A website that was little known outside of LGBTQ circles is triggering a huge debate about sex work and prostitution.
Rentboy, as the site was called, was a social media network that connected escorts (mainly men) and clients (also mainly men), usually for sexual activity. Although there was no sign that the website was encouraging dangerous acts or illegal trafficking, officials apparently thought the site — which they characterized as an "internet brothel" — were worthy of a federal crackdown. They raided Rentboy's offices in New York City on Tuesday, August 25.
But the federal government's decision has triggered some backlash in the LGBTQ community. The Transgender Law Center, for instance, released a statement that claimed, "With this raid, the US federal government is not only jeopardizing countless people’s lives and only source of livelihood, but sending a clear and troubling message that the country is less invested in addressing systemic issues of racial, economic, and anti-LGBT injustice than in further criminalizing the individuals most marginalized by those systems."
The raid has also raised broader questions about the criminalization of prostitution, which is illegal in most of the US — except in parts of Nevada. But the hit on Rentboy reflects what many decriminalization advocates characterize as the worst example of criminalization: going after a relatively safe space — where there were no signs of trafficking or coerced prostitution — and risking pushing sex work out to the more dangerous streets. That's incensed advocates and sex workers, who argue that escorting shouldn't be illegal, and perhaps prostitution shouldn't be criminalized at all.
Hold on. What is Rentboy?
Rentboy purports to be the largest gay male escort website. It has operated since 1997, hosting thousands of paid advertisements from male escorts around the world — including the US — and attracts about 500,000 unique visitors each day, BuzzFeed's David Mack reported.
The site says it's not supposed to be used for sexual services, with a disclaimer: "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." And it says escort advertisements can't contain explicit offers for sexual conduct in exchange for money.
But that's kind of bullshit. Everyone knows what Rentboy is used for. An escort who worked for the site wrote in Gawker, "Of course, they were facilitating prostitution, which in the United States is illegal."
Take, for instance, one escort advertisement, as explained by Homeland Security Special Agent Susan Ruiz, who filed the federal complaint against Rentboy:
A profile for "Brandon," advertising services in Brooklyn, New York stated that he is "hairy handsome versatile & uninhibited." The profile noted that he was willing to have Brooklyn incalls and had a "sling and rimchair." 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.
Here's another example, from the federal complaint:
A profile for "Master Lebeau" advertising services in Brooklyn, New York stated "10 irresistible inches / / long & strong" and that he was available for "role play, watersport sessions" and "domination." The advertisement also identified that his "cock size" is "extra large" and "foreskin" is "cut" and indicated that his "sexual position" is "top." The advertisement listed his "out rate" as $230, his overnight rate as $1500 and his weekend rate as $3500.
These are pretty explicit, and they tend to match the general feel of the website. It's the kind of solicitation that Rentboy claims to not allow — because it's illegal — yet the website still contains a lot of.
Why do people use services like Rentboy?
Sex is fun. But not everyone has great access to it — that's especially true with gay or bisexual men, some of whom may be in the closet.
Reason's Scott Shackford offered the best explanation for this:
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?
The escorts, meanwhile, used Rentboy because it was a good place to advertise themselves and make money. The escort who wrote for Gawker estimated he could make $1,000 on a good week — although he suspected more active escorts could make a lot more money.
So what happened to Rentboy?
On Tuesday, August 25, federal officers — mainly from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — raided Rentboy's offices and arrested seven former and current staffers. The government has also shut down the website, and wants to seize more than $1.4 million in alleged criminal proceeds. If convicted, the defendants face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The feds aren't going after Rentboy for violating some sort of federal anti-prostitution law. As Shackford explained, the feds are using the federal Travel Act, which makes it illegal to use the mail or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce — like the internet — to do something that's illegal under state law. Since prostitution is illegal in New York, where Rentboy was based, the Travel Act can be used to go after the website and its staff.
The feds allege that the website facilitated prostitution. In their complaint, they point to several previous comments from Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant, one of the people arrested, that suggested the website purposely tried to conceal its true purpose — "the oldest profession," meaning prostitution. Hurant said, according to the federal complaint, "We just want to keep the oldest profession in the world up to date with all the latest technology."
And Hurant allegedly explained how Rentboy dodges prostitution laws: "There is no place on this website where somebody says I'll have sex for money, because that is against the law. … People say I'm a great top, people say I fuck like nobody's business, but you can't say I'll fuck you for two hundred bucks."
Rentboy also hosted a yearly awards show called the International Escort Awards — also known as the Hookies. The site advertised the show as "covering all aspects of the oldest profession as presented in the newest media."
This evidence was apparently enough for the feds to go in. And it's not the first time they did something like this: As Melissa Gira Grant wrote for Vice, the charges are similar to those against California-based escort website MyRedbook.com.
Why did the feds go after Rentboy?
For now, this is difficult to answer. Although Rentboy was likely facilitating activity that's technically illegal, the website has been in operation since 1997, and has been well-known among many LGBTQ people for years. So there's a big question: Why go after Rentboy now?
Marcy Wheeler, at the blog Emptywheel, said the explanation may go back to a two-year-old immigration application. Rentboy applied for an H1B visa for its accountant, Marco Soto Decker, which may have tipped off the feds to the website's existence and activity. Wheeler wrote, "[I]n March 2013, Easy Rent [Rentboy's parent company] submitted an H1B application that may have given DHS an opening to start this investigation. Two years later, they had an undercover officer attend the Hookies and get Rentboy’s CEO to say some damning things."
Wheeler pointed out that there have also been some rumors — noted in several media outlets — that money laundering was involved. It's also possible that the feds got an insider at Rentboy in recent years, which allowed them to pursue an investigation.
Another theory, suggested by Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, is that the feds simply think gay sex is icky. This might seem ridiculous — but reading the detailed federal complaint certainly gives a vibe that what's being described isn't just disapproved of because it's prostitution, but because something about the actual sex acts is fundamentally gross. Stern explained:
[Reason's] Shackford sees the bust as a civil rights issue, lambasting the "callous disregard shown toward those men who seek to sexually connect on their own terms." (Women can use the site, but it’s geared toward men.) I agree, and strongly suspect discomfort with gay sex drove the government to focus on Rentboy. (Its luridly detailed complaint describes graphic gay sex acts with shuddering relish.)
It's also possible that the feds and other police agencies saw going after Rentboy as a profitable venture. Thanks to federal asset forfeiture laws, federal agencies and police departments (mainly the New York Police Department) involved in the raid will be able to keep and split the $1.4 million they're looking to seize from Rentboy. That's not a lot of money in federal budget terms, but it's still a decent cash grab for some of the individual federal and local agencies involved.
Still, it's impossible to say for certain what motivated the feds until the case moves forward. But the hit on Rentboy is certainly raising a lot of questions — not least because there's a growing push to decriminalize prostitution.
Why is prostitution illegal in the first place?
There are two main arguments for criminalizing prostitution: a moralistic one, and one that's a bit more practical — although not supported by any good evidence.
The moral argument, as Vox's Amanda Taub explained, is that sex work — including but not limited to prostitution — is inherently or at least largely exploitative. Under this view, all sex work should be eradicated, and governments should do everything in their power to make sure this happens.
In the more extreme version, advocates see sex work itself as inherently degrading and exploitative. To them, all prostitution is a crime against women. Accordingly, their goal is to end it entirely.
The less extreme version of this, the one that [Lena] Dunham advocated on Twitter, says that prostitution can in theory be a legitimate choice, and that for some women it is, but that many other women are coerced or trafficked into it. This argument tends to focus on, for example, girls who are recruited into sex work before the age of consent or women whose history of abuse or poverty leaves them especially vulnerable to exploitation. They argue that this exploitation is so entrenched in the practice that the only way to protect vulnerable women and girls is by stopping all sex work.
The less moralistic and more practical argument is that decriminalizing prostitution can increase sex trafficking and coerced prostitution. Unlike other arguments against decriminalization, this poses an empirical question — and proponents of this view often cite studies that suggest decriminalization leads to more trafficking.
The most widely cited study, from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), suggested that the decriminalization of sex work in several countries led to increased human trafficking. Anti-decriminalization advocates often cite this study as evidence of decriminalization's downsides — it was, for example, the main study cited in a letter signed by celebrities and activists around the world asking Amnesty International, a human rights group, to not support decriminalization because it would lead to an increase in sex trafficking.
But this research is, frankly, bad. I outlined the big problems in a previous post that you can read for more detail, but the short of it is that the data the study drew from — by the researchers' own admission — is completely unreliable. For one, it looks at all human trafficking, which includes forms of labor far beyond sex, so it's entirely possible that the higher rates of human trafficking were in industries that had nothing to do with sex. And the data, researchers wrote, "does not reflect actual trafficking flows," and it's "difficult, perhaps impossible, to find hard evidence establishing" a relationship between legal prostitution and human trafficking — disclaimers that suggest the study's findings are essentially meaningless.
But even if it were true that allowing prostitution somehow enabled more sex trafficking, this doesn't apply to Rentboy. The complaint against the website has nothing in it to suggest trafficking was an issue. Shackford wrote, "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."
Besides, the website, by its very act of linking sex workers directly to clients, cut out middlemen (pimps) who could have been coercive and exploitive. It was instead up to individual escorts to choose to participate on the site.
Based on this fact alone, Rentboy might reduce the levels of coerced prostitution. As one of the Rentboy escorts wrote on Gawker:
Rentboy has made this a safer business to be in. It's much easier to pick up and put down since you're not tied to a pimp. If you get a day job or want to move or get in a relationship, there's no one there telling you that you can't because you have to keep working. There's no one telling you, "If you do that, you'll never be allowed to list with our service again." It gives sex workers total freedom.
So if the federal government is going after Rentboy, it's likely based on moralistic (and legal) objections to prostitution — primarily the view that all sex work is in some way exploitative, so it's the government's role to crack down on it. Or something else is at play, such as money laundering, as some reports have suggested.
Isn't there an argument for decriminalizing prostitution?
In the aftermath of the raid, many advocates and sex workers have argued that the big issue with the raid is that prostitution shouldn't be illegal in the first place. And, in fact, there's evidence that allowing prostitution in safe spaces like Rentboy can benefit everyone — not just sex workers, but the general public as well.
Multiple studies have found good things happened for public safety and health after the decriminalization of prostitution. A 2014 paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that rates of rape and gonorrhea dropped dramatically after Rhode Island decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003, and a 2015 study of decriminalization in the Netherlands, published by the Institute for the Study of Labor, produced strikingly similar results. These findings applied to both sex workers and the general public.
The Rhode Island study said there was a likely explanation for the drop in gonorrhea cases: With the decriminalization of indoor prostitution, more of the industry moved indoors, which is generally safer than street prostitution since it tends to involve more condom use and less-risky sex acts.
But researchers couldn't draw a definitive conclusion for the drop in rape, instead proposing a variety of theories. For one, decriminalization may give sex workers a better bargaining position relative to their clients — allowing them to seek help from employers and police should something go wrong. And decriminalizing sex work allows businesses to invest more money in security (locks, security cameras, security guards), and decreases the potential for police corruption (so cops are less likely to demand sex from a sex worker when a worker turns to them for help) — both of which could lower the incidence of rape.
There's also a more troubling explanation for the drop in rape offenses: Some violent men perhaps substituted rape with prostitution. The study found that the market for prostitution expanded following decriminalization. With more accessibility and no criminal penalty, would-be rapists may have shifted away from sexual violence and instead purchased sex. (Other research shows something similar happening with porn — in which some violent men substitute rape with porn.)
So there's good reason to think that allowing something like Rentboy could have similar effects. Services like it connect clients directly with the escort, who can negotiate with the client and decide whether he wants to participate at all. As the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf explained, "The practical effect of the site and others like it has been to move prostitutes off the street and onto the web and to enable safer, more predictable encounters for prostitutes and customers. And there is zero chance that taking the site down will end gay prostitution."