On Tuesday, August 25, federal agents raided the offices of Rentboy.com, arresting staff and charging them with running an illegal “online brothel.” This came just weeks after one of the world’s foremost human rights organizations, Amnesty International, endorsed the decriminalization of sex work. As advocates with two leading organizations working for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer (LGBTQ) people, we see the Rentboy.com raid as another example of how criminalizing sexual exchange can hurt rather than help people we serve.Rentboy.com is just the latest website to be targeted. Interestingly, unlike MyRedbook.com (also raided by the federal government) and Craigslist Erotic Services (shuttered by political pressure), no one has justified the raid on Rentboy as necessary to stopping human trafficking or protecting any victims. The site simply provided a safer place for escorts to meet and screen clients and share information with each other. Sex workers consistently say they find it safer to screen clients online than on the street. Closing down such websites directly increases the risk of harm to sex workers. That is the effect of criminalization.
For too many LGBTQ people, participation in street economies is often critical to survival, particularly for LGBTQ young people and transgender women of color, who face all-too-common family rejection and vastly disproportionate rates of violence, homelessness, and discrimination in employment, housing, and education. The lack of supports for our young people is disastrous, and the fact that any of them lack other options than sexual exchange is a community tragedy. And even LGBTQ young people and adults who are not doing sex work, particularly those of color, are often profiled and arrested under prostitution laws, contributing to high rates of incarceration.
Such realities seem to be lost on those who have argued recently in favor of keeping sex work criminalized. Decriminalization of sex work would “protect the very people that cause it,” wrote the Washington Post editorial board—but the forces driving people to trade sex for money cannot be arrested: the need to pay bills, feed yourself and your family, and keep a roof over your head. If we want to give people better opportunities, it’s hard to see how arrest and prosecution further that goal.
Advocates of prosecution invoke racialized myths of sex work as dominated by “pimps” and “traffickers” that don’t bear out in research. For example, a study published this year by the Urban Institute based on hundreds of interviews with LGBTQ youth and young adults showed that few worked with pimps, and almost half became involved in trading sex through friends or peers.
The Rentboy case illustrates what’s wrong with the purported alternative to decriminalization—the so-called “End Demand” approach of locking up clients and anyone who helps sex workers find them. Laws criminalizing sexual exchange—whether by the seller or the buyer—drive the industry further underground, undermine workers’ ability to negotiate with customers, and put people at higher risk for violence and coercion. Meanwhile, anti-trafficking group La Strada International reports that “criminalization does not solve any of the problems that our [trafficked] clients face, nor does it prevent or stop human trafficking.” Indeed, resources that could go to uncovering actual trafficking and supporting victims are being wasted on locking up sex workers and shuttering escort sites.
COUNTERPOINT: Decriminalizing sex work WILL lead to sex trafficking
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. Our organizations have supported President Obama’s call for criminal justice reform and investing in communities rather than prisons. We have welcomed the new National HIV/AIDS Strategy naming the stigmatization of sex workers as a barrier to prevention. It is hard to see how this federal prosecution squares with either.
It is time for a new approach. We need to decriminalize sex work and focus public efforts on providing opportunity and safety for people who trade sex.
Hayley Gorenberg is Deputy Legal Director at Lambda Legal and Harper Jean Tobin is Director of Policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality.