Enslaved or empowered?
Silas, a male escort I spoke to, scoffed at the idea that the adult males on the site were trafficked or coerced. "Trafficking of men?" he told me. "No that's just not a thing. . .
Why should prostitution be illegal? And, more specifically why should male prostitution be illegal?
At one point the answer to both questions was the same. Prostitutes (of any gender) were seen as degenerate, undesirable criminals who spread disease and immorality. You arrested them because, whatever gender they were, they were bad people.
But this argument has fallen out of favor more and more in recent years. Instead, authorities from New York to Alaska have started to argue that female prostitutes are not criminals, but victims of trafficking and sexual slavery. Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Illinois, for example, has waged a campaign against Backpage.com, arguing that the adult services site is known to "facilitate online trafficking." This rhetoric is based on, and resonates with, feminist arguments that prostitution harms women. As anti-prostitution advocate Melissa Farley argues, "In prostitution, men remove women’s humanity. Buying a woman in prostitution gives men the power to turn women into a living, breathing masturbation fantasy." Or in the words of Taina Bien-Aimé, "Decriminalization of sex buyers and pimps signals to men that women are commodified objects they can purchase — and to traffickers, that the 'market of flesh' is open for business."
Prostitution, then, is criminal because it harms prostitutes themselves (who are enslaved victims of trafficking) and because it lowers the status of women, turning them into commodities.
If that's the case, though, why should male prostitution be illegal? Why did federal agents raid the office of Rentboy.com last week, arresting the CEO and a number of current and former employees?
Rentboy.com is a site that connects clients with male escorts. Since women are, for the most part, not involved in these transactions, it is difficult to see how the site can facilitate the trafficking of women, or how it can present women as "commodified objects."
Silas, a male escort I spoke to, scoffed at the idea that the adult males on the site were trafficked or coerced. "Trafficking of men?" he told me. "No that's just not a thing. The heterosexual world doesn't have a desire to traffic us. There are of course cases of underage sex work where homeless youth (usually LGBTQ) are faced with the choice of a bed or a trick, but that's a different issue altogether."
And, in fact, as Jamie Peck points out at deathandtaxes, law enforcement did not use the rhetoric of harm or victimization in talking about the raid on Rentboy.com. The press release simply quotes Acting United States Attorney Currie saying, "Rentboy.com attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution." Prostitution is a crime, therefore it is a crime. There is not even an attempt to pretend that anyone, anywhere, has been harmed.
There's an obvious double standard here, as Silas pointed out to me. "I think it's patronizing and frankly quite sexist," he said of anti sex-work feminists. "There's a reason they never talk about male sex workers, because they don't have the power to take away our agency, but they do have the power to take away (that of) their female comrades." Women are positioned as victims in need of saving; men are presumed to have control over their lives and to be making their own choices.
But it's also worth pointing out that this double standard has limits. In theory, women should be treated differently than men, according to anti-sex work discussions. But in practice, women sex workers, too, are often treated as conscious criminals. Despite all the trafficking and victimization rhetoric, the legal reality in the United States is that women are still criminalized for prostitution. Laws against trafficking are routinely used to arrest women, even though those women are, authorities insist, supposed to be the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators. When women sex workers report abuse and violence to the police, the police routinely ignore them — or put them in jail.
The raid on Rentboy.com suggests that this is not an accident, nor some sort of failure of the system. Authorities say that they target prostitution to protect trafficking victims and to stop the degradation of women. But if that is true, then federal agencies wouldn't be harassing male prostitutes. What Rentboy.com shows is that prostitution laws exist for the same reason they've always existed: Because sex workers are seen as evil, bad people. Prostitution and trafficking laws are not for the good of sex workers and victims. They are a sop to the prejudices of a society that stigmatizes those who sell sexual services.
If authorities cared about victims, they wouldn't go out of their way to arrest people who even they acknowledge aren't victims. As it is, the Rentboy.com raid seems like an open acknowledgement that prostitution laws are motivated not by pity and concern, but by unexamined prejudice and hate.