News & Politics

What is the Obama Justice Department Doing Harassing Gay Men For Having Sex?

Lots of questions remain unanswered.

On Tuesday, federal agents swarmed the headquarters of Rentboy.com, a website that offered advertising to male escorts, and arrested seven employees. The action seems to be unprecedented – federal attention has thus far focused only on female sex workers, painting them all as helpless victims in need of arrest. Rentboy, however, openly operated and flourished on the Internet for the last eight years, expanding to offer a much different experience for advertisers than websites for female escorts, which have operated under constant shutdowns. 

The ways that male and female escorts are framed and prosecuted have created two distinct worlds of Internet escorting. Female escorts have gone from advertising on Big Doggy to Craigslist to ECCIE to Backpage, along with dozens of other regional outlets. Even the major sites are shut down or lose their payment processing every few years, causing them to take preventative measures such as limiting advertisements to 200 words, banning words that seem pretty innocuous, such as “brain” or “selective,” or retaining escort IDs for – some worry – police or hackers to find. Rentboy, conversely, sounds like an escort utopia.

“There was always a sense of community when we’d do the large events like Black Party, Hustlaball, etc.  They even had a Christmas party where rent boys could go for an open bar in NYC the few years I was there,” said Danny Cruz, who advertised on Rentboy for seven years and is currently the Interim Director for SWOP Los Angeles. Cruz explained that the website offered scholarships to members of the community who were in school and had classes on subjects ranging from doing taxes to staying safe.  Advertisers could get free credit toward their advertisements by pitching in at events or taking in-person classes.

On the other hand, male escorts don’t have screening and verification tools for new clients, such as blacklists, that abound for female escorts. 

The Rentboy bust came just weeks after Amnesty International’s decision to support the human rights of sex workers by advocating the decriminalization of every aspect of consensual adult sex workers. Lambda Legal had come out in support of Amnesty International, saying, “Laws criminalizing sexual exchange—whether by the seller or the buyer—impede sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use and other boundaries, and force many to work in hidden or remote places where they are more vulnerable to violence. Research and experience have shown that these laws serve only to drive the industry further underground, make workers less able to negotiate with customers on their own terms, and put those who engage in criminalized sex work at higher risk for abduction and sex trafficking.”

When I first read the entire 22-page complaint against Rentboy, I was struck by two things: the FBI managed to make the bust without purchasing sex from anyone to prove that prostitution was taking place, and the word “trafficking” is nowhere to be found in the document. In contrast, a similar complaint filed against Yin Mei Tran Lau in October 2014 begins with a section titled CHARACTERISTICS OF PIMPS/TRAFFICKERS and goes on to detail four times that officers posed as customers to attempt to buy sex from alleged prostitutes, including a description of the time a worker “reached her hand under the towel, touching [the FBI agent’s] penis.” How did the FBI in the Rentboy case manage to make arrests without even trying to purchase sexual services?

Lau’s case is similar to the Rentboy case in that neither were breaking federal laws with regard to prostitution (Lau was charged in a separate case with money laundering) and there are no allegations that either were abusing sex workers or forcing or inducing anybody into sex work. The Rentboy defendants, Jeffrey Hurant, Micheal Sean Belman, Clint Calero, Edward Lorenz Estanol, Shane Lukas, Diana Milagros Mattos and Marco Soto Decker, were charged under a little used federal law called the Travel Act. The Travel Act allows a violation of a state law to be charged federally as a sort of conspiracy if there is travel involved. Rentboy defendants are accused of “conspiring to use facilities in interstate commerce” to violate New York State’s laws against promoting prostitution. Lau was simply charged under Alaska’s state law, which until 2012 was also called “promoting prostitution” and then was renamed “sex trafficking.”

In Lau’s case, the federal government seized her home and bank accounts. In the Rentboy case, they seized over $1.4 million.

In charging documents, the male escorts are portrayed as having agency. “An escort manages their advertisement by logging in…” the complaint explains.  It then goes into detail describing the advertisements and reviews of some of the male escorts.

In contrast, Lau’s charging documents depict female escorts as girl victims always under the control of a supervillain, saying things such as, “Some traffickers travel with the victims to monitor their activities and collect the money. Other traffickers send their girls on “automatic,” [sic] where the girls travel by themselves…” Despite the degree to which they explain that female sex workers are controlled, undercover officers didn’t find any underage trafficking victims or any indication that force, fraud, or coercion had been used against any of the alleged prostitutes in the case. In fact, in trying to buy sex from four different women in Lau’s massage parlor, officers found that they all charged different amounts for their services. Not only that, but some only did hand jobs, some did blow jobs, and some did more. If they weren’t women, the ways that they chose to balance competitive pricing with personal boundaries might be seen as as business decisions. Instead, they’re framed as chattel while male escorts are framed as men – deviant men, but still men.

Seeing male escorts being persecuted like female escorts has sparked broader outrage. The Transgender Law Center issued a statement condemning the bust and calling for the decriminalization of consensual adult prostitution. The Harm Reduction Coalition wrote a statement “condemning this assault on sex worker autonomy” and calling for “harm reduction over criminalization.”  

The Department of Justice’s decision to treat men in the way that they have been treating women may, finally, cause the backlash necessary to decriminalize prostitution in the United States.

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