What the Pathetic Case Against Rentboy.com Says About Sex Work

What the Pathetic Case Against Rentboy.com Says About Sex Work

What the Pathetic Case Against Rentboy.com Says About Sex Work

Without victims or allegations of trafficking or coercion, the case against Rentboy is particularly weak. It’s also drawn new groups into the movement to decriminalize sex work.


In a coordinated takedown at 6 am on August 25, teams of agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and officers from the NYPD appeared unannounced with guns and vests at the homes of the CEO and several employees of the popular 19-year-old website Rentboy.com. Another team ransacked the site’s offices on 14th Street. The subsequent fanfare included handcuffs, perp walks with photographers in pursuit, and two press releases, one from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the DHS and another from prosecutors at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. In the end, CEO Jeffrey Hurant and six Rentboy employees were arrested and charged with conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.

Clearly those law-enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors considered this a big, bold police action against a criminal organization. They threw around phrases like “Internet brothel,” “international online prostitution ring,” and “global criminal enterprise.” The press releases linked to the legal complaint filed by DHS Special Agent Susan Ruiz after an undercover investigation. At the arraignment of six of the defendants in Brooklyn, two densely packed rows of agents on the case rose to identify themselves to the presiding judge. This was the beginning of an important and high-profile win for the government in the fight against illegal commercial sex, or so the DHS agents and prosecutors must have thought.

But things started going badly for the government right away. Over the next few days, the raid was vigorously condemned by sexual-freedom and sex-worker advocates (Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, Sex Workers Outreach Project); LGBT groups (Lambda Legal, National LGBTQ Task Force, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality); human-rights and free-speech organizations (ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Harm Reduction Coalition, Free Speech Coalition); and even many media outlets, including The New York Times. The ACLU and Lambda Legal later initiated a meeting with prosecutors to defend Rentboy’s positive role in the community, which included funding scholarships and other educational projects.

The critics raised a number of points:

  • Law enforcement officials seemed to misunderstand how websites like Rentboy.com function, or they were deliberately obfuscating the nature of the business with inflammatory language like “Internet brothel” or “racket.” Rentboy.com was neither a brothel nor an escort agency. It was not an employer of escorts at all. Rentboy offered advertising space for a fee as a service to independent escorts. This business model had been developed over many years, and it has been adopted by escorts as one of the safest ways to operate. Offering their time only in ads on the website, escorts negotiate the exact terms of exchange with clients in private. During Rentboy’s 19 years of operation, this model was widely considered legal—regardless of any illegal activities of sex workers advertising as escorts. Previous arrests and lawsuits involving similar website operators, such as the prosecution of MyRedBook.com in 2014, or actions against Backpage and Craigslist before that, included charges involving minors, sex trafficking, or money laundering. There were no such allegations in the Rentboy case. Those arrested were accused of violating the 1961 Travel Act forbidding interstate commerce in the promotion of illegal activities. The only illegal activity invoked in the complaint was promoting consensual adult prostitution.
  • Many critics wanted to know why the DHS was in the business of policing consensual adult sex in the first place? Previous cases against escort websites had involved the FBI, not the DHS. Created after 9/11 to unify the operations of 22 federal agencies, the DHS was designed to focus on terrorism, cyber crime, border security, and so-called national preparedness. And yet in recent years it has apparently strayed far from that mandate. In 2014, it conducted a widely mocked “panty raid” on a local lingerie shop in Kansas City for unlawfully reproducing a sports-team logo on 36 pairs of cotton underpants. The DHS’s ICE agents also garnered considerable ire from LGBT and arts groups after a six-year campaign against gay Buffalo artist Lawrence Brose on child-pornography charges. The child-porn charges were ultimately dropped; Brose pleaded guilty to an obscenity charge in 2014, after running out of resources to continue his fight.
  • Inquiring minds wanted to know why the case was brought by the US Attorney for the Eastern District in Brooklyn, rather than by the Southern District in Manhattan, where Rentboy’s offices were locate. Given that New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance pointedly and publicly objected to his mention in the press releases about the raid, some critics wondered if Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District, also had better things to do than embarrass his office with this prosecution.
  • The targeting of Rentboy.com raised questions about possible anti-gay motives. Though gay men are far less often arrested on prostitution-related charges than women (gay or straight, including trans women), the language in the legal complaint reads as if lifted from a 1960s police report, or the 1980s Meese Commission on Pornography. DHS agent Susan Ruiz’s complaint in particular adopted a scandalized tone: “Based on my investigation, 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 and a rimchair is a seat resembling a raised toilet seat designed so that the anus is accessible while someone is sitting on the seat. I have also learned that ‘rimming’ refers to the touching of the tongue to the anus.” The public, however, was not scandalized in the least. Instead, LGBT- and human-rights organizations expressed outrage about the sensationalism and about the criminalization of sex between consenting adults. At protests against the arrests organized in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, some LGBT protesters called the Rentboy bust a new Stonewall of sex work, a moment for renewed rebellion against state harassment. To emphasize that many of the original Stonewall participants were sex workers, writer Melissa Gira Grant tweeted, “Stonewall was actually the Stonewall of sex work.”
  • In asking the question “Why Rentboy?” many critics jumped quickly to the money. Federal agents seized $1.4 million dollars in six bank accounts controlled by the website, in effect the total operating budget of the company. The civil asset–forfeiture laws that allow such seizures, whether or not the asset owners are convicted or even charged, have been subject to public and political scrutiny lately as the root of much law enforcement corruption. Such laws, which allow police forces to keep a sizeable portion of the funds seized, have been an important motor for the war on drugs and mass incarceration. They create incentives for police to follow the money in enforcement practices. In federal cases like the Rentboy prosecution, the money would be collected in a federal asset-forfeiture fund available to enhance the budgets of local law enforcement. Recently, asset sharing from that fund has been suspended due to federal budget shortfalls, but, absent significant public protest, the loot sharing is expected to be restored.

After such widespread backlash, the prosecution stalled, so far requesting four delays in the 30-day deadline for indictment. Though such extended delays are not unusual, as investigators search for further evidence and try to locate cooperating witnesses, no new charges have surfaced in this case.

Meanwhile, who knows what kind of internal pressure has been brought to bear? In the end, the prosecutors may still go to indictment on the stated charges, add new charges, drop all charges, negotiate plea bargains, or offer a deal called “deferral of prosecution” (DP) to most if not all of the defendants. DPs have been popular of late in negotiations with large corporations, which get off without indictments and prosecutions by signing agreements to pay fines and improve company ethics. Obviously, this is a very different context for such a deal. On the one hand, a DP for most or all of the defendants would be an enormous victory for them. There would be no indictments, no criminal records—basically, the government will have folded. On the other hand, unlike a dismissal of charges, the government wouldn’t publicly admit that the whole prosecution was garbage. It would have a kind of fig leaf, a contract with the defendants that includes some kind of compelled behavior, some punishment major or minor. DPs for some Rentboy.com defendants would also likely have a greater chilling effect on this business model than a straightforward dismissal of charges would, leaving escorts seeking to operate as safely as possible in the lurch. But ultimately, whatever the outcome for these particular defendants, the big bad sex police come off in the public arena as Keystone Kops.

The curious case of Rentboy.com resonates more broadly, however, than the fate of the defendants or the reputation of the feds. The arrests, publicity, and responses illuminate the landscape of contradictory public policies and shifting popular opinion about sex work and sex workers. The Rentboy arrests came only two weeks after Amnesty International voted to protect the human rights of sex workers by advocating decriminalization of prostitution worldwide. This policy shift has been intensely controversial, with feminists in particular dramatically split on the issue. Debate within LGBTQ groups, wondering how to focus energy and resources after the marriage victory, resulted in broad support for Amnesty’s position. Lambda Legal, the Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Center for Transgender Rights all signed on to a statement backing Amnesty’s new policy—most of the same groups who criticized the federal prosecution of Rentboy. The government’s timing in executing the raid was especially bad in this context. Human-rights and LGBT-rights groups had just publicly formed an alliance against the criminalization of sex work.

The embarrassing Rentboy raid reveals the deeply gendered assumptions that underpin the everyday policing of sex work in New York City in 2015—one that operates within the vexed contradictions of anti-vice and anti-trafficking logics. As several critics pointed out, after the legal complaint and press releases had gone viral, the charges and language in the Rentboy arrests assumed that both the website operators and the escorts have the full agency of rational actors. There were no allegations of trafficking, pimping, force, or coercion. There were no victims. The prosecution proceeded under the rhetorical umbrella of vice prosecutions that demonize or sensationalize disfavored sexual acts and actors. This rhetoric has largely fallen out of public favor. Without trafficked victims or exploited minors, without even any evidence of financial malfeasance (so far made public), the anti-vice, sexually hysterical and homophobic rhetoric of the complaint and the press releases circulated largely as tragicomedy.

But everyday, a stable population of women, including trans women, is arrested and arraigned on prostitution-related charges in New York City (over 90 percent of those arrested are listed as women). Many of these women work under conditions far worse than the constraints encountered by most Rentboy escorts. Though some are independent agents, others cope with debt bondage, violence, and a wide range of organized and individualized forms of coercion. Women of color encounter both greater poverty rates and heavier policing; trans women encounter more police profiling and street violence. Feminist scrutiny of these conditions led to an innovation in the New York State court system. Since 2013, over 90 percent of those charged with prostitution and related charges are brought before the new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTIC), where their cases are resolved with court supervision and mandated counseling rather than criminal convictions. In many ways an improvement over the anti-vice arrest-to-conviction-to-jail protocols, the courts are nonetheless coercive and supervisory, dependent as they are on the continuing criminalization and policing of sex workers.

On September 18, the New York City Council held public hearings on the HTICs, to which they invited judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and social workers. These representatives of the “rescue industry” spoke about sex workers as victims of coercion only; the mandated counseling they arrange assumes that those arrested are in need of organized coercive “help.” A public defender attacked that notion, pointing to a wide array of situations that sex workers encounter. But sex workers themselves were not directly represented at the meeting until the last panel of community organizations began. There, the Red Umbrella Project’s two speakers broke the anti-trafficking frame.

The Red Umbrella Project (RUP) promotes self-organization among sex workers, and recently published a study of the HTICs arguing that sex workers need housing and employment more than counseling, and that police arrest is not a good way to offer “help.” The two RUP speakers at the hearing eloquently described the negative experience of being “rescued” via arrest. The Urban Institute, in partnership with Streetwise and Safe, also recently published studies outlining the reasons young LGBTQ New Yorkers engage in what they call “survival sex” or sex in exchange for housing, food, or cash. As Audacia Ray, director of RUP, explained to me, the language of “trafficking” covers over the intertwined conditions of migration, domestic violence, and poverty—which only sometimes come together with the kind of organized force and coercion conjured by the term. When used as an umbrella term for nearly all sex work, as it is in the HTICs, “trafficking” effectively erases the systemic conditions that shape the experience of sex work, substituting individual criminal “traffickers” for the traps of poverty and homelessness. The trafficking framework also erases the agency of women. Sex work becomes a kind of statutory crime, with women as legal children, with issues of coercion assumed and questions of consent rendered irrelevant for the court.

The RUP and Urban Institute studies document what sex-worker organizers already know—the needs of sex workers are very much like the needs of other poor or marginalized New Yorkers. The studies also clearly outline another widely acknowledged fact: The policing of sex work is thoroughly racialized. Black, Asian, Latina, and Native American sex workers are arrested at far higher rates, and treated with greater brutality throughout the criminal-justice system.

How can the high-profile Rentboy bust affect the current political environment to improve the lives of sex workers? At first glance, it may appear as a distraction, with the most support going to the least vulnerable. Speakers at a November 11 town-hall meeting at the LGBT community center, “The Rentboy Raid Is Everyday,” pointed out the daily harassment and arrest of sex workers that never makes the news, and fails to attract the level of support and resources mobilized following the Rentboy arrests. But on second look, the case is helping to extend the alliance for decriminalization of sex work formed around the Amnesty vote in August. As activist Bill Dobbs pointed out to me, there were two overlapping protests in support of sex workers in September alone—the Rentboy protest and the protest at the public hearing on the HTICs. Events such as the town-hall meeting at the LGBT Center and the ongoing organization of former Rentboy advertisers by the Hookup Collaborative and the National Coalition of Rentboys and Allies have extended public focus on the issues surrounding sex-worker politics in an LGBT context at a crucial time.

Can such support be sustained and expanded with some of the energy once devoted to marriage and military inclusion? The recent folding of the policy arm of the Empire State Pride Agenda because its leadership felt it had achieved its goals indicates that at least some mainstream LGBT organizers do not see the decriminalization of sex work as a priority. In the meantime, the male-escort business has simply transferred operations to websites located in Europe, beyond the reach of US law enforcement. So much for the suppression of vice! The issue of the future direction of feminist activism is even more vexed. Can feminists turn away from anti-trafficking rhetoric and legal actions that subject sex workers or their clients (under the so-called “Swedish model” of arresting only johns) to police and court surveillance, to focus on support and organization of sex workers instead?

Meanwhile, public support for the decriminalization of sex work seems to be growing, and the backlash surrounding the Rentboy arrests may help with that. Outside New York, the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project has filed a lawsuit charging that the prostitution laws in the state of California are unconstitutional. Drawing on language in the 2003 Supreme Court decision eliminating sodomy laws, Lawrence vs. Texas, the parties to the suit claim that enforcement of prostitution laws violates their constitutional rights to privacy, free speech, and freedom of association and the substantive due-process right to earn a living. They are wagering that public opinion and the legal environment have changed enough since the 1970s that there may finally be some victories on the horizon to at least bring the United States in line with the European norm by decriminalizing prostitution.

Sex-worker activists and allies like those at Red Umbrella, the Urban Institute, and Streetwise and Safe know all too well that even full decriminalization for sex workers, managers, and clients is necessary, but only the bare beginning. Creating a more just political economy that can provide generous livelihoods, safe shelter, labor protections and support for migrants, racial and religious equality, and meaningful sexual and gender self-determination for everyone is the elusive goal.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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