The Feds Raided This Gay Sex Website—And Pushed Sex Worker Rights Into the Mainstream

After the seizure of Rentboy.com, many in the sex worker and LGBTQ movements are finding common ground where they were once divided.
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The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence combine drag with religious imagery to call out sexual intolerance. Photo by Torbakhopper/Flickr.

On August 25, federal law enforcement raided the offices of Rentboy.com, a website for male sex workers to advertise, meet clients, and build a professional community. The Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the New York City Police Department arrested seven of the company’s employees for allegedly promoting prostitution. Many sex workers who advertised on the site now fear legal repercussions, as the site held the personal information of thousands of people. The website, where workers could screen clients and maintain professional autonomy, has been seized by federal authorities.

The reaction in the sex work community has been swift and sustained.

Blake Miller—sex worker, board member of the Chicago branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), and former advertiser on Rentboy—says the raid has created “a culture of fear” among workers and clients. Miller is already moving to another site, but he has experienced a decline in business. He says he’s fortunate to have savings to get through the tough times. For others,“people living from client to client,” he worries.

The reaction in the sex work community has been swift and sustained. Just two days after the raid, a group called the Hookup Collaborative formed to provide legal and media counseling to Rentboy users. In New York, several protests have been staged, including one on Sept. 3 where about 70 people marched outside the Brooklyn Federal Court. Then over Labor Day— a holiday embraced by the movement because “sex work is work"—the support grew with at least three separate, uncoordinated rallies that happened in major U.S. cities.

Mark Sade, organizer of a rally in San Francisco where 250 people gathered, says this is the first time he’s really noticed the damage being done to sex workers and been inspired to take action. “I spent so long not noticing that I didn’t think it was a fight that needed to be had,” he says. An adult-filmmaker and lecturer in sex positivity, Sade knows people who are sex workers, but he hasn’t been directly tied to the decriminalization movement. In organizing, he says, “I learned how compartmentalized the [LGTBQ, sex positive, and sex work] communities are.”

The compartmentalization Sade notices is a contentious historical topic in sex work activism. In an essay for S&F Online, a peer-reviewed feminist journal, Svati P. Shah argues that AIDS drove a division between sex worker rights and gay liberation. Ignacio Rivera, in an interview with Shah for the essay, describes a divide between gay liberation and the fight for trans and sex worker rights.

In light of the Rentboy raid and the heavy media attention it has garnered, this resentment is again cropping up. The 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York are a historical point of unification for the gay liberation movement, but many in the sex work community feel they’ve been written out of the narrative. Indeed, in the biography of Sylvia Rivera, a significant gay rights organizer, her professional life as a sex worker is excluded from the text.

The LGBTQ movement has made major strides; the sex workers movement has not. 

Rico Stone of the Hookup Collaborative points to an August 26 headline in The Daily Beast, “Will the RentBoy.com Bust Be the ‘Stonewall’ of Sex Work?” Stone says, “[This headline] erases the fact [that] Stonewall was a critical uprising led by transwomen and gender nonconforming sex workers and hustles of color.” As writer and sex worker Melissa Gira Grant tweeted, “Stonewall was actually the Stonewall of sex work.” The difference is that the LGBTQ movement has made major strides, while the sex workers movement has not. Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia now have comprehensive employment anti-discrimination laws, where you can’t be fired or not hired based on sexual orientation or gender nonconformity, but trading sex is illegal everywhere but a few rural counties in Nevada.

Even beyond that divide is a divide of class and race. Stone says, “We've seen a lot of erasure in the media. The very framing of this conversation as an issue of ‘sexual freedom’ or ‘a war on sex’ masks the way the criminal justice system, and prostitution laws specifically, work to tear apart the lives and communities of people of color throughout this country.” Stone is referring to laws such as one in Phoenix where it is illegal to repeatedly engage passersby in conversation, often leading to the profiling of black transwomen. For the Hookup Collaborative, the story of criminalizing sex work is more a story of systematic discrimination based on race and sexuality.

If the media is missing that story, however, many at the rallies over Labor Day weekend acknowledged it. Siouxsie Q, speaker at the San Francisco rally, podcaster, activist, and sex worker, says, “Historically these communities were not separate. They were in the same caste, essentially.” Of course the experiences were often quite different, but LGBTQ and sex worker groups were socially marginalized and legally oppressed together. “But,” Q says, “at some point we forgot that.” She says that maybe the reason that the Rentboy raid can garner such attention is because it targeted gay men. Even so, she wants to use it as an opportunity to bring more people in and further the conversation.

Merry Peter, another speaker and sex worker at the San Francisco rally, wants the same. Peter is a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a charity and protest group that uses drag, religious imagery, and performance art to call out sexual intolerance. He says that the conversation regarding sex worker rights gets to the heart of broader national conversations of economic inequality and racial injustice. At the rally, he wore the makeup that is standard dress for the Sisters, but what once was a means of hiding. Now, he says, he wears “to come out and reflect the beauty” that he sees in the community that has come in support. After his speech, he said, “It was sex workers that put the rally together, but it wasn’t just sex workers in the crowd.”

Both he and Q met families and tourists in the crowd, and were surprised by what they found: people willing to listen, people willing to care about sex workers. There was room for everybody, and, for the first time in a long time, they felt optimistic.