Apparently raiding and shutting down a popular male escort service ranks among the priorities of the Department of Homeland Security in its fight for “a safer, more secure America, which is resilient against terrorism and other potential threats.”
It is difficult to fathom how arresting the staff members of and seizing records from Rentboy.com, a website that advertised the services of male escorts, including many transmen, helps make America more safe or secure. What we do know is that criminalizing sex work and shutting down services like Rentboy.com make the LGBT community less safe.
Whether because LGBT people — particularly those of color, transgender women, and youth — face job discrimination, family rejection, homelessness, and criminalization or because our bodies and desires are at once demonized and exoticized, our community has long-turned to the sex industry for critical means of support and survival. Data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, for example, has shown that transgender people engage in sex work at a rate at least 10 times that of cisgender women, and at least 13 percent of transgender people who experience family rejection have done sex work at some point in their lives.
When your body is a site for harassment, your health care is withheld, your ability to walk down the street is criminalized, your identity is called a “social experiment” but you still dare to survive, the sex industry can offer not only an avenue for survival but also for affirmation. And for those who are able to utilize online platforms to meet clients, these platforms provide a safer alternative to street-based work where there is less time to negotiate safety needs and higher risk of violence from both clients and law enforcement.
So when a platform like Rentboy.com is shut down, it not only cuts off a singular source of income and stability for many people in our community, it also takes away vital safety mechanisms for screening clients, sharing information, and controlling one’s labor that individuals rely on to work safely in the sex industry.
As our colleagues from Lambda Legal and the National Center for Transgender Equality explain, “No one’s life has been improved by the raid on Rentboy, and thousands of lives — a great many of them LGBTQ — are ruined by the criminalization of sex work every day.”
We at the ACLU have supported the decriminalization of sex work since 1977. Yet here we are almost 40 years later, and the resources of our federal and state law enforcement agencies are invested in shutting down a website that increased safety and harmed no one.
In a summer that marked the culmination of the long fight for marriage equality with a victory at the Supreme Court, the raid on Rentboy.com is a stark reminder of the urgent fights so many are still waging and have waged since the inception of our modern LGBT rights movement.
Now more than ever we must not leave behind our community members who are regularly policed and prosecuted; the street-based workers and other sex workers who stood by and for the entire LGBT community fighting for our rights and our freedoms since the uprisings at Stonewall led by queer and trans people of color and long before.
As activist and sex industry professional Hawk Kinkead wrote of our movement’s work in the wake of marriage equality:
“The role of individuals who are either compelled or have chosen the sex industry must be included in LGBT rights conversations as we look to translate the social capital accrued over the last 40 years into tangible cultural changes.”