Cops raid gay escort website: time to stop criminalising sex work

Colin Wilson condemns the US authorities’ raid this week on the New York-based website rentboy.com.

rentboy

On Tuesday, the New York Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security raided the offices of rentboy.com, taking away computers as evidence and arresting the site’s Chief Exec and six others on prostitution charges. The defendants face up to five years in jail if convicted, and fines of up to $250,000. You can see why those involved in the site assumed that the authorities weren’t going to intervene – it had operated for 18 years, hosted thousands of advertisements from escorts and claimed 500,000 unique visitors a day. It was a large and successful website, with an income of over $10 million in the last five years.

It was perfectly clear what was being sold there. The term “rent boy” isn’t widely used in the US, but an advert for “Rick”, for example, lists his height and weight, describes him as an “all American boy next door who loves to have a good time”, identifies his cock size as “large”, his out rate as $200 and his overnight rate as $1,000. Other advertisers listed sexual acts they were prepared to perform, while other websites existed where clients could write reviews of their experiences with rentboy.com escorts.

Rentboy.com didn’t take money from clients for sexual services – they charged escorts for advertisements, and assumed that they were protected by disclaimers asserting that those adverts were for companionship only. They asserted that anything else – like payment for sex – was a private matter between the escort and the client. Perhaps it seems odd for them to believe that such a legal fiction could be effective – but for eighteen years it was. And their belief is all the more understandable, given the utterly confused attitude to the sex trade that exists in the western world, America and in particular New York.

On the one hand, New York has been “cleaned up”. Times Square, previously an area including sex workers, sex shops and porn theatres, has been “redeveloped”. With the ostensible aim of making the area safe for tourists and families, police harassment has cleaned out undesirables, and tax money has facilitated valuable real estate deals. When the redevelopment was completed in 2010, the New York Times explained what had been achieved:

Morgan Stanley, Allianz Global Investors, Viacom and Condé Nast now make their corporate homes there. Retailers are paying rents as high as $1,400 a square foot, second only to those on chic stretches of Fifth and Madison Avenues.

The sex trade was further suppressed in New York by “zoning laws”, operating since 1995, which banned “adult establishments” from residential areas, and from within 500 feet of another such establishment, a school or a place of worship.

Yet, at the same time as public commercial sex has been banished from New York, private commercial sex remains acceptable, with hardcore porn available in Manhattan hotel rooms. There’s a more general trend here – publicly visible gay bookstores and bars are closing down, while gay pickup app Grindr is reported to be expecting total revenues of $40 million in 2015. You could assume that the authorities are concerned about public order and real estate values, and so would  turn a blind eye to buying pornography, paying for sex or cruising if they took place online, out of the public view, instead of on the street.

If that’s the general rule, however, it didn’t hold true here. And that leaves a whole number of unanswered questions. Why raid a site now which has existed for years? Is the prosecution rooted in homophobia? What exactly is the law, or the policy of the New York authorities, towards selling sex? Why on earth is the Department of Homeland Security – formed to protect America from terrorist attacks after 9/11 –  involved in the case?

These aren’t just interesting abstract questions – they impact directly on the many people involved in the New York sex industry. The illegal status of prostitution already leads to police harassment of sex workers, and makes it hard for them to protect their health. A report published in April 2014 by Persist, a sex workers’ health project, explains what happens:

In NYC, the possession of condoms has been used for decades as a means to intimidate, arrest and detain New Yorkers on prostitution charges, undermining the health and safety of people trading sex, particularly street-based sex workers, LGBTQ youth, transgender women and gender non-conforming people. 37.2 million free, NYC-branded condoms are distributed by the Department of Health every year, which are then use as grounds to detain and arrest New Yorkers who carry them. A 2012 report conducted by the PROS (Providers and Resources Offering Services for sex workers) Network found that about half of overall respondents reported that police had confiscated, damaged, or destroyed their condoms; 67% reported that police destroyed condoms they were carrying solely as a means of harassment, without making an arrest. This endangerment of public health occurs in spite of the high rates of HIV/AIDS in NYC, where more than 110,000 people live with HIV and the AIDS case rate is three times the national average.

These experiences underline the case made by Melissa Gira Grant in her book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work – that in situations where sex work is illegal, the violence and harassment sex workers face comes mostly from the police, not from their clients. Sex workers also report that using rentboy.com improved their working lives. Thierry Schaffauser, a sex worker activist formerly based in London, where he organised sex workers in the GMB, now lives in France. He describes his experience on the Yagg website:

When I was working on the street, rentboy.com was the first site I used which made it possible for me to become an escort. Through this site, escorts all over the world can get in touch with their clients. Thanks to this means of communications, by working conditions improved, I was able to raise my fees, and I was no longer subjected to the attacks which I had to suffer in the street, while I was sometimes waiting for clients in the cold in winter. Are we going to have to go back onto the streets, as we did before the development of the internet?

The raid on rentboy.com gives a green light to further police harassment, and makes sex workers’ jobs more dangerous. Whatever our concerns or questions about the commodification of sexuality – and there are many discussions to have – we need to start by understanding that making it illegal to sell sex helps no one. The decision Amnesty International made two weeks ago in Dublin, to oppose laws against prostitution, is a step forward here. The raid on rentboy.com is an alarming step back.

Leave a Reply