Why The RentBoy.com Raid Puts Sex Workers At More Risk, By A Former Sex Worker

sex worker rights

I am a former sex worker. An escort. A man, who amongst many other things, engaged in consensual sexual acts with other men in exchange for money. I never did so under duress. No more so than any of us are enslaved to our jobs. Were there shitty days at work? Shitty clients? Absolutely. Just like I’ve encountered at every corporate job I’ve ever held.

Here’s the difference. When I walk into my corporate job, I’m not shamed for it. When the client presentation doesn’t go as planned, I’m not worried that my client might reach over the table and sock me in the face. Because if a client decided to do that, I would immediately go to the police, whereupon they would be arrested with no fear that the police would turn around and arrest me for doing my job.

That is a legal protection sex workers are not afforded. Because sex workers can be imprisoned (and beaten and raped and have their property seized) for simply doing their job, they’re at risk for even reporting a crime that took place against them while working.

Recently Amnesty International, the world’s foremost human rights organization, made a formal recommendation that sex work worldwide be decriminalized. Why? Because the very illegality of sex work is what makes sex work inherently dangerous.rentboy logo

Which brings me to yesterday’s news that Rentboy.com, a site for male escorts to advertise and connect with clients, has been shut down, it’s executive members charged with promoting prostitution.

(Full disclosure: RentBoy.com’s COO, who is amongst the arrested, is a colleague and has appeared on my podcast.)

“As alleged, Rentboy.com attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Kelly Currie said in a statement.

Let’s be clear as to what Rentboy.com was. It was a site where people who wanted to enjoy the company of men could find those men with whom they thought they’d enjoy company, and then pay for said company.

Did Rentboy.com’s escorts and clients have the expectation of sex? Undoubtedly sometimes. Was it always? Certainly not. A large percentage of the escorting appointments I had with clients (to be clear: I never advertised with Rentboy) involved almost no sexual contact. Some clients wanted nothing more than to be spanked. A great many more simply wanted to grab a drink and escape the homophobic confines of their daily life, free from the judgments of their family or religion.

In every instance these were consensual engagements. Consensual engagements that in many ways were helping these men find some part of themselves that they could not in their personal lives, be it for the constraints of fear, time, acceptance, kink, whatever.

There was no brothel. There was no coercion. There were no threats of a “pimp” busting through my door, demanding money, battering me, and abusing me. The internet provided a way for me to be self-employed, manage my own marketing services, and interact with clients of my choice, vetting them to ensure I was as safe as possible.

In short, the internet, and services like Rentboy.com make sex workers safer and more empowered. When you strip sex workers of those resources, and push their work further underground and onto the streets where they are not provided legal protection, you are making them less safe and less empowered.

You may be thinking, ‘Sure we want adults to be able to engage in whatever consensual sex acts they choose. But aren’t sex workers in need of rescue? What about human trafficking?’

This is the other problem with the rhetoric used by Currie. It’s not only damaging to sex worker rights, but it’s inaccurate. Unfortunately its implementation is by no means rare.

Maggie McNeill, a preeminent sex worker rights activist and sex worker herself, described how we came to conflate the idea of sex work with the notion of human trafficking. Human trafficking and “rescue operations” are marketing terms used by anti-sex work organizations to elicit the idea that most sex workers are children trapped in shipping crates being sold as sex slaves. It forces sex workers to be thought of as victims and strips them of their autonomy over their own body and profession. My body, my choice?

By no means am I suggesting that actual instances of human trafficking are to be ignored. But I am telling you that proportionate to the number of consenting adult sex workers in the U.S., it’s almost non-existent. And that confusion is precisely what anti-sex work organizations are depending on in order to receive continued support every time decriminalizing prostitution is brought to the ballot.

In a recent interview I conducted with McNeill, she explains how it was a shift in the 1990’s that led us here:

Generally when [a sex work sting] was reported in the paper, the letters to the editor would always be ‘why are the cops wasting their time doing this?’

What happened is the anti-sex work people began to realize they were losing. All over the world sex work laws were being liberalized.

The anti-prostitution people realized they had to change the narrative, and they changed the narrative from ‘dirty whores are a social pollution and we have to get rid of them,’ to ‘oh they’re poor victims, let’s save them.’ And that of course opened the door to all these kinds of programs where the government can pretend that there was a socially positive function that these pogroms achieved, whereas if people could realize that sex work is not trafficking, that sex work is a voluntary activity, this narrative wouldn’t fly.

Rentboy.com was not facilitating human trafficking. Sure, some people met and exchanged goods for sex. That’s what I call that most of my OKCupid dates.

Sex workers are workers. Some of us love our jobs. Some of us hate our jobs. But we are not in need of rescue any more than your friends stuck in cubicles are in need of a screw gun:

Let sex workers have their autonomy. Let them have their safety. Support the decriminalization of sex work.

Let consenting adults not have to worry that the government is going to stick its nose into our blowjobs. At least not without paying for it.
About Eric Barry

Eric Barry is a Chicago comedian, writer, and creator of Full Disclosure, voted "Best Sex-Positive" podcast by the Chicago Reader. He holds a B.A. in Theater & Performance Studies from UC Berkeley, and his work has been featured on Huffington Post, Cosmo, SF Chronicle, and more. He is currently working on developing a pilot based off his time in the sex work industry.

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