rentboy

Velvet Collar is a comic book series written and produced by worker Bryan Knight and drawn by queer comic artist Dave Davenport. It depicts the lives of five male sex workers. In the course of the series’ narrative, an escort listing service is shut down by the feds—a thinly-veiled representation of the Rentboy raid and subsequent prosecutions.

Dale Corvino, who as Ask Dominick was Rentboy’s advice blogger, interviewed the creators of the comic series for Tits and Sass. He spoke with Knight in person in New York, while corresponding with Davenport, who is based in Los Angeles. Corvino is now a board member of the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP). The org’s 2014 documentary Red Umbrella Diaries was generously supported by Rentboy’s founder, Jeffrey Hurant. RedUP will be coordinating with SWOP Behind Bars to provide support for Jeffrey while he serves his sentence related to the Rentboy prosecution. Of this effort, RedUP Program Director Lola Garcia says, “While workers are our primary concern, nobody deserves to be jailed for involvement in the sex trade, provided they are not coercing sex workers (i.e. sex traffickers).”

The interview that follows has been edited for length from Corvino’s emails with Davenport and a transcription of Corvino’s conversation with Knight.

Dale Corvino: The Velvet Collar Kickstarter discusses representation of sex workers in alternative comics. Chester Brown is probably the most prominent creator who mines the topic, but he is admittedly writing from the trick’s perspective. Other depictions often feature characters with limited agency, as you point out. (Though there are a few inspiring exceptions to this rule.) In the queer comic space, sexuality is often depicted; sex work rarely. Does the project of depicting workers as fully realized protagonists in the comic space challenge both the comic genre and the queer comic sub-genre?

Dave Davenport: Definitely. But I’ve known sex workers at all points of my life, a good deal of my friends have been so at one time or another, and I may have had to hustle to make the rent at one point in my life. It’s a part of life, it always has been, and always will be. It needs to be a part of comics as well.

Bryan Knight: First, I’m telling stories about real people who have done or are doing illegal things…and whatever ethics we may have about it, there’s that first fundamental block. The practice has a long stigma and people are going to reflexively flinch. Second thing, there’s sex. There’s graphic sex. I made the choice not to censor that part of their lives because it happens. Not only in the transactional sense, but as a part of their private lives…it’s about as real an experience as I could fully capture.

As for queer comics…in early queer comics, we didn’t worry about mainstream acceptance, we made it for our friends. We weren’t concerned about sales or reputation because we were already fucked!

Right now gays are in the mainstream, we have marriage, and part of that strategy has been desexualizing everything we are so this particular comic pushes us back into that realm where sex and identity are intertwined…the narratives of acceptance have been, “We’re just like you!” but the truth is, we’re not…a lot of naked truths get exposed and that’s what I plan to bring to the comic genre.

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The cast of Red Umbrella Diaries, used with permission.

The cast of “The Red Umbrella Diaries”. (Courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Week in Links has been on hiatus. It’s come back to you in a new form: Month in links! This is gonna be good, you’ll see.

In the meantime, momentous things have happened!

In August, despite protest from such well-educated and experienced sex workers and sex work researchers as Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, and Meryl Streep, Amnesty International voted to develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of sex work.  The move is based on international agreement among public health, HIV, and human rights organizations, from the WHO to the Lancet, UNAIDS, and beyond, but still faces opposition from the prohibitionist moral police.  Despite a year of highly visible police brutality and murders and protests against this brutality in the United States, prohibitionists continue to advocate for End Demand and other versions of criminalization that increase law enforcement power over sex workers.

Which is both very funny and very sad, because stories like this one, about police entrapping and raping sex workers, are only slightly less common in the news than stories of another police murder, and probably happen unreported with even greater regularity.

In the wake of the Amnesty vote, DC is contemplating decrim, Seattle is still pushing hard for End Demand (and Seattle SWOP is pushing back, here’s our own Maggie McMuffin talking about it); internationally organizations in South Africa are pushing for decriminalization as well, as are public health groups in Zimbabwe, while Vietnam officials say they need red light districts.

While the Amnesty vote encouraged LAMBDA legal to finally come out in support of decrim, gay male sex workers took a hit the very next week as the Feds and Homeland Security raided Rentboy.com. Unlike virtually every other raid on an escort site ever, this one was met with outrage and media commentary in support of Rentboy. With overblown commentary like “Is Rentboy the new Stonewall?” (Katherine Koster and Derek J Demeri speak for a lot of us when they respond with an emphatic “no) the history of raids on women escort sites and sex worker protests of that phenomenon was erased. Men, you know, have sexual agency and are able to decide what’s best for themselves, even as sex workers, while women’s sexual agency and ability to self determine must always be in doubt.  Did HuffPo post videos of sex workers affected by the seizure of MyRedbook?

So LAMBDA, what’s good? Will LGBT organizations support all sex workers, or just gay male ones? Where’s your support for Amber Batts, a woman who served essentially the same function as Rentboy for some Alaskan sex workers, and was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for “trafficking”? Lily Burana has some opinions on the disparity in coverage, and she’s not alone.

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A recent Renboy.com screenshot, before the raid.

A recent Rentboy.com screenshot, before the raid.

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.

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Chris Myers, mayor of Medford, N.J., and the latest GOP-er to get caught up in a Rentboy scandal, claims he “doesn’t know” if the photos of him in his underwear (posted online by the Rentboy himself) are real or not.

SWOP is seeking new board members—spread the word!

As a new SWOP chapter is opening in St. Louis, a local LGBT publication urges their community to be tolerant toward sex workers.

Former N’Sync member Lance Bass is producing a Broadway play about an escort agency, potentially starring Kirstie Alley as a pimp. [READ MORE]

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