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.
Does this mean that somehow, unlike every other sex work advertising service, Rentboy.com is simply free of use by sex traffickers? That it has the magic formula for preventing sex workers from being exploited?
What’s actually happening seems to be that the trafficking narrative is exclusively reserved for cis women. Male and/or trans women sex workers do not fit the heroic-erotic mold of the exploited (cis) woman in desperate need of rescue. Male sex workers and the largely male third parties who advertise their services are instead “running a racket,” a “global criminal enterprise,” according to the press release. They are positioned as having agency in their lives and thus are not in the pitiable condition of exploited cis women.
The Rentboy.com raid pulls the loose thread on the sweater of anti-trafficking rhetoric, unraveling its pseudo-feminist spin to reveal what many of us have always known: that it’s just sexism in new clothes. For if male sex workers can be capable of displaying what the police believe to be a criminal amount of agency, there is no rational reason that female sex workers in the same conditions cannot.
Still, the deplorable raid on Rentboy.com is a harsh blow to many thousands of male sex workers, trans and cis alike, who will be feeling the financial consequences for some time to come. Combined with the crackdowns on other similar advertisers, police seem intent on forcing sex workers to rely on so-called pimps or managers to book their clients – something police supposedly oppose. But without the ability to advertise sexual services, where are sex workers to go?