Okay, so perhaps it isn’t quite so surprising that in the days following the mandated legalization of gay marriage that there might be some pushback against any freer expression of sexuality in our society. Indeed, in the States we seem so hellbent on denying that a little physical affection is so necessary to our well-being individually and societally to the point of actually demonizing those needs that those who refuse to utilize those resources available to them hence feel they have to refuse that right to everyone else. Misery does indeed love company! Thus we have laws which regulate our morality instead of protecting us from criminal activity, and morality is subjective. How long did we labor under legal constraints that precluded any sort of non-missionary non-heteronormative sex or even social engagement? How long was it legally codified in our country that folk of African descent were less citizens than those of European descent? As it has come to be understood that these laws were injurious to one demographic and did nothing to protect any other, they have been overturned. And there have been objections from “moralists” to these changes every step of that way.
It is not enough to call something criminal simply because there is a law against it. If that law exists, it is in place (or should be) to protect someone, perhaps many of us, from becoming a victim. Rape laws are in place to prevent unwanted sexual intercourse. Theft laws are in place to prevent people from taking our personal property. Laws outlawing murder are there to deter folk from taking away our lives. In all these instances, there is a victim in the crime, someone who loses something, life, property, dignity. Anyone wishing to deprive us of these basic rights is indeed a criminal, and their capture and punishment should be the aim and objective of the criminal justice system.
Who exactly is the victim of escorting? Is it the escort, who has entered into the arrangement of his (or her) own will and on his terms? Has he been somehow forced into the seraglio, indentured as a sex slave? Or is he an entrepreneur, who identifies a resource he has, and has entered into a business venture to share this resource with a public who has something to offer in return? Is the victim the client, who understands the nature and terms of the transaction before he signs on? Is he somehow being deprived of his money in exchange for something of no value to him? Or is he perhaps a person desiring some company, perhaps some physical affection, and somehow lacks or hasn’t the time to pursue the normal societally-accepted means of coming by that? Or is the victim society in general? Does escorting bear some corollary criminal behavior the same way the inner-city drug trade is closely allied with organized crime and gang warfare? Does providing individuals with company, and if company is of an intimate nature then providing that behind closed doors, somehow corrupt the morals of future generations any more than any other societal norm we exhibit?
Prostitution laws were enacted to protect what was viewed by the upper ends of society as a weak, victimizible class, specifically women of poor means. The idea was that women were being forced into prostitution by unscrupulous men for the man’s profit, and hence these women needed protection. Never was there any acknowledgement that perhaps this was the woman’s only means of survival in a world where men refused to give women the same rights to education, to run a business, to start a household. Nowadays we have more specific laws to protect such classes of folk: we call this human trafficking, and this is a vile and horrid practice, with lots of victims of the sorts described before. Prostitution in the meantime, having spent so much time lumped into society’s understanding of what we’ve come to call human trafficking, has only seen confirmed the veneer slapped over it by society that anyone who would sell their sex and companionship must be morally corrupt. Folks who are sexworkers are constantly called whores and leeches; people accuse them of being too lazy to hold a “real” job, and too dishonest to declare their income to the IRS; they are told they are disease-ridden like vermin. It is possible that examples of any of those can be cited, but I’d challenge anyone to produce evidence that the gross generalization proves true.
Similarly, it’s not the clients hiring these escorts who are victimized. Escorts do not show up, take the cash, and just leave; these men were approached for something the client in fact needed, be that amatory or just companionable. And judging by the number of men who have returned to hire an escort again, often the same escort, it’s certain that in fact it works for them. Many buddies of mine who escort will say that, not unlike being a bartender, there’s far more therapy involved in many meetings than anything else, even whether sex happens or not. Most clients simply need some physical affection, someone to listen to them talk, someone who will reassure him, despite not having someone in their life who will hug them, curl up with them, listen to their problems, or give them someone to go with to do things he enjoys, that he is still loveable. Escorts do exactly this. To suggest that this carries less meaning because they are paid for it is to also suggest that the comfort therapists provide is suspect because they charge, or that a doctor’s Hippocratic oath is rendered violate once he accepts payment, for instance. Where do we draw the line?
Reading through the accusations in the complaint, not once is there any mention of any nonconsensual practice. No instance is brought forth of a single human being being harmed, even tangentially, by letting men pay for sex with other men. Contrast this with the often exaggerated claims of trafficking and human slavery that are used to justify cracking down on heterosexual prostitutes, treating willing female sex workers as default victims: this complaint doesn’t even bother with such niceties. The complaint’s objects are portrayed just as sickening depraved faggots violating New York’s prostitution laws, and the only apparent reason the Department of Homeland Security needs to get involved is because it involves interstate commerce. I mean, really; that men have sex with each other and instead of one buying dinner for the other that there happens to be an exchange of cash is somehow a threat to our American borders and freedoms?
Rentboy.com has been in business for a whopping eighteen years. They have always protected their interests by insisting that all transactions are for the escort’s time, never for the services involved. What happens in that time is something determined between consenting adults. Indeed, perhaps sex is expected, perhaps sexual qualifications are included in the advertisement, but the pay has never been for sex. Rentboy has hardly operated under a veil of secrecy in that time; indeed, beyond offering the company of men they have also been quite visible in their advocacy for sex workers. They have been public advocates for sexual health and mental well-being, not only of their advertisers but also for the gay community at large. They have supported education programs, notably the separate nonprofit HookOnline, founded and run by sexworker advocate Hawk Kinkaid, and offering classes and podcasts to help improve safety and social image for escorts without judgement and without overtones of “we’re here to rescue you.” Rentboy has offered events celebrating our gay culture, dance parties under the HustlaBall aegis and the Hookie Awards. And recognizing the sheer number of young men in their ranks who are using this means as a way to subsidize an education, they just started a scholarship program (happily still taking applications). Why exactly are they being targeted now?
Follow the money, is the answer. Rentboy has grossed well over $10 million; if the prosecuting bodies can make three citations stick and invoke RICO laws, those assets are deemed forfeit, and are divided up between these bodies. Nice little money grab, no? Some are suggesting that this is the principal reason the Department of Homeland Security is involved, and I agree that I think it unlikely that the Rentboy records are going to reveal the name and address of the next Paris train gunman. The other clue may be in the unsubstantiated mention of money laundering in the complaint, and the only thing documented therein which might possibly fall under this heading is a single mention in item 58 of a line item expense in Rentboy’s records, a line item that says “Sean — Viagra”. On one level, that might be an attempt to confirm that Rentboy was in the business of sex, not of companionship, but I wonder if someone didn’t see that as a use of corporate funds for non-corporate use. It’s tiny, but if the authorities only after 18 years of legal hunting finally found this one little crack to wedge their crowbar into, the timing of the raid might make sense. It would explain the multitude of national and state organizations involved in the raid, as the only true legal justification they had was financial malfeasance and potential money laundering, and thence they’re just praying they find the proof they need in the seized records and data from the Rentboy offices to make the rest of the accusations stick.
Even we in the gay community who live on the better side of the tracks tend to forget that lots of us come from far more difficult circumstances. There’s a host of LGBT youth with no welcoming homes and families to return to and no resource for education or social improvement. Studying at the university level requires funding beyond the means of most student-age men; for those with parents lacking or unwilling to help with these expenses, how is such an education to be acquired? The sort of legitimate jobs available to such students don’t begin to cover the expense unless they take up all the student’s time. I find myself wishing I’d had this as a financial resource in my own college days: I would have saved myself and my parents a lot of financial embarrassment. Further, the history of sex work is inextricably tied in with both the feminist movements and gay struggles for equality; to turn against these escorts is to turn our backs on a public that has been our support for decades, if not longer.
There are some great minds weighing in on this. Read columns by feminist Yasmin Nair, one by gay sex-positive columnist and advocate Dan Savage. Florida attorney and South Florida Gay News editor Norm Kent posted a scathing critique published by Str8upGayPorn. Scott Shackelford wrote a really smart column for Reason.com, some of which I’ve drawn on in writing this post. He makes this statement, which I want to quote:
The larger gay community and gay leaders need to jump on this and get loud, fast. We’ve been fighting for the right to define our relationships as we choose, not allowing the government to decide what is legitimate. Marriage recognition is just part of that fight. We are not free as long as the government is dictating the terms of our sexual interactions. I expect to see outrage from every major gay and lesbian organization at the callous disregard shown toward those men who seek to sexually connect on their own terms.
Addendum of Sept. 1, with a few more awesome things written or that I’ve found since writing this post:
An anonymous writer contributed this smart narrative to The Guardian.
The New York Times published an editorial looking total askance at the Rentboy raid.
There’s this awesome argument for the legalization of prostitution by German Lopez.
And for those who don’t like to read (why would you be here, reading my logorrheic prose, though, I’d wonder), there are these two amazing videos.
One by Matt Baume again:
And one produced by Jake Jaxson of Cockyboys, featuring an powerful narrative by Rob Yeager, well known to the porn, sexwork, and BDSM worlds. This video was originally posted to YouTube, but was reported for inappropriate content and was taken down.
And can I say… My day was made yesterday evening when it was brought to my attention that this very blog post was cited by no less than Dan Savage. I’m just floored.
What’s my own personal involvement in this? Of the seven men arrested, three have been close friends for years, one (Hawk) nigh a brother to me. One cannot work in porn and not know dozens, possibly hundreds of colleagues, friends and folk one cares about who have been or currently are escorts. These men have done nothing to hurt anyone, are merely capitalizing on one of their own personal assets, and have just found their income slashed.
And me, I’ve escorted, and make no secret of it. After years of a successful career in music working at the top of the field in New York City, the economic “wisdom” of a bunch of greedy bank owners toppled the economy. Want to catalog victims? Folks lost their savings and their homes. Businesses tightened their belts, and cut back on philanthropic outreach. Arts organizations, long dependent on corporate sponsorship, withered and died. My work went from more than I knew what to do with to nil. And as a quarter of the rest of the workforce was suddenly finding themselves jobless too, I found myself confronted with competition from people with MBA’s and law degrees for mere Starbucks posts and bartending gigs, let alone career-track jobs. In the succeeding two years I went from living comfortably though not luxuriously on the Upper West Side of New York City, having savings, and being able to travel a little bit, to being sorely in debt, under investigation by the IRS over the complexity of my many years of tax returns, and unable to find an apartment I was able to afford to move into when my lease ran out. Just in case it has never entered your thoughts as to how such things transpire, this is how homeless people are made. At the risk of sounding like the stereotype of someone forced into prostitution through desperation, it was putting an ad on Rentboy that saved me, at least making it possible to move to cheaper living conditions in Chicago for a few years. It has in a few tight moments since kept me in rent. It has in a number of ways made possible my slow but steady return to my music career in these succeeding years. Without it, I think it quite likely I would have been forced into being one of those poor grubby smelly folk on the New York City subway, begging for change, and enduring the turned-up noses of all those folk who are already turning their judgemental noses up at the fact that I’ve been a whore. Truth be told I would never have let it come to that; of the options available to me, I’d have chosen a tombstone instead.
Hence the real victims are the guys who are legitimately offering a business arrangement on this website. Thanks to a society that demonizes sex, they find their job made substantially more difficult, and possibly more dangerous. It is the world’s oldest profession, so closing Rentboy.com won’t stomp it out of existence; it will resurge again. But if we let this go by unchallenged, we know that they will inch that moralistic line back further. How long until we find some personal freedom you and I value has slipped over that line? If they are willing to push back, we also need to be.