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Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized in America

The Rentboy raid exposes the government’s misplaced priorities on prostitution


Making sense of why federal authorities shut down the gay-escort website on Tuesday has proven a difficult task, judging from the reactions in the media and from several activist organizations. That the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Office of Homeland Security, was at the forefront of the investigation, arresting the company’s chief executives and several employees on charges of criminal prostitution, is not helping matters any—it's hard to imagine how male escorts could be a priority for OHS, given the state of world affairs. And, more baffling: The raid comes two weeks after Amnesty International's landmark vote in favor of the full decriminalization of sex work and prostitution on the grounds that these laws violate the human rights of the workers. 

LGBT rights organizations are justifiably furious. In a statement, the National LGBTQ Task Force said “it's time for our federal justice system to get its priorities straight and it’s time once and for all to decriminalize sex work.” The Transgender Law Center went even further: “With this raid, the U.S. federal government is not only jeopardizing countless people’s lives and only source of livelihood,” they write, “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 media tended to condemn the government’s actions: For one, Rentboy has run openly since 1996, hosting parties (in the U.S. and internationally) and participating in Pride parades; it is the founder of the International Escort Awards, known in the industry as the Hookies. By charging the escorts nothing more than a fee to advertise on the site, Rentboy could hardly be seen as exploitative of its workers—as Graeme Reid noted at Human Rights Watch, the site itself operates more like Uber or Airbnb. The men who advertised on the site set all the rules: their rates, hours and boundaries. And is a site that sets up a scholarship fund to help its workers go back to school really the best target for this kind of prosecution?

The essence of the outrage: If federal prosecutors were really interested in demonstrating they were cracking down on sex trafficking and exploitation, why did they choose Rentboy to send the message? The escorts advertising on Rentboy were certainly not being coerced into the sex trade. They weren’t being abused or exploited by traffickers. The Feds must have known this, since neither exploitation nor sex trafficking are mentioned as concerns in the criminal complaint.

By targeting Rentboy, the Feds give the impression that what matters aren’t those workers who most need protection, but rather the organizations that most obviously flout the law. If anything, the charges against Rentboy have brought the case for the decriminalization of sex work to the forefront. Any smart prosecutor will tell you that choosing the least objectionable defendant to prosecute is probably not the best way to win a case. Instead of reinforcing the need for prosecuting prostitution, the raid has inspired many people to question the common sense of our laws criminalizing sex work. Not only is there little evidence that criminalization has reduced the incidence of prostitution—it's not called the “world's oldest profession” for nothing—but there is also little evidence that criminalization benefits the workers who are ostensibly being exploited by the trade. Isn't a trafficked or otherwise exploited person  far less likely to seek help if he fears he might face jail time? Perhaps that is why several European countries (along with others around the world) have opted to legalize and regulate sex work. Even some feminists are speaking out against sex-work criminalization. (In an article for Reason magazine, Melissa Gira Grant makes a strong case for why criminalizing sex work isn’t working.)

In many places around the world, sex trafficking and exploitation are grave concerns, and as Amnesty made clear in their explanation of their decision, so are the problems this marginalized community faces because of the criminalization of their labor. The Rentboy raid only distracts from these real concerns. It would have been far more productive for the government to have focused on a more vulnerable group—say, the numerous transgender women of color who resort to prostitution and who are repeatedly subjected to violence.

It’s unwise to lump all of these categories of sex workers together: We should be able to vehemently protest and decry the plight of poor women forced into the sex trade as a means of survival, while still defending the rights of the men—and women—in the United States who advertise their services on escort sites as a means of supplementing their income. Claiming that all women who engage in sex work are victims is at best, patronizing, and worse, anti-feminist, in that it assumes women don't know how to choose what to do with their bodies.

Likely the Feds expected, with the generous use of “shockingly” graphic sexual terms in their criminal complaint, to inspire outrage and indignation at the nature of what Rentboy was peddling. Instead, the language choices seem pollyannish and reactionary, a poor read of our cultural moment. Nowadays, Americans are far more likely to get worked up about the poor use of federal workers' resources and money than by mentions of cock sizes, golden showers, and rimming.