Earlier Elizabeth Nolan Brown, who thoroughly covers sex work issues here at Reason, reported the arrest of seven employees and the shutdown of gay escort site Rentboy.com by the Department of Homeland Security, the people who are supposed to be protecting us from terrorism.
The forced shutdown of Rentboy.com is not small potatoes, not that it should matter when it comes to deciding when to fight for individual liberty. For many in the gay community, this is akin to the forced closure of Silk Road and the prosecution of Ross Albrecht. This is a huge deal and these busts should inspire rage and protests. Some thoughts and analysis:
- There is absolutely no pretense of pretending there are any "victims" here. Nobody is charged with "trafficking." There is absolutely nothing in the complaint that even hints at the idea that there is anything nonconsensual happening, that so much as a single human being is harmed, even tangentially, by letting men pay for sex with other men. Contrast this with the often exaggerated claims of trafficking and human slavery that are used to justify cracking down on heterosexual prostitutes, treating willing female sex workers as default victims and ruining the lives of their Johns. They didn't even bother here. These are gross guys violating New York's prostitution laws, and this is apparently something the Department of Homeland Security needs to get involved in because it involves interstate commerce.
- As usual, follow the money. Want to know the real reason why DHS is involved? Want to know why it took the government decades to go after a site titled "Rentboy.com"? It's on page three of the complaint against Rentboy. Between 2010 and 2015 the site had more than $10 million in gross proceeds. The feds are looking to seize $1.4 million from six bank accounts related to the raid. This money, thanks to federal asset forfeiture rules, would likely be split among the agencies involved, including the New York Police Department, who offered up their assistance in the raid even though there was probably no need for both agencies. As for why it took so long? Maybe somebody complained and that's what launched the investigation, or maybe it simply wasn't worthwhile financially for the government to shut Rentboy down like this until it had such a record of financial success. The money they seize will most certainly be showing up end-of-year reports promoting the "victories" of the agencies involved.
- The world is not New York City. The complaint notes that the site claims more than 10,000 men in its site database (these would be the rentboys, not the Johns) in more than 2,000 cities across the world. It claims more than 500,000 unique visitors daily, mostly in the United States. Not all gay men look like they belong in gym ads. While the increased acceptance of homosexuality has made it easier for gay men and women to come out earlier in their lives, we still have untold numbers of older gay men who came out late (or still aren't comfortable coming out at all) and didn't move to big gay metropolises like New York City or San Francisco to find love. Gay men (and women!) are still a small part of the population. It is inaccurate—even heartless—to assume that all gay men are able to find a sexual companion through conventional means. The complaint goes through all the different categories of sexual practices promoted on the site in almost lurid completeness (at one point describing what a "sex sling" is and defining "rimming"), everything from vanilla sex to spanking and S&M. Say you're a pudgy, lonely 55-year-old man in southern Illinois with a fetish for something very kinky. You're a minority within a minority. What do you do if you can't find somebody around you who shares your interest? DHS, Brooklyn's U.S. attorney's office, and a bunch of cops in New York City think you should just do without.
- The larger gay community and gay leaders need to jump on this and get loud, fast. We've been fighting for the right to define our relationships as we choose, not allowing the government to decide what is legitimate. Marriage recognition is just part of that fight. We are not free as long as the government is dictating the terms of our sexual interactions. I expect to see outrage from every major gay and lesbian organization at the callous disregard shown toward those men who seek to sexually connect on their own terms.
- Will the feds go after the other prostitutes on the site or the Johns next? Who even knows? Maybe the not knowing intended to scare people. Dan Savage wonders, "Rentboy.com is offline and presumably prosecutors have access to the email addresses, phone numbers, and the credit card information of tens of thousands of Rentboy.com customers—sex workers and their clients. Will they prosecute the men who advertised their services at Rentboy.com? And, more importantly, will they prosecute their clients? According to anti-sex-work activists and prosecutors, sex workers are the victims and their clients, the men who pay them for sex, are the criminals. The unworkable, unjust 'Swedish model' approach to snuffing out sex work—which is never going to happen—is backed by anti-sex-work activists and prosecutors." He predicts they won't go after the clients because of the political firestorm that could be involved if the feds start outing people via prosecution. But if they get away with this, they will keep going after whatever sites that come to replace Rentboy.com.
- Remember the names Susan Ruiz, Kelly Currie, Tyler Smith, and Melanie Hendry. Ruiz is the DHS special agent who thoroughly investigated the site and filed the complaint that led to these arrests. Currie, Smith, and Hendry are all attorneys with the U.S. Attorneys Office of the Eastern District of New York (the same office that brought us our current Attorney General Loretta Lynch). They are the attorneys going after the seven people arrested for prostitution charges. They will be responsible for destroying these lives and taking their property for facilitating sex work. One of the defendants is an immigrant who applied for a work visa, so all sorts of bad things could happen to him. If I accomplish nothing else, I want this bust to show up on Google searches of their names to show how callous and reprehensible the four of them are. Congratulations, folks. You've helped stop a lonely old man in Bolivia from getting a handjob from a hot twink! That's your contribution to American justice. Be sure to put it on your resumes!