Feds Raid Rentboy.com -- Are We Any Safer?

The story that we tell ourselves is that sex work is banned in order to protect victims of trafficking and exploitation. And while that's a worthwhile goal, there's just one problem: Arresting people who exchange money for sex may not stop exploitation, and in fact might make things worse.
08/27/2015 03:26 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2016

Great news for Craigslist: The Department of Homeland Security just raided Rentboy.com, shutting down the best way for escorts and clients to connect in a safe, open environment.

And good for DHS, because prostitution is bad, right? Well, that's what they say. United States attorney Kelly T. Currie told reporters the site was an "internet brothel." But if sex work is so harmful, why do so many major medical and human rights groups actually support decriminalization?

The story that we tell ourselves is that sex work is banned in order to protect victims of trafficking and exploitation. And while that's a worthwhile goal, there's just one problem: Arresting people who exchange money for sex may not stop exploitation, and in fact might make things worse.

There are approximately 70 countries where prostitution is legal or regulated, so we can see the effect that sex work laws have.

For example, Germany legalized prostitution in 2001. A decade later, trafficking had decreased by 10 percent. New Zealand legalized it in 2003, and after five years a report found zero incidents of trafficking. But they DID find that sex workers were more likely to report violence when it occurred.

After Canada legalized prostitution, sex workers experienced fewer homicides -- and according to some reports, law enforcement harassment has made sex work more dangerous.

We even know how legal prostitution works in the US, since some Nevada counties regulate brothels. Researchers from the University of Nevada found brothels enforce monthly STI checks, mandatory condom usage and panic buttons in every room. Compare that to the NYPD, which has accused women of prostitution for carrying condoms. Not exactly a great way to encourage safe sex.

But the best test of American prostitution may be Rhode Island, which accidentally legalized it in 1980. Nobody noticed the loophole until 2003, and it took the state until 2009 to re-ban sex work. But guess what happened during those intervening six years? Rates of female gonorrhea dropped by 39 percent. And rapes reported to police declined by 31 percent.

No wonder those Nevada researchers concluded "brothels offer the safest environment available for women to sell consensual sex acts for money."

So who actually benefits from criminalization? Well, the people who exploit sex workers, such as pimps and traffickers. Without sites like Rentboy, sex workers are more likely to rely on unsafe marketplaces (like street corners) and dangerous traffickers (like pimps).

But law enforcement can also benefit from the criminalization of sex. After the Rentboy raid, agencies seized $1.4 million from the company, which they can just keep for themselves. DHS even went so far as to send agents undercover to Rentboy events, in a twist that is bizarrely similar to the movie Exit to Eden.

And who suffers when sex work is illegal? The workers, who are unable to access labor protections like minimum wage, health insurance and safety standards.

Now to be fair: there is conflicting research on the effect of decriminalization. One study found that countries with legalized prostitution have larger trafficking inflows. But the study's own authors called that evidence "tentative" and added that "there is no 'smoking gun' proving that" legalization leads to more trafficking. In fact, the study concludes that legalization actually presents "potential benefits" to sex workers.

That's probably why leading human rights and medical groups support decriminalization, including Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, UN Women, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, The Lancet and many many more.

In fact, just last week, a coalition of LGBT legal organizations issued a statement in support of decriminalization worldwide. What perfect timing -- here we have a case right in our own country of LGBTs being targeted for harassment and prosecution. These organizations will hopefully take a stand to support workers affected by DHS's Rentboy.com vendetta.

Yes, sex slavery and trafficking are terrible problems, but criminalization of consensual sex work doesn't solve it. Sex work isn't sex slavery. Exploitation and trafficking are illegal, and those are the crimes worth investigating.

The time that DHS spent chasing down consenting adults connecting online could have been spent investigating actual crimes with actual victims. But it wasn't.

And why was Homeland Security involved in an attack on sex workers? It's hard to say. The agency has a mandate to protect "cyberspace." But how does shutting down an escort service do that? Beats me.