Special Agent Susan Ruiz of the Department of Homeland Security has learned a lot on the job. She has, as stated under oath in a U.S. District Court complaint, "learned that a 'sling,' also known as a 'sex sling' is a device that allows two people to have sex while one is suspended." She also "learned that 'rimming' refers to the touching of the tongue to the anus." She knows the meaning of "twink." If you're wondering what this rudimentary sex slang has to do with maintaining security in the homeland, you may not be aware that the priorities of federal law enforcement are perturbingly out of whack.
In this instance, the priority was to bring down Rentboy.com—one of the oldest and largest escort websites on the Internet. On Tuesday, federal agents and New York police raided the Manhattan offices of the website, arresting six staff members (a seventh has been arrested out of New York state). They are charged with “conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution” and could each face five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. If they are found guilty, it will be for a crime that should be absolutely no crime at all. The decriminalization of sex work can't happen fast enough.
The Rentboy raid was a witch-hunt targeting a marginalized workforce, which puts thousands of livelihoods at risk. It's not clear, though, why the government has gone after the site now—Rentboy has been running the same business model with the same claim to legal legitimacy for two decades. Escorts pay monthly fees to the site to host their ads, in which they list their physical attributes and sexual preferences and the price of their time. This is all important: Rentboy insists that its services are legal because the escorts are charging clients for time and company through the site; whatever sexual services are agreed upon are not under the purview of the site. The government alleges that this is a thin pretext for promoting prostitution. And this is indeed a case about pretexts.
Take, for example, the little known federal interstate business law, the Travel Act, which was used as pretext to involve the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to expand the reach of New York's prostitution laws and thoroughly crush Rentboy. The 1961 statute made it a federal crime to travel internationally or across state lines to carry out illegal business, and is now applicable to internet companies with interstate, international reach. It's not used very often, but dusting it off justified bringing federal authorities into the Rentboy case. This points to more than prosecutorial diligence; it looks like a campaign.
Of course, the targeting of sex workers by law enforcement is nothing new. But as a few commentators have noticed, the rhetoric surrounding this particular moral crusade is different in tone to the attacks on sex work involving women. Amnesty International's call this month to decriminalize all forms of adult, consensual sex work highlights the ways criminalization threatens the livelihood, autonomy, safety and rights of sex workers. Whereas female sex workers are perennially framed as necessarily victims, trafficked or damaged, the complaints against Rentboy paint a picture of seedy criminals. The arrestees are described as running a multimillion dollar "racket" and a "global criminal enterprise." As Jamie Peck pointed out for Death and Taxes, "when men trade sex for money, it’s a matter of mere criminality and tax evasion, not a 'you need to be rescued' situation."
Recognizing this double standard highlights the shaky logic on which sex work criminalization rests. The justification for it shifts and contradicts itself: either sex workers are incapable of being autonomous, consenting agents (as in the argument for shutting down Backpage.com), or, as in the Rentboy case, sex workers are so agential that they're cunningly criminal. Any argument will do in the moralistic assault on sex work.
And the authorities certainly threw ample resources and time into the Rentboy case. DHS even sent an agent undercover to the the Hookies—an annual event to celebrate gay male performers and escorts, hosted by Rentboy. It so happens that I was at that very event, accompanying my friend Stoya, a celebrated porn star who was presenting an award. By our lights, it was a whiskey-soaked, welcoming affair, teeming with attractive men in their finest leathers, to whom our sexual capital was worth nought. The event took place in a midtown Manhattan hotel; this was no secretive affair. The very idea of a federal agent going undercover and infiltrating it is laughable.
The entire criminal complaint smacks of a similar ineptitude regarding gay sex work culture, from the fumbling grasp of idioms, to the downright senseless descriptions of the site and its service. Kelly T. Currie, acting
U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of New York, released a statement calling Rentboy an "internet brothel." As Melissa Gira Grant, author of "Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work" noted, "It is not possible to conduct prostitution on the internet; there's no such thing as an 'internet brothel.'" Currie's ill-chosen phrase reflects the heavy-handed, sensationalized tone of the entire case.
But were reasonable thought underpinning law enforcement's approach to sex work, it would have been decriminalized long ago. Alas, the very meaning of moralism—conviction beyond rational intervention.