On the afternoon of August 25, the feds stormed RentBoy.com's Union Square offices, shut down the site and arrested its executives. RentBoy is a New York-based global escort enterprise with over 10,500 workers, reportedly receiving 500,000 visitors per day around the world.
The site has operated within public view for many years. This is not a secretive, dark web enterprise hidden from the public eye. It's a popular online destination that allows escorts to set their own rules and rates. RentBoy's platform gives its escorts a degree of agency that sex workers forced to walk the street or be managed by a pimp simply do not have.
RentBoy also tries to give back to the community, aside from the positive impact it has through its own model. The site just introduced a scholarship program early this month to help further education for sex workers and reduce stigma. To be considered for the scholarship, workers were submitting video and written essays with the subject "Why Going to School Is a Part of Achieving My Dream."
(Watch RentBoy's Sean Zevran discuss politics, race and pornography below.)
Unfortunately, achieving that dream may've just become a lot harder for male sex workers. Using moralistic language, acting Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie said, "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."
Due to archaic laws that criminalize sex work, RentBoy's administrative employees, including CEO Jeffrey Hurant, are being charged with laundering money and selling sex. The Department of Homeland Security, with the help of the NYPD, took millions of dollars and ripped six employees from their homes. While these employees face huge financial and reputational damage, thousands of sex workers who rely on RentBoy as a safe place to conduct business could find themselves in genuine danger.
The World Health Organization (WHO) calls for the complete decriminalization of sex work because of the unique and unnecessary dangers criminalization places upon workers. WHO places the violence sex workers face in three categories: physical, sexual and psychological/emotional.
Oftentimes, these forms of violence occur in interrelated ways. For example, a physical sexual assault can lead to both HIV transmission and long-term psychological trauma. And we've known since at least the 1990s that sex workers are disproportionately targeted for these types of violent attacks, especially economically disadvantaged people of color.
The United States has a responsibility to reform its outdated and violent laws around sex work. RentBoy's high-profile raid should make us think about all the quiet acts of violence committed by our government against sex workers and LGBT Americans. (The threat level trans women of color face for simply walking out the door is something that should be front-page news across this country.)
Sex workers shouldn't be forced to live in the shadows, facing violence alone and without access to the basic health and human services those in non-criminalized professions take for granted.
The criminalization of sex work is based in nothing more than petty moral outrage. From the doctors who save our lives to the professors who educate young minds, the number of people who have needed sex work to complete their educations or prevent homelessness is one we don't discuss enough.
Plus, some people may just enjoy sex work. We supposed-progressives chant about bodily autonomy and criticize the American Right for denigrating women, but we participate in the same denigration when we shame sex workers who conscientiously exercise authority over their bodies.
Let's take a stand for our neighbors by demanding better from our government and culture when it comes to sex work.
We'll start by loudly crying "Foul!" on this absurd, offensive RentBoy raid.
(This post originally appeared on Care2. Photo courtesy of RentBoy via YouTube.)