The Justice Department took down what it called the largest “internet brothel” last week, arresting the CEO and six employees behind the online male escort service Rentboy.com. But there’s more to the raid of the eight-year old site than the narrative of the government conquering a thinly disguised prostitution enterprise.
Rentboy’s terms of service prohibited the exchange of money for sex, listing the site’s purpose as promoting male companionship through dates or paid escorts. Rentboy charged escorts a monthly fee ranging from $59.95 to $299.95, and the escorts set their own rates based on the level of service. According to the complaint, Rentboy had about 500,000 unique daily visitors with 70 percent residing in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security and the New York Police Department determined the site was simply a front for gay prostitution, where escorts would sometimes detail their penis size and sexual preferences.
There is legal justification for the Rentboy raid, as prostitution is illegal, but advocates say the investigation and subsequent shuttering the speaks more to law enforcement’s competing priorities, where non-violent crimes take priority in a climate of growing social unrest among marginalized communities.
“These arrests are taking place against the backdrop in Amerca where it is entirely clear that the police’s relationship with people of color [involves] incredible violence and that environment is true for sex workers,” Penelope Saunders, coordinator for the Best Practices Policy Program (BPPP), a sex worker advocacy group that develops policy and facilitates research, told ThinkProgress.
Raids of online escort services are not new, she said, referencing the shutdown of a similar San Francisco-based site RedBook earlier this year. But the Rentboy case, which follows the huge hack of the Ashley Madison site that promoted extramarital affairs and reportedly duped men into paying to sign up with fake profiles of women, is different particularly because it was geared toward men.
“This is a high-profile case sitting on a mountain of evidence that no one cared about because [the perception that] sex workers lives don’t matter. But sex workers’ lives do matter.” Sauders said. “The trafficking and abuse of women is so normalized it doesn’t make the papers,” she said of the lack of media coverage of the Justice Department’s case against RedBook, which had a large female user base. “[Rentboy] is really blowing the lid off of this because…because this is men having sex men.”
Recent proposals to decriminalize prostitution as a way to better protect adult sex workers and decongest the judicial system, have given rise to an intense debate over whether such policies would encourage abuse and sex trafficking.
“Nowhere has the government suggested that this business is harming or exploiting anyone…we see old fashioned moralistics,” said Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Board Chair for HIPS, a harm reduction organization for drug users and sex industry workers in Washington, D.C.
But the sex trafficking component has been largely absent in the Rentboy case, an indication, advocates say, that preventing harm isn’t law enforcement’s main goal. “With any female-dominated [escort] website there is a narrative of trafficking, with Rentboy that isn’t there, and points to the gender narrative of trafficking,” said Sex Worker’s Outreach Project’s spokeswoman Katherine Koster. “None of these websites are dominated by trafficking victims, but hopefully going forward, the way Rentboy was understood and processed will also apply to female-dominated websites.”
Moreover, the harm reduction organizations that Rentboy advertised could also take a hit if they’re seen by businesses as a red flag of criminal activity. “It’s giving a warning to all of these [online] services that if they post links to harm reduction services that their site is being used for illegal activity,” Koster said, SWOP’s spokeswoman. Like with other sites, “not everything going on was illegal activity.”
The arrests come weeks after President Barack Obama and the DOJ vowed to reduce sentences for non-violent drug crimes, a move that predominantly affects young black and Latino men and would reduce prison populations. But in the case of Rentboy, the prioritization of the bust seems counterintuitive and could do more harm than good.
“It seems as though the government is trying to take some sort of stand to say that these businesses can’t even have the veneer of legality,” Tobin said. “Not to speak to specific charges, [Rentboy] has operated in the open for a long time…they haven’t hidden themselves,” and have a track record of harm reduction advocacy and letting sex worker advocacy groups advertise their services on the site.
“Regardless of the complaint, the prosecution of these laws — whether they are sex workers, or clients or offering a website to communicate — it only harms people and increases the dangers” experienced in adult sex work, which isn’t all illegal, Tobin said. “Shuttering [escort sites] drives advertising further underground, making it harder for law enforcement to find the real exploiters.”
In a news release, Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Glenn Sorge said, “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,” and DHS will use its authority to “to disrupt and dismantle such organizations and seize the millions of dollars in illegal proceeds they generate.”
Tobin disagreed, saying the high-profile shutdown of Rentboy “dilutes le focus on the real problem,” and only silences workers and their clients who will fear arrest and prosecution and will be reluctant to reach out when harm or abuse is witnessed.
Online escort websites have been regarded for giving adult workers of all varieties — exotic dancers, dominatrices, escorts, etc. — a platform where they can screen clients and escape the predatory third parties who may take their money or physically abuse them. And while the loss of Rentboy reverberates through the adult industry, the case should also remind the LGBT community that the laws need to change.
“There is a notion that being online allows sex workers to access certain tools for safety, but it depends on who you ask. If you’re a transgender woman of color advertising online you’re still at risk because of your gender and transphobia — it doesn’t go away,” BPPP’s coordinator Penelope Saunders said. “You’re never not going to be considered a prostitute in a public space [to police], even when you’re walking to get a gallon of milk for your breakfast. We holistically need to address all of that.”