by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Sometimes even when something seems dire, ridiculous or just plain wrong, there is a silver lining that can be found. A lesson learned. An 'ah ha' that appears on the horizon. I think that is what we are seeing in the case of the Office of Homeland Security's raid on Gay website www.rentboy.com. With national media chiming in, sex worker activists mobilizing and becoming increasingly more vocal in their condemnation of the raid, it appears that the poor decision made by law enforcement to 'crack down' on so-called illegal prostitution has moved the conversation to levels that haven't been seen before. We might just be witnessing the beginning of the end for outlawing sex work. And it began with people defending a Gay website for sex. At the risk of sounding cliché, I submit to you that times have indeed ... changed.
THE STONEWALL OF SEX WORK
On August 25, federal police in concurrence with the Department of Homeland Security raided Rentboy.com, the 'world's largest male escort site' (as touted by its company), because they say the website is actually an 'Internet brothel,' prompting them to arrest its CEO and six more employees.
Founded in 1997, Rentboy.com is a male escort advertising site that charges subscribers a 'minimum monthly fee of $59.95 and up to several hundred dollars to advertise sexual services,' according to the press release. Rentboy's Twitter account has some 11,000 followers.
Jeffrey Hurant, 50, the CEO of Rentboy.com, and the employees arrested with him were arraigned in Brooklyn federal court after their arrest Tuesday morning.
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's office for eastern New York, they have each been charged with 'conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.'
'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,' acting U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie said.
The raid comes less than a week after leading U.S. LGBT advocacy organizations announced support for Amnesty International's recent stance on the decriminalization of sex work. In addition, the raid also took place on #blacktransliberationTuesday.
Unexpectedly, almost immediately mainstream media began to draw parallels to earlier raids on Gay bathhouses and Gay communities, and some journalists, advocates and sex workers have begun to call the raid on Rentboy.com the 'Stonewall of Sex Work.'
Hurant has staunchly defended his company and its operations the past 20 years.
'I don't think that we do anything to promote prostitution,' Hurant said. 'I think we do good things for good people, and we bring good people together.'
But what does that mean exactly? I mean, you'd be foolish to think that the men on Rentboy.com are selling anything else other than sex. While a certain amount of Americans (myself included) don't believe that there is anything wrong with that, the fact remains is that it is illegal to sell sex as your product, unless, of course, it is through pornography, which then (huh?) makes it legal.
Hurant's defense is that before entering the site, visitors must acknowledge a disclaimer that reads in part, 'This site may not be used for the advertising of sexual services or to engage in activities requiring the payment of money for sex or other illegal activities.'
The U.S. Attorney's office says that that disclaimer is a scam, saying 'Rentboy.com is designed primarily for advertising illegal prostitution.'
'The facilitation and promotion of prostitution offenses across state lines and international borders is a federal crime made even more egregious when it's blatantly advertised by a global criminal enterprise,' Glenn Sorge, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations, said to CNN shortly after the raid where federal authorities gathered boxes of documents and computer evidence from the company's New York office.
The government also seized $1.4 million of alleged criminal proceeds from six bank accounts and restrained the domain name www.rentboy.com, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The company reportedly made over $10 million between 2010 and 2015.
If convicted, Hurant and the six other defendants could be sentenced up to five years in prison and fined up to $250,000.
In a well thought out feature in The New York Times, the newspaper's Editorial Board reports, 'The criminal complaint 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.'
The New York Times argues that prosecutors can credibly argue that the site's operators were breaking the law. 'But they have provided no reasonable justification for devoting significant resources, particularly from an agency charged with protecting America from terrorists, to shut down a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps.'
The New York Times Editorial Board also points out that the defendants have not been accused of exploiting sex workers, featuring minors on the website, financial crimes or other serious offenses that would warrant a federal prosecution.
THE PINK SCARE
Unfortunately, what is not new are attacks on sex work. It is something that (and I don't know any of these people personally as I'm sure you do not either) some people just can't get past. Their minds go directly to the dark. To them sex work or prostitution by their standards is akin to slavery, rape, and other forms of horrible abuse, oppression and struggle. They don't understand that there are thousands of sex workers that like their job, choose to do this work willingly, are of sound mind, and have sadly been through this bullshit before. According to one sex worker who spoke out against the raid and shutdown of Rentboy.com, people in the business called a previous effort to stamp out money for sex the 'Pink Scare.'
In 2008 Craiglist's began to charge $10 for posts during its 'Adult Services' rebrand. This led to the implementation of fees, phone authentication and credit card-capturing requirements. Phone authentication reduced ads by 80%, Craigslist announced, and as a result 2.88 million U.S. posters left Craigslist to solicit clients elsewhere. It is estimated that there were 3.65 million adult services ads per year on Craigslist in 2008.
Then in September 2010, Craigslist.com, giving in to state-by-state attorneys general, closed its 'Adult Services' section, essentially putting thousands of sex workers out of a job. Craigslist's closure of the section resulted in a 50% reduction in online advertising sales to people in the sex trades.
Those who could afford the $59 monthly fee for Rentboy.com, used its services. However, according to Anonymous, who is a member of The #HookUp Collaborative, a loose working group of people who have advertised - and people in community with advertisers - on Rentboy.com, including lawyers, community members and organizers, said 'Many of the people with whom I worked alongside for specific clients - particularly my co-workers who were transgender, gender non-conforming, bottoms and/or of color' did not go to Rentboy.com because they could not pay the fee.
Here's why: In a statistical study of escorts advertising on a premium platform in the U.S. similar to Rentboy, on average escorts charge $200 per hour for an outcall (a date with a client where they play the host). The comparative earnings of escorts on non-premium sites like Backpage or Craigslist have always been significantly less.
Anonymous reasons, 'Fortunately, the growth I'd achieved in my business because of Craigslist meant that I was able to squeak by most months and still meet the $59 monthly fee for Rentboy.com postings. Then again, I am a white, masculine-presenting top.'
'I went to Rentboy.com with a higher fee already secured, the capital contribution for my first ad, a secondhand laptop to set up shop and a nest egg to lean on during the dry months,' said Anonymous, adding, 'In New York City my going-rate on Craigslist and Backpage was between $100 to $150 each visit (though I occasionally charged just $50 when my rent came due). It was always a fraction of the $200 to $250 I could reliably charge on Rentboy.'
All of that has changed because of the feds' raid on RentBoy on August 25. Anonymous says 'They ended a reliable, safe way I had to find clients' and that it has essentially ripped up the 'modicum of safety we've carved out on third-party platforms.'
While Anonymous admits that crackdowns on third-party platforms will not result in a world-wide financial crisis in the formal economy, it will 'destroy an informal economy that includes many of us whom are undocumented, or don't have a degree or other means to surmount the high barriers of entry to an occupation in the formal economy.'
Advertising sites like RentBoy represent the most equalizing force in the sex industry in generations, says Anonymous, because they allow for anyone to advertise their services for a small fee, from a position of safety and without paying 50% of their fees to agencies.
'These platforms are directly responsible for moving many of us into safer working conditions, while the mounting pressures of prohibitionist campaigns and prosecutorial whack-a-mole instead open us up to policing and labor exploitation,' said Anonymous.
'The prosecution of Rentboy is only one symptom of law enforcement's far larger and more insidious efforts to criminalize people in the sex trades' networks of mutual support and safety,' continues Anonymous. 'The latest e-raid on Rentboy is nothing compared to the daily street sweeps of street families, the Swat-team raids on massage parlors and shared apartments where we gather to increase our security, the constant interrogation and arrest of people who are or are profiled as trading sex for carrying condoms and the targeting of people of color for prostitution-related arrests and prosecutions every day, everywhere.'
Anonymous says sex workers can't afford to lose even one more tool that keeps them alive in this 'economy of violence.'
'There are already too few options for people in the sex trades to sacrifice another to the legions of the hand-wringingly pious,' said Anonymous. 'It's high time to circle the wagons. We must preserve the scraps of real estate that remain to us, whether on the street corners or 'Internet brothels' where we ply our trade, and keep the political scavengers at bay.'
Anonymous said people who trade sex need better working conditions, living wage opportunities, shelter and long-term affordable housing options and the closing of the gender and race wage gaps and the homophobia and transphobia that fuel job discrimination in the formal economy.
'What we don't need is one more obstacle to the month's rent or our children's health insurance co-pays,' said Anonymous.
In closing, Anonymous says, 'The criminally self-serving publicity stunts represented by the closure of Rentboy.com and myRedBook are nothing but a knot in the ever-expanding dragnet of state violence. It is population control by other means, and it does nothing to improve our lives or our safety. Instead these enforcement actions line the pockets of an owning class and deflate our earnings, so that the same prosecutors and politicians who persecute us can better afford to pay for our cake, eat it and screw us, too.'
SEX WORK IS NOT THE SAME AS HUMAN TRAFFICKING
The ultimate question that needs to be answered by the federal government is why is it that federal authorities spend time and money turning the sex worker website's operators into felons while far more serious crimes, including human trafficking and sexual exploitation, go unpunished? Meanwhile, human trafficking, which is a real crime (often confused with sex work) continues every day.
The two are not the same and this is something that needs to be talked about.
'Even those who mean well sometimes confuse the human rights abuse of trafficking in persons with the human occupation of prostitution, or sex work. It's understandable because of the history of the two fields, but it creates rather than solves problems,' alternet.org writer Melissa Ditmore says.
The tendency to treat trafficking and prostitution as if they were the same thing has a long history in America. Legislation and social discussion blur or deny any difference, which only makes things worse rather than better for those involved.
'The trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery is undeniably a gross abuse of human rights. Like all trafficking, it involves coercion or trickery or both,' said Ditmore. 'Sex trafficking is an odious form of trafficking, but it is far from the only one. Men, women and children are also - and more commonly - trafficked routinely for purposes of household and farm labor as well as sweatshop manufacturing. Their lives may be less media-genic than those of sex trafficking victims, but they are no less brutal, dangerous and degraded.'
Treating sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it.
'Sex workers include men and women and transgender persons who offer sexual services in exchange for money,' she said. 'The services may include prostitution (sexual intercourse) and other services such as phone sex. Sex workers engage in this for many reasons, but the key distinction here is that they do it voluntarily. They are not coerced or tricked into staying in the business but have chosen this from among the options available to them.'
A key goal of sex worker activists is to improve sex-working conditions, but self-organization is impossible when sex work is regarded as merely another form of slavery. Then authorities and laws trying to stop true slavery (trafficking) get misapplied to sex workers, clients and others involved in the sex industry.
'Law enforcement raids in the U.S. and abroad, for example, have led to little success identifying trafficked persons but instead have driven sex work underground,' she concludes. 'This exposes sex workers to an increased risk of violence and denies them any protection of laws against assault or access to medical, legal and educational services. It denies them their human rights.'
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