Tuesday morning, Homeland Security and Brooklyn police raided the offices of Rentboy.com, arresting its CEO and several current and former workers, seizing six bank accounts, and freezing the website in what the U.S. Department of Justice’s press release bragged was a raid on the “largest online male escort service.”
Coming right on the heels of Amnesty International’s controversial and much talked about decriminalization policy, the raid was a shock to many in the sex work world. Law enforcement agencies appear to be turning their eyes on sex work advertising services in North America, from the crackdowns on Backpage and Redbook, to Canada’s new anti-sex work law—the Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act—which includes provisions banning the advertisement of sexual services.
According to the release, it took a crack team of detectives and the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Field Office to work out that despite Rentboy.com’s claim that the site only facilitated companionship, it was actually advertising sex. “As alleged, Rentboy.com profited from the promotion of prostitution despite their claim that their advertisements were not for sexual services,” said New York Police Commissioner Wiliam Bratton in the press release.
Reading the press release, I was immediately struck by its use of rhetoric. Unlike official statements around the crackdowns on Backpage and similar services that are known primarily for advertising cis women sex workers, no mention is made of Rentboy aiding the nefarious work of sex traffickers. As well, unlike in most sex work raids, no mention is made of anti-trafficking organizations reaching out to supposed “victims.” It is a loud and curious omission given that police find it impossible to talk about sex work at all these days without discussing trafficking.
This week, after an informal request from a law enforcement officer, Visa and MasterCard announced that they would no longer let their cards be used to process payments to Backpage.com, the most widely used site for adult advertising in the United States. American Express had already pulled out earlier in the year. This leaves Bitcoin and prepaid Vanilla Visa gift cards as the only ways to pay for advertising on the site.
Like many ostensible anti-trafficking efforts, this will do very little to actually affect human trafficking. It will, however, impact free speech, and serve to make many sex workers’ lives more difficult.
In the face of increasing media interest and consistent pressure from sex worker activists, A&E has deleted the website for 8 Minutes from its site and pulled the next episode, which was scheduled to air this Thursday night. Tits and Sass left a message with the show’s publicist (and even spelled out the name of this blog), so if they choose to reply we will update this post. (Edit: the website has re-appeared sans video.)
On Sunday, reporter and sex worker activist Alana Massey spoke to On The Media about the A&E docudrama in which cop-turned-pastor Kevin Brown tries to convince sex workers to leave the business by offering them help getting out. The show is pure artifice. Supposedly, Brown poses as a client, calls workers to make an appointment, and then once they are in the room (outfitted with hidden cameras, Brown wearing a clumsy earpiece to communicate with his “team”), he has 8 minutes to make his case. In reality, the show was scripted, and producers identified themselves to workers to explain the setup and offer them compensation at filming. The premise was as much a sham as the offer of help, which took the form of phone numbers for counseling centers and hotlines rather than housing and job assistance.
Before the show’s premiere, Massey wrote about the show for the New Republic. “Any attempt to coerce them out of sex work in the absence of viable work alternatives is an invitation to starve.” In her On The Media appearance, she said that everything that sex workers had been saying about the show had proved true: Not only did it further an unhelpful and sensational narrative that all sex workers were victims, it failed to actually come through with meaningful help for those who wanted to leave the business and possibly put them at higher risk of arrest.
Amanda Brooks is the acclaimed author ofThe Internet Escort’s Handbookseries, the first one of which she published in 2006. They served as an important resource for escorts advertising online back when there were few other how-to sources on the topic. She was also one of the earliest escort bloggers starting in 2005, writing entries brimming with eloquence and common sense atAfter Hours.
The two fell off the map recently.
When they returned, we were shocked to read Brooks’ blog post about what they’d endured: a campaign of terror by one of Brooks’ clients, affluent lawyer Percy LaWayne Isgitt. Isgitt—Brenneman and Brooks call him “Pig”—caused both Brenneman and Brooks severe brain injuries when his arrogance and negligence piloting a plane the three of them were in led to a catastrophic “hard landing.” Despite the fact that Brooks was clearly incapacitated and near death, Brenneman had to browbeat Pig into taking her to the hospital the next day. Once Brooks was checked in, Pig fraudulently signed in as her relative and attempted to control her treatment. Despite her still severely injured state, Brooks continued to see Pig as a client for two sessions after her hospitalization, in desperate need of money to pay for medical bills. When she finally tried to break ties with him, he hired people to make threatening phone calls to both women. In response, Brooks went into hiding, so Pig sent men to stalk, rape, and beat Brenneman on a number of occasions, trying to discover Brooks’ location. Neither the police, nor the many medical facilities that misdiagnosed them along the way, nor the personal injury lawyer they hired were any help to the two women against a deranged, abusive man with wealth and social capital.
The injuries Brenneman suffered from the plane crash combined with the injuries she sustained from the attacks led to the fatal exacerbation of her previous medical conditions. Her doctors have told her she has very little time left to live.
This story illustrates the insidious way institutions empower abusers to commit violence against sex workers. The only people they can often rely on in these situations are other sex workers. You can read the original account here and donate to their Giftrocket account using this email address: email@example.com. Donations will be shared equally between them to cover their respective medical costs.
Amanda, you write in your blog post, in reference to Jill’s past abuse:
To those who doubt, her stories are true. They’re things only men would think up and most of the time, it’s the mundane details that stand out the most to both of us. I’ve read stories from so-called trafficking victims who describe ridiculous “Satanic” rituals or elaborate set-ups. The truth is, the men who were Bruce’s [Jill’s captor’s] clients weren’t very bright, in my opinion, and they had a lot of the same stupid fantasies and beliefs that most vanilla clients do—only much darker and violent.
This factor plays into your story of how Pig hurt you both, too. There’s a voyeuristic undertone to the way people listen to stories of abuse. People expect the “elaborate set-ups,” and yet abuse is usually no different than other misbehavior in kind, if not in degree—abusers do it because they want to feel big, or because they care about themselves a lot more than they care about anyone else. How do you think the fact that often stories of abuse are mundane and banal makes it harder for victims to get help?
Jill Brenneman: People don’t want to believe the mundane stories, they want to believe the exotic stories. Like a wife who gets hit. Unless she’s put in the hospital, no one cares. Or she returns home because she has children. But the trafficking victim imported from Estonia gets all the attention.
Amanda Brooks: Because they’re too believable or not dramatic enough. [Pig] raped me twice, yet it’s not something most people acknowledge as rape. It even took me a while to realize that it was rape, despite how I felt about it. People like to parse situations down to the point where the only way it’s “real” is if it’s outlandish.
Jill, you were held captive by a sadist for three years in your teens, and forced to endure unimaginable abuse. As an adult you returned to sex work voluntarily to make a living, and then you went through this ordeal with Amanda at Pig’s hands. What unusual problems have you faced as a sex working abuse survivor? What can we do as a movement to make things better for the abuse survivors among us?
Jill: The ordeal that Amanda went through made me livid and still does.
Working as an abuse survivor led me to more abuse. I learned from [my captor and abuser] Bruce in the 80’s. Bruce was a cliche master sadist. There was never a sense of love or affection between him and I. I was an object. I did what I was was told. I was taught how to relate to clients. I overapplied this training as an adult. I willingly went back to work as a professional submissive. This was a place that I did not belong. Despite there being a 19 year gap between [my captivity and going back to] sex work, I did not belong in sex work —especially as a professional submissive. I needed the money to pay for very expensive subcutaneous blood thinners because of a clotting disorder. I needed to pay the rent, the car payment, food, care for the dog, etc. I took the work that came. I started off with two old pictures of myself, no website, no reviews, and took some pro-sub clients to make money when it was tight. I did not belong in sex work. I was still far too impacted from previous abuse to be doing it but I had no choice, I needed the money.
The most important thing the movement needs to do is work on decriminalization so that we have options.
Amanda: The movement truly doesn’t have the power to deal with this, unfortunately. Until the laws are changed, we never will.
“Women who sell their bodies” used to be the go-to word combination that triggered my gag reflex right into action. But “hooker-rescuing cop-turned-pastor” was introduced to my life this week and has transformed my once-tranquil apartment into Lane Champagne’s Extreme Vomitorium. The man with this heinous career trajectory is Kevin Brown and he’s starring in a new reality show tentatively titled 8 Minutes after its premise: He has eight minutes to convince sex workers to leave behind their whoring ways. Those who leave sex work are given free training in the second career of their choice and those who decline are sent on their merry way with Brown’s best wishes for a good earning season. HAHA, just kidding, none of that last sentence is true because whorephobia is pernicious and Earth has actually been Hell along!
Of all the professions to produce potential sex work interventionists, law enforcement and clergy are at the very top of the Unsuitable list. Behind those two are literally every single other profession, because sex work interventions are vile exercises in the hatred and shaming of sex working individuals and shouldn’t exist. And it certainly shouldn’t exist as a spectacle on cable television. There is a Change.org petition to get A&E to shut that shit down, you should sign it. Let’s also take out a Backpage ad in every possible city warning local sex workers to be prepared for lurking reality show cameras.
Producer Tom Forman (the man behind the legally and ethically challenged Kid Nation) told Entertainment Weekly that the show was inspired by an LA Times article about Brown’s rescue missions. That story opens with another cop-turned-resucuer showing up to a woman’s outcall and doing this:
Reese reaches into the pocket of his tan cargo shorts and pulls out a latex condom. There’s a phone number scribbled on one side in black marker. He hands it to her.
He asks if she sees the phone number.
She examines the packet but ignores the question. She presses him for the money.
“I’m not really here for a date,” Reese says. “I’m here to offer you help.”
They rescue this one woman (on the night the reporter is along!), despite having been on 60 previous missions without anyone taking up their offer. She didn’t get career training; she got a one-way ticket home on a Greyhound. And lo, from this massive service to women a reality show was born, one with a 50/50 success rate according to Forman, who also told EW “Sometimes they turn and leave, but that’s the case when trying to save prostitutes.”
Leaving aside the fact that Brown is sentient diarrhea more than he’s an actual person, I’ve broken down the reasons the very concept of the show is a bad idea for two primary types of sex worker that Brown targets: people who don’t want to leave sex work and people who do.