The raid that shut down the gay escort site Rentboy.com last week was widely condemned by LGBT groups, but is the mainstream gay movement prepared to pick up the torch on a cause it has largely ignored for years in favor of more politically comfortable issues like marriage?
On August 25, federal agents raided Rentboy’s office in New York City and arrested its chief executive and several employees for promoting prostitution across state lines. The raid has received a lot of media attention, but it wasn’t the only target of an anti-prostitution sting over the past week.
In cities across the country, police lured suspects with online ads and raided massage parlors and neighborhood motels, arresting dozens of people, the vast majority of them immigrants, queer and gender-nonconforming people, poor people and people of color. The week before saw a similar spate of arrests, and next week will bring more of the same.
The Rentboy raid was a harsh reminder that even male privilege does not always protect you from the vice squad.
Meanwhile, a growing list of major international health and human rights organizations are calling on governments to decriminalize sex work. Earlier in August, Amnesty International adopted a policy calling on governments to decriminalize the selling and buying of sex services among consenting adults, reigniting fierce debate within feminist circles that pitted sex workers and their allies against advocates who want to bring women out of the sex trade, even if that means working with police.
Male sex workers in the United States were mostly absent from the Amnesty debate, largely because they have much more privilege and agency than women who turn to sex work. (Several male sex workers who Truthout spoke with agreed.)
The Rentboy raid, however, was a harsh reminder that even male privilege does not always protect you from the vice squad, let alone the US Department of Homeland Security. Rentboy’s brazen operators are learning that lesson the hard way, and their legal troubles are a wakeup call for gay and queer men in New York City and everywhere else.
From Marriage to Sex Work?
Just a week before federal agents shut down Rentboy, five US-based LGBT groups – including Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) – issued a joint statement in support of the Amnesty resolution.
The five groups that are calling for decriminalization said they were looking forward to working with sex workers and sex worker advocates on the issue, but some activists remain skeptical that mainstream groups like GLAD and Lambda Legal are really committed to standing with sex workers.
“It’s not in their DNA to actually take up a cause like this,” said Yasmin Nair, a writer and activist with Against Equality, an editorial collective that is critical of the mainstream LGBT movement.
Radical queer thinkers have long criticized big LGBT groups for focusing so much of their time and financial resources on legalizing same-sex marriage and advocating access to the military. Marriage equality attracted millions in fundraising dollars and built political clout in Washington but tends to impact middle- and upper-class people who wish to pool their resources, not LGBTQ people who may be more immediately impacted by employment discrimination or police profiling. Plus, both marriage and the military are traditionally straight institutions that some queer people see as inherently capitalist and oppressive in the first place.
How can the LGBT movement help decriminalize sex work? Sticking up for websites like Rentboy is a good start.
Longstanding issues that impact more marginalized people in LGBT and queer communities, such as sex work, youth homelessness and the epidemic of violence against transgender woman, are only now becoming priorities. These issues have little to do with values like monogamy and national pride, which made marriage equality and military visibility attractive to the cultural mainstream, and Nair suspects the LGBT groups may only be paying them lip service.
“In the wake of the gay marriage issue, in the wake of it technically being over, I think LGBT groups are looking for ways to justify their existence,” Nair said. “Which means they are trying to fund themselves.”
Nair said the joint statement in support of decriminalization is encouraging, but she questioned whether mainstream gay groups would go beyond “statement-making” and really examine the complex issues wrapped up in sex work, such as race and poverty.
Truthout reached out to Lambda Legal, GLAD and the NCLR and asked if they are working any legal cases or projects involving sex workers, but they did not respond or issue a statement identifying a project by the time this article was published. (A spokesman for the NCLR said that staffers who usually interview with the press were either busy or on vacation.)
The Human Rights Campaign, a powerful LGBT group that was at the forefront of the effort to legalize same-sex marriage, has not released any statements on the Amnesty policy or the Rentboy raid on its website. The group did not respond to an email from Truthout.
A spokesperson for the Transgender Law Center, which signed the joint statement on decriminalization along with the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the center does not have any current projects that focus on sex work specifically, but the group is working on two issues that can impact sex workers – incarceration and structural inequalities that drive high HIV rates and poor health outcomes in the transgender community.
Flor Bermudez, the director of the Transgender Law Center’s Detention Project, helped organize the joint statement in support of decriminalization. Bermudez said that mainstream groups are now focusing on issues that impact poor people and people of color that were “ancillary” during the marriage campaign. However, she said, there also needs to be a strategic shift: Legal advocates need to change their definition of “winning,” moving away from simply winning blockbuster court cases.
“Winning could mean engaging in advocacy to support a movement or a particular thing that is happening at the moment without necessary having a large, class-action lawsuit or having a big impact litigation case,” Bermudez said. “If we shift the framework for what legal advocacy and winning means, we will be able to support movements like the sex worker rights movement.”
Sex work is an important issue for transgender groups. Transgender people are 10 times more likely to participate in sex work than cisgender women, and 13 percent of trans people who experience family rejection have done sex work, according to the joint statement. Police often profile trans and gender-nonconforming people as sex workers, and transgender people – especially women – face extremely high rates of harassment and sexual abuse in prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers.
Katherine Koster, communications director for the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP-USA), was also optimistic about mainstream LGBT groups’ increased attention to sex work. She told Truthout that she is “really hopeful” that recent events will give the LGBT movement some momentum.
“Perhaps the Rentboy raid and Amnesty International’s position on sex work might be a turning point at which point larger GLBT organizations will start investing money and resources into the sex worker rights movement in the United States,” Koster said.
How to Decriminalize Sex Work
So, how can the LGBT movement help decriminalize sex work? Koster agreed that sticking up for websites like Rentboy is a good start. Rentboy is only the latest casualty of a law enforcement strategy focused on dismantling online web forums used by sex workers. In July, law enforcement successfully pressured major credit card companies to remove their services from Backpage.com, a website frequently used by sex workers, and last year federal authorities raided and shut down a similar site called MyRedBook.com.
Sex worker advocates say such websites are important safety tools. Rentboy users, for example, can discuss their HIV status and negotiate condom use in cyberspace instead of in a hurried conversation on the street corner or in the back of a club. Users also have time to screen clients and can find them without the help of middlemen.
“The Rentboy office raid greatly affects my ability to work safely and further enforces the stigma that already surrounds sex work in this country,” said Israel, a male sex worker in Seattle, in a statement through SWOP-USA.
In the United States, certain forms of sex work are criminalized by a patchwork of laws. The seven Rentboy defendants, for example, are charged with violating federal law by promoting unlawful activity across state lines – the activity being prostitution, which is illegal in New York and most other states.
Many cities also have vague local ordinances against “loitering” with or “manifesting” the “intent” to sell sex, and police routinely use these laws to profile transgender women and LGBTQ youth as sex workers, especially when they are also people of color.
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which regularly takes up LGBT rights issues, filed a constitutional challenge to such an ordinance in Phoenix, Arizona, on behalf of Monica Jones, a Black transgender woman and activist. Jones was convicted of prostitution after being picked up by an undercover police officer while walking to meet friends at a neighborhood bar. Jones appealed, arguing she was unfairly profiled as a sex worker. An appeals court overturned the conviction earlier this year but did not rule on the ACLU challenge.
Legal experts say local laws against displaying so-called “intent” to commit prostitution give police the power to violate constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association and due process, but the sex worker rights movement does not have resources to challenge all the laws and defend the countless number of people arrested under them. LGBT groups supporting decriminalization could take note and pitch in.
As Truthout has reported, there is already a challenge to California’s state law prohibiting prostitution that could set a precedent across several western states if it wins appeals. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project, a grassroots group out of San Francisco that has taken on a huge fight with a shoestring budget.
Rentboy has given the mainstream LGBT movement the opportunity to come out about its relationship with sex workers.
Koster said that LGBT groups could also put pressure on law enforcement to simply stop enforcing anti-prostitution laws, just as laws criminalizing adultery in many states are no longer enforced. Koster also suggested that LGBT groups with power in Washington could work with anti-human trafficking groups to reform laws that tackle sex trafficking on paper while arming law enforcement with resources that are largely used for the same stings and raids that put consenting adults in jail but fail to address structural issues behind trafficking.
Laws criminalizing sex work could be removed with ballot initiatives, but the social stigma presents a challenge at the voting booth, even though sex between consenting adults does not become inherently more harmful or dangerous simply because money is changing hands.
The LGBT movement, however, knows a thing or two about combating stigma. Activists have been encouraging people to “come out” for years, and LGBT visibility has turned the tide against institutional homophobia in the United States. Those who supported basic marriage equality were in the minority only a decade ago, while they now occupy a significant majority.
“Coming out” is not always advantageous for all marginalized people and can sometimes pose a significant threat to their safety and survival. Some sex workers, especially those with legal jobs like working in the porn industry, can afford to be out and visible. For others, visibility brings the threat of violence, stigma and arrest, posing serious challenges to organizing and fighting for basic rights. Many sex worker advocates are also workers themselves and activists in their spare time. The sex worker movement has made tremendous progress in recent years but is still facing an uphill battle, and it can use all the support – and funding – that it can get.
Rentboy has given the mainstream LGBT movement the opportunity to come out about its relationship with sex workers, who have been an integral part of LGBT culture for as long as it has existed. Queer youth escaping troubled homes have long turned to sex work for a viable source of income, and many queers use sex work to make a significant amount of money quickly so they can have more time for activism and living a fulfilling life beyond the expectations of heteronormativity and capitalism.
After all, it was Black transgender women, drag queens and sex workers who sparked the Stonewall riots that gave birth to the modern gay rights movement. It’s time the mainstream gay rights movement started giving back.