however, since “rent boy” is an antiquated 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.
Funnily enough, one of my close friends messaged me last Saturday, three days before the raid, while I was driving through Mississippi on my way to California. 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 his services on apps like Scruff or in-person at the bar where he go-go dances for years. He’s a mature, fun-loving adult who plays World of Warcraft in his spare time. And he makes money from sex — with other consenting adults. Where’s the crime? There is none. Attacking this site is a puritanical crackdown on sex work, the reasons of which can be nothing but moral and religious. Escorting is a victimless crime.
Criminalizing sex work puts hundreds of at-risk youth, particularly queer and trans youth and youth of color, at needless risk of incarceration. This will keep them in the vicious cycle of being unable to find work, since they will have incarceration on their record, and thereby forcing them to return again and again to sex work. And this cycle is intentional. Now that we live in a country with a booming private prison industry, we should all wake up and see that it is a clear prerogative by large companies as well as the politicians they can sway to keep people permanently in the system — particularly black and brown people.
Something else needs to be said. Shutting these sites down will kill people. Yes, many cisgender gay men casually escort and make extra money off it, and some do it full time. But the fact is, many more women and trans folk do it out of necessity, for survival, and without sites like Rentboy.com — which was known and celebrated by the escort community for keeping its workers safe and giving them the option of reviewing and screening clients (thereby weeding out the dangerous ones) — many people will return to the streets. Without websites, many people will go back to more dangerous ways of conducting business, and people will die.
Without these websites, which were pretty transparent and visible to the public, less visible, unregulated alternative sites will pop up, sites which will take fewer pains to keep its workers safe, and people will die.
There is an underground sex trade 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 chat. If something seems wrong or suspect, you don’t have to meet. You save the in-person meeting for clients you’ve chatted with and established some communication with beforehand — a safer way of conducting business for everyone.
And here’s a darker question: Why Rentboy? There are countless sites across the internet that advertise “Russian brides” and “horny Latinas” and young Asian girls. I haven’t heard of any of these sites getting shut down or raided by cops. Compared to most of them, Rentboy seems relatively clean. My point is, the only difference between these sites and Rentboy is the fact that Rentboy explicitly focused on gay male escorts, and a gay male clientele, and has since its founding. It’s also the only widely successful gay escorting site (RentMen is decent too). And therein lies the truth: This is a gay raid, nothing less than police entrapment, nothing less than another round of homophobic cops busting down the door to one of our spaces and dragging us away in cop cars. This is state-sanctioned homophobia once again attacking us. And we have to fight.
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. Compatriots, we must fight this. There are protests currently being organized in every major metro area, from New York to San Francisco. Go to one. We have to defend our spaces. This is what we did at Stonewall and we must do it again. We’ve had enough.