Rentboy: For What It's Worth

08/27/2015 05:04 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2016

This past Tuesday, federal officers, largely comprised of Department of Homeland Security personnel and with the help of the NYPD, raided the offices of Rentboy.com in Manhattan. The CEO as well as five current and one former employee were arrested, either at the office or at their home. As Melissa Gira Grant reports for Vice, they are charged with "conspiring to violate the Travel Act," a law that ups lesser charges for the illegal act of prostitution (generally a matter for states and municipalities) to the federal level when those activities cross state lines.

This is not the first time the fed has taken down an escorting gateway: in June of last year, website myRedbook was taken down. More recently, Backpage has come under fire after allegations of sex trafficking from a sheriff's department in Illinois. What is intriguing about the raid of Rentboy compared to those two examples is the excruciatingly gendered way that the complaint levied by law enforcement reads: thus far, the charges announced for Rentboy are illegal prostitution over state lines. In the case of Backpage, the charges for prostitution were levied along with sex trafficking, often in the same breath. Constantly, the two terms were paired together, as if to imply that the two distinct activities (both illegal, but the latter morally abhorrent) go hand in hand. This is not (at least, not yet) the case with the Rentboy complaint, a site primarily devoted to connecting male escorts with other men. It is likely that charges will change, though: money laundering was suggested by a few outlets, and there is the possibility of the feds finding advertisements posted by users under the age of majority in the servers now in their possession.

The government pointedly issued its lurid account of gay male sex for money in court the same day. For those who don't pay for sex, it may seem like an outlandish practice, but if current events have any say in your sexual peccadillos, you're running out of options besides the old religious standard of wedding and bedding one person for the rest of your life.

Perhaps you were one of the people who instead had an account on Ashley Madison, a website that advertises itself as a discreet tool for straight married men who want to hook up with people who are not their spouse; motto: "Life is Short, Have an Affair." Ashley Madison was the victim of a hack and massive data dump of the information of 33 million users, and now media organizations are trolling through the information to try to find prominent individuals with accounts -- some are obligingly offering up free services to allow people to find people they know (such as a spouse, potential employee, member of the legislature, etc.) who may have had an account on the website via an email or phone number search.

There's no disputing that the raid on Rentboy and the hack are major clickbait. Putting aside the ad hoc puritanical moralism deployed in both cases (of which Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept opines in the Ashley Madison case that "busybodies sitting in judgment of and righteously condemning the private, sexual acts of other adults remains one of the most self-satisfying and entertaining -- and thus most popular -- public spectacles"), there is an overwhelming sense of one thing: there is a huge market for discreet sexual encounters, one that both sites once filled.

The growing government crackdown on an entire industry full of hard-working, whatever-happens-behind-closed-doors-is-our-business professionals comes on the heels of the Amnesty International board's decision to make sex worker rights an issue of human rights, and part of their global advocacy efforts. The sentiment has been echoed, at the time of this writing, by several large LBGT rights organizations: the Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Expecting discreet, professional and satisfactory sexual service from someone whose method of making ends meet is constantly under the jeopardy of being denied is a tall order. Despite moral opprobrium, subjection to second-class status, lack of affordable and accessible health care and housing, benefits of any kind and above being in legal jeopardy, many sex workers do a bang up job, and should be applauded and supported for it.

The message from the federal government has largely been a threat to the lives and livelihood of US citizens, who are, it must be said, under the law, criminals. More so, though, that the country is less invested in addressing larger, systemic issues of racial, economic and anti-LGBT injustice and more interested in criminalizing the individuals most marginalized by those systems. It should be clear that in the entirety of the complaint issued by the fed there is absolutely no pretense of victimhood on any particular person or entity's part. Again, Rentboy is, at least not yet, charged with "trafficking." As Scott Shackford put it in Reason, "there is absolutely nothing in the complaint that even hints at the idea that there is anything non-consensual happening, that so much as a single human being is harmed, even tangentially, by letting men pay for sex with other men."

The potential for a money laundering charge in the Rentboy case is probably the most laughable -- in the almost two decades that Rentboy has been operational, the total amount of money laundered in the United States by financial institutions is estimated at $5 - $10 trillion. This is a conservative estimate. The fed and NYPD seized $1.4 million from RentBoy, which, according to federal asset forfeiture rules, would likely be split among the agencies involved -- not even a tiny fraction of a drop in the bucket for the US banking industry in a year, though perhaps a sizeable enough prize for the NYPD. Again, this was largely carried out by the Department of Homeland Security, whose "core missions," according to their website, are to prevent terrorism and enhance security, secure and manage US borders, enforce and administer immigration law, safeguard and secure cyberspace and ensure resilience to disasters.

Now you might say: what about that Gawker piece, roundly and rightly criticized, on a sex worker who outed a wealthy but not prominent executive at a rival media corporation? An example of the type of person attracted to the sex industry, you might say. Fair point, perhaps, but I think it's also safe to say that this particular sex worker's well-documented history of conspiracy-theory hocking puts him safely in the "Florida Man" subset of humanity (that is, not representative of the whole but easy and fun for some to gawk at). Gawker's approach to making things news is couched in the same type of moralistic paternalism that the Ashley Madison hackers used to justify their leak: "learn your lesson and make amends," as the group put it. A family was ruined in the case of Gawker's article, and, in the eye-for-an-eye mob justice approach commonly taken by the internet, the sex worker involved was quickly identified and had his personal information made public.

Perhaps you were part of the internet commentariat that joined in denouncing the Gawker article, but your outrage probably missed one thing: paying someone to have sex is illegal in this country (unless the sex worker is in a brothel in a very small number of rural counties in Nevada). To quote Charlotte Shane, "If you all want a world where men pay for sex without risking shame in the process, maybe don't create one in which sex workers are reviled." The vast majority of the time, when there are news stories involving the hiring of someone for sex, it is a part of your local police department's news blotter, probably naming the individuals involved in the transaction (whom are both guilty of misdemeanors by state law). Occasionally yet far too often, it is because a sex worker was brutally attacked, raped or even murdered: the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA does the sad work of memorializing the dead. To be sure, stories involving sex workers are made far more public when there is some sort of social injury done to the john, as opposed to physical injury to the sex worker.

The same method of punishing the easiest to punish is sadly also being applied in the case of Rentboy. There can be no doubt that it is not just the defendants in the case levied by the federal government whose lives are turned upside down: the advertisers on the site are bereft of their method for making ends meet. I am colleagues with several of these people, and some are friends. They are scared. The government has access, in the seized servers, to all of their personal information, not to mention that of their clients. The number of lives wrecked by this move of the federal government is large, and now their work is pushed to the much more dangerous option of going back underground, or on to the streets, as was the case in the myRedbook and Backpage shutdowns. Many of these people lack the social and financial safety nets of criminals much further down the downright wicked spectrum in the United States, whose white collar crimes continue to go under-reported and under-punished.

As to why now, why this crackdown on internet-enabled sexual commerce is occurring so recently, that is an excellent question. Not being a journalist, I have the blessed privilege of being able to wildly speculate. Since this is the internet, let me do so now, in order of most likely to least likely:

1. Money: Rentboy, though a decidedly small fish when it comes to making money in the sex field, was perhaps a large enough fish to fry that it was a juicy target for the NYPD. It is highly likely, considering the efforts already involved in Operation Choke Point (which targeted industries where money laundering is most likely to happen and includes the adult entertainment industry), that operations like Rentboy were under increased government scrutiny with an eye towards their finances and the potential fallout or lack thereof that could result from seizing said finances.

2. Politics: It is election season, one in which gay marriage has been approved by the Supreme Court. In the face of homophobic voters likely to cast ballots for Republicans, this could be a show of force by the Obama administration on sexual deviancy. The idea that sex workers deserve the rights afforded to other workers has a home only on the extreme ends of the political spectrum (far left and libertarians), and would be unlikely to upset most Democratic voters while reassuring some Republicans. Add to that the fact that these sex workers were gay men, practicing all sorts of perversions, such as diaper play or BDSM (as outlined by Grant), selling their sex, and you've got the makings of an easy victory for the moral majority.

3. Vengeance: The previously mentioned Gawker article came out in mid-July. Considering that parts of the testimony by the federal government include contact with Rentboy at their Hookies award ceremony in December of 2014, it is impossible that this led to an investigation. It is not impossible, but maybe improbable, that a well-connected victim of this article's outing was able to make a few phone calls, and for a federal agency to exact a type of retribution on intel already gleaned, per point 1 above. Not to mention that of all of the occupations most in the loop on the misdeeds of Very Important People, sex workers are by far the most vulnerable.

As a current sex worker and someone who advertised on Rentboy himself stated, "The people at Rentboy weren't doing anything wrong -- they were doing something illegal." It is a law affecting a large segment of our economy that has always been there, and one that it is high time it changed. The most prudent path, the one that benefits the most people, would be to make laws against sex work a relic of the past, much like laws against gay marriage should be. This is more than the battle for current sex workers -- this is a cause that anyone whose decisions regarding what they did with their body and their sex were circumscribed by the law should take up for the battle cry for. Whatever your opinion of sex work, though, we should at least be able to agree that our government has more important issues to tackle.