Because I view the legalization of sex work as a vital human rights issue, I was irritated to see on Tuesday that the federal government had raided and shut down RentBoy.com, a male escort service. The Department of Homeland Security and the NYPD justified the bust by alleging that RentBoy was an “Internet brothel” that “made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution.” That may be true. But for those of us who hold less than puritanical views on sex work, it’s hardly a principled justification for such a dramatic takedown.
The arguments against legalizing prostitution tend to be specious, moralistic, condescending, and inane. Opponents of legal prostitution understand that they can no longer pitch their argument in terms of protecting women from their own bad decisions without sounding paternalistic. So instead, they argue that prostitution must be criminalized to protect women from exploitation by others—namely, pimps and traffickers.
This justification has its problems. Legalizing prostitution may actually protect women from violence, and criminalizing it does not seem to stanch the flow of trafficked women. (That’s one reason why Amnesty International has called for the decriminalization of sex work.) In fact, even supposedly more compassionate models of criminalization—like targeting only johns—still leads to police harassment and endangerment of prostitutes. Still, the argument against pimps and traffickers has some appeal. These are the bad guys in the business, and in theory, the government could prosecute them without tossing sex workers in prison, too.
RentBoy.com cut out the bad guys, allowing clients to connect directly to escorts with no middle man. As Dan Savage notes, that was the whole point of the website. It made sex work safer for everyone—the clients and the escorts. With no pimps involved, the risk of exploitation plummeted. There was, as Reason’s Scott Shackford writes, “absolutely no pretense of pretending that there are any ‘victims’ here.” The government did not claim to be protecting RentBoy’s escorts from corrupt, violent pimps. It simply didn’t like what they were doing, so—with a sententious statement of moral superiority—decided to shut the site down.
Shackford sees the bust as a civil rights issue, lambasting the “callous disregard shown toward those men who seek to sexually connect on their own terms.” (Women can use the site, but it’s geared toward men.) I agree, and strongly suspect discomfort with gay sex drove the government to focus on RentBoy. (Its luridly detailed complaint describes graphic gay sex acts with shuddering relish.) But I’m more disturbed by how quickly law enforcement abandoned its rationalizations for busting prostitutes when they grew inconvenient. Before, sex workers were victims of their pimps and clients. Now there are no victims of prostitution—just a hazy, priggish distaste for the world’s oldest profession. Make no mistake: For law enforcement, busting prostitution schemes isn’t about protecting victims. It’s about putting sex workers in prison.