Home Cops What The Rentboy Raid Tells Us About The Gendered Rhetoric Of Trafficking

What The Rentboy Raid Tells Us About The Gendered Rhetoric Of Trafficking

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.

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?


  1. I can’t help but feel that the end goal here is to make things go so far underground that they can claim victory. Its telling that they are not interesting in actually finding missing kids, or people who are actually being exploited. Its also telling that, even I am smart enough to know, while having no idea how one would go about looking for the way in, or where in it to find such things, that if you can find paid assassins in the “dark nets”, you sure as heck are not going to be looking for women, girls, etc. **on the street**, or through public, and obvious, services like the one in this article. No.. the real criminals, the real victims, and the real scum, who buy those services, are already doing so “in the dark”, via encrypted, possibly peer to peer, for the transaction, not found on google, or even accessible through a normal browser, networks, who cater to things that make damn near the worst that happens to workers in the visible world seem common place. After all – such networks exist so that **no one** finds about about your shady deals, murders, thefts, slave trading, or anything else that is hidden behind its layers and layers of obscurity.

    Things like TOR, are the shallow end of this pool, and ironically, used most of the time for, at worst, petty crime, and more often than not, for legit, secrecy critical, communications. The stuff some of us *know* is out there, but even the NSA can’t manage to find…

    There is a saying, made often in certain discussions by my ex-cop father, to the effect that some precautions, and solutions exist only to keep “honest” crooks, or “stupid” ones out of place they are not supposed to be. The professionals, don’t even break a sweat getting around them. And, as with abstinence education, the drug war, and every other thing you can name, in a similar vein, ideology and “simple solutions” win out over reality, every time. Because, its more important to a) seem to be doing things, b) make big flashy scores, and c) convince the gullible, and voters (often, sadly, the same people) that you are winning, and admit you 1) already lost, or 2) have no F-ing clue what war you are actually fighting, who the enemy really is, no the slightest bloody idea how to even bruise them. Not, when the war is being run by zealots and politicians (again, often the same thing, in many cases), who may not even give a damn that they are wrong.


    I think…the issue is that Swanee Hunt and CATW don’t. really. care. about ending MSM sex work. I feel like the trafficking narrative is dictated by PRNewswire press releases by these orgs, which then subsequently dictate the AP/newswire story… That is not happening re. Rentboy.

    PS: Wait–stop the presses! Finally found one trafficking narrative article!!


  3. More evidence of anti-gay bias in the current administration == note this is a federal investigation. They gave us that grand institution of marriage, which barely works these days for heterosexuals, and have now moved in to dismantle hard-fought sexual identity freedoms, including companionship among consenting same-sex adults. Hell, they’re even banning nudity on Fire Island for the first time in 60 years — where the hell are we going, and who are we really harming? Better to teach children body shaming, judgment and intolerance — those are wonderful values, than to celebrate ourselves and our sexuality as a normal part of the human condition. Here’s a site that actually empowers individuals and cuts out criminal enterprise, and they shut it down. Makes you wonder who the Feds are really working for?

  4. Interesting read. There are other websites for this sort of business – prostitution in itself is the oldest form of employment – it will never really go away. However, I really enjoyed your point “that it’s just sexism in new clothes”. I have to agree.

  5. I really wonder why you seem to be lumping transwoman providers in with male providers? I am a female trans provider, and I had hardly heard of rentboy.com before this happened. My advertising has always been on Eros and RB, when it was around, as well as sites which cater to female providers (because, hello, I’m female). I have certainly never advertised with services designed for male providers, nor would I have ever imagined there would be a place for me there.

    • Hi Lauren!

      I’m the writer of the article (and also a trans woman SW). The only place where I put male (both cis and trans) and trans woman sex workers together was in that we are left out of the trafficking/victim narrative perpetuated by TERFs/SWERFs and law enforcement. Most of the reference to trans sex workers in the article is about trans men who do sex work and use Rentboy. Sorry for the confusion!

      While I do know a couple trans women who’ve used Rentboy, it’s definitely not where most trans women advertise. You’re totally right that we generally advertise where cis women do or specific trans woman-focused places like shemalecanada.

      Take care!

  6. There is probably little money in trafficking over age of consent men is why there was no mention, but the raid was all about who has an account on the servers, and little to do with “illegal” activity.

  7. I’m glad that you picked up on this unusual narrative in the press release – I noticed it, too. I think your argument for its existence bears a lot of merit, but my initial thought on the matter was quite different. I wonder if the two ideas might each share in their use of this pointed rhetoric. What I thought to myself was this:
    In a cis-hetero world female prostitution is taboo, but expected (arguably necessary). In order for law enforcement to raise the stakes enough to warrant prosecution of such cases they need to add a level of horror – sex trafficking – in which the women, as you rightly point out, are victims in an evil cog of the seedy underworld of sex.
    But to convince that same cis-hetero majority of the population that male-male prostitution doesn’t require that extra ingredient. It is it on its face its own level of horror worthy of prosecution. The (weak) sex trafficking argument can be left out.

    Rentboy Dom

  8. Human rights groups uncovered a rape ring in Afghanistan run by the powerful US contractor Dyncorp, serving the illicit wants of Afghan officials. Upon discovery, the New York Times euphemized the exploitation as “dancing boys.” They were simply asking for harmless company! Similar rings have been uncovered in Bosnia and Colombia. The clients of these horrible brothels were always local elites or international diplomats, or pornographers.

    Before WW2, psychologists, mostly German, had been working with fits and starts to liberate gay people as well as women. But after the US came out of World War 2 (with a handful of Nazi counter-democracy manuals), they instituted a disgusting, often sex-obsessed purge of the left-wing agitators in the ACLU and unions. By the 70’s, academics began researching bisexuality, shirking the old binaries, but it was too late. “Pimp” was already become a coveted status.

    Some of this is still used against us, for example the notion that Bradley Manning and Glenn Greenwald are monstrous freaks who love Putin. When buying sex is legal, will it keep Eliot Spitzer fighting the banks or will he step down in shame because the law won’t change cultural pressures? One of the few countries in the region where gays are allowed to march, Israel, holds the population of Palestine captive, many in prisons where they sexually abuse them. Afghanistan remains to this day under brutal patriarchy and occupation, the only progress being some girls are now in school. The Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan regularly criticize both the occupation and the Taliban. If you really believe elites are looking out for us, you might try searching the press for Amnesty International statements when they accuse the powerful of committing war crimes, rather than muse over a sensational sex topic. In fact, pundit and former prison guard Jeffrey Goldberg can bump elbows with Ta Nehsi Coates, one of the leading writers on race.

    It’s because the abuse is global that I don’t think having sex with rich people in my neighborhood is really a way the LGBT community is going to heal. I see it as being asked to turn my back on, and even encourage the continuing abuse of immigrants, women, and young men who face trauma and sometimes lethal diseases. And so it’s relevant where the fight over this is occurring. It seems a fight being taken mainly by educated whites in the West/ global North. When the famed philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte discovered that one of his countrymen, author Gustave Flaubert, had taken interest in young boys in Egypt, he attributed it to macho exaggeration! The powerful simply do not want to believe they can be abusers. If we can’t point out abusers, how can they be free? If they can’t be free, how can we?

    Rhetoric aside, the end-result being the powerful continue servicing their sexual desires with vulnerable bodies because 1) the vast majority of people depend on elites for support in the face of the increasing cost of college and daily life, which is caused by policies created by the same elites “workers” are servicing. and 2) the powerful delegate their own sexual urges onto an idol (“professionals” “workers”) who are contractually obligated to take responsibility for it. In other words, we are being used as a manufactured commodity to make excuses for sex, rather than helping accept their sexuality as something natural. This can only increase confusion when you add in the element of power. Whether they’re wealthy clients or millionaires who run a service on work that they aren’t doing, the powerful are *dying* to tell themselves stories about how they are liberating people. Occupied workers in Palestine are given space to defend their generous employers. Saudi Arabian women are told they are special and looked after,and so too “Rentboys” are given scholarships to college. GI’s were told the same thing. But the GI bill did not end abuse of traumatized veterans, although you likely won’t hear someone currently in the army say that.

    In conclusion, “sex work” is a way for the powerful to indulge themselves away from accountability, abuse their status, and does not contribute to LGBT liberation anymore than the recent Batman film does. Recent studies also show paying for elites to play-act their own dominance over us only encourages rape culture. In addition to a dollar, not through it, we should be fighting for recognition as human beings, continuing the proud tradition of pre-Nazi agitators before us who got us here, even if it can seem impossible.

    • If you want to come in here and start a conversation with sex workers, you shouldn’t invalidate what we do with quotation marks, portraying us as victims with no agency and disguising that sort of condescension with leftist rhetoric.

      • Funny. His name doesn’t appear to be “New York Times”. He stated that this was the “excuse” given for why the actions of the company was nothing special, and it was all harmless. I don’t doubt, given the sort of people running various operations in Afghanistan, and other places, which has included hired thugs, and murders, to “protect” companies (like Black Water), that exploitation was involved. But, the Times.. opted to simply say, “Nah.. Nothing wrong here. Just good old normal business.”

        In any case, I tend to agree with most of what he wrote. If they somehow “ended” sex work every place else, the rich would still be buying it. But, they would call it something else, or hide it, or pay people of, or just bang the servants, then poo poo each other, when every one of those servants got uppity and decided to speak out about what they where being asked to do, and what threats where made to them if they didn’t.

        There is, as I have said someplace else, a damn good reason why the new law was changed to “exclude” the requirement that coercion be used, for it to be an illegal act, and why sex work was **expressly** placed, dead center, of the legislation. Corporations, by their very nature, are “exploiters”. They cut hours, pay, benefits, and on, and on, then lobby to kill unions, or pass right the work laws, then tell you, “Do what we say, or, if you don’t like it, go to one of the 500 identical places, who will tell you the same thing, and make you possibly do worse, instead.” Because, they know damn well there **isn’t** anyone else, or not near enough to overcome their tactics.

        Trying to end “real” exploitation, across the board, in all industries… is a bit like GMO labeling. If you are completely dishonest, you label the “sex work” industry as exploiting, and quietly shuffle the rest under the rug, the same way as you label “single gene modification”, and “uniquely dangerous”. If you are honest, you have to hunt down damn near every company on the planet, for things they are coercing people to do for them, just as, an honest GMO label would leave you with, probably 5 pieces of fruit, and a single can of beans, as, “Never altered in any way by man, using any form of genetic modification.”

        The new law, and the focus on sex work, isn’t about stopping exploitation, its about distracting everyone from everyone else doing it, including the, inevitable, rich people, who will still be “buying” it, stabbing people in the back, and making, “deals you can’t afford to not accept”, when they want to, but calling it “giving gifts”, or “good business”, or who knows what else, when the last “sex worker” is caught trying to trade for a sandwich, under a bridge, from a card board box. They don’t want to save victims, they want, at best, to be seen as having tried to save them, while, at worst, despising the fact that they where “someone else’s” victim, first, or instead.

      • It’s exactly because I do see you as having agency that I’m appealing you to think about the way you and I and people around the world are looked at by the wealthy clients you are attending to. They crave fairy tales. That’s why I put “workers” in quotes. It’s because I want to indicate that the idea has become a toy played with by a handful of writers and elites, not because I don’t think sex workers do work.

  9. This raid, and these arrests are ridiculous. This is a huge blow to the safety of sex workers in America. With rentboy we had safety like a client review system. Rentboy ensured that we wouldn’t have to walk the streets to escort. I’ve been on rentboy since I was 19 Im about to turn 25 I don’t know how Im going to pay my bills.

    • I totally agree and I’m very sorry that you and others who have relied on rentboy are now faced with this situation.

      It’s too bad that rentboy chose not to join the ESPLERP (erotic service providers legal education and research project) Legal challenge as advertiser plaintiffs as they were invited to do. They would have had legal leverage to stave off this attack. It truly is unfortunate.

      It’s time to fight for decriminalization harder than ever! For more info go to http://decriminalizesexwork.com

      Right now we desperately need decrim as well as anti discrimination legislation.

      I hope you will be able to find/make a way and without compromising your safety. I’m so sorry. These are hard times for sex workers and until we establish decrim I’m afraid it’s just going to get worse, I’m afraid there is going to be more and more casualties of the war on prostitution and sexual freedoms (including reproductive rights) in general.




    • Ah, well.. Once we also throw out all the illegals, you can have one of those vast list of not even minimum wage jobs that the Rethuglicans say are being “taken away”. That will solve everything. Of course, a year later the economy will hit another artificial bubble, thanks to the same idiots, and you will have to fight Trump for a job picking beans in a field, but… it will all be a grand utopia. lol

      Seriously though.. This is the whole problem I have with this sort of politics. Not that its just stupid and wrong, in principle, to attack the industry at all, instead of working to fix thousands of years of, “These people are scum we need to either arrest, or otherwise put out of business!”, but that, to the moralizing imbeciles that come up with the “solutions” to the wrong problems – there is no interconnections, or unseen, never mind blatantly obvious, consequences. Well, at least to any one that **maters**.


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