In the wake of the arrests of the CEO and several employees of Rentboy.com for federal charges of racketeering and promoting prostitution, I couldn't help but think of a line from one of my favorite musicals, Rent. A show about the bohemian subculture of the East Village, which includes queer people, HIV+ people and yes, sex workers, the opening number about the struggles of paying rent and avoiding eviction, ends with: "'Cause everything is rent."
In the case of Rentboy.com, that line takes on new dimensions. For so many LGBT individuals, sex work is a necessity, in order to pay for rent... and food, healthcare and so on.
That is why my organization GLAD, along with other LGBT legal organizations, supported Amnesty International's recent resolution calling for the complete decriminalization of sex work. For so many LGBT people who have been rejected by families and experienced disproportionate rates of homelessness, poverty, discrimination and violence, participation in street economies is often critical to survival.
As one LGBT and anti-conversion therapy activist Sam Brinton illustrated in a Facebook message to me: "I am being overwhelmed with messages of GBT young men who are in fear of having to return home because the main and most secure connection they had to income through escorting is now gone." He added that many of these young men had run away from their homes because their families were forcing them into conversion therapy.
While criminalizing the industry may seem to make intuitive sense to address this problem, it only makes things worse for this already vulnerable population. It forces many to work in hidden or remote places where they are more vulnerable to violence. It also impedes sex workers' ability to negotiate condom use and set other boundaries. That is why the World Health Organization has argued that criminalization increases the risk of HIV transmission and instead advocated for a harm reduction approach.
Imagine instead of having to negotiate money and safety in a dark alley on the street, a sex worker could state those boundaries in an online profile, and negotiate a price and location over email. Or even better, imagine if a sex worker could see rating scores of the person purchasing his services, similar to Uber, or even file a complaint against a customer for misconduct or violence and have that customer's membership on the website revoked.
Wouldn't such a site actually enhance the agency and well-being of sex workers?
Now, I don't know if Rentboy.com is such a site. According to the Rentboy's chief executive, Jeffrey Hurant, "There is no place on this website where somebody says I'll have sex for money because that is against the law." Rentboy.com is entitled to its legal defense against the criminal charges. Those who oppose criminalization of sex work should still respect the right of those accused of such charges to defend themselves against the laws, as they currently exist.
But that is not the ultimate point. The critical question is not whether Rentboy.com violated the law as it stands, but rather why the federal government would devote such significant time and resources to combatting this perceived "problem." As I've written before, the root of much of the discrimination and persecution that persists against the LGBT community, and specifically gay men, is the deep discomfort people still hold against our sexualities. Sadly, there is a long history of such state-sanctioned and targeted attacks on LGBT identities and sexualities - from Oscar Wilde to Stonewall.
In fact, GLAD was founded in 1978 in response to a police sting against gay men in the Boston Public Library bathrooms. Responding to citizen complaints about men soliciting sex, Boston police stepped up their surveillance. In two weeks, police arrested 103 men on charges ranging from indecent exposure to "open and gross lewdness" -- a felony. Even though every defendant was ultimately exonerated, many lives were destroyed in the wake of those targeted attacks.
Today, many sex workers have had their livelihoods stripped away by the Rentboy.com raid. Yet, even if sex workers have the option of earning a living in other ways, shouldn't their choice to do so through sex work be a fundamental aspect of their right to bodily autonomy, similar to those who work legally in the porn industry?
In the musical Rent, one of the main characters Mimi is an HIV-positive exotic dancer at a local club. In explaining her profession to her love interest, Roger, she sings, "It's a living." The rest of the musical follows her journey, from her AZT regimen, to love and breakup, to drug abuse and homelessness -- until at the end of the musical she is near her deathbed. While ultimately Mimi survives, the same cannot be said for so many of the most vulnerable members of our community.
Rent was one of the most successful and longest running musicals on Broadway. Shouldn't we be treating real people with the same compassion and empathy as we do fictional characters? While everything may be for rent, unfortunately too many in our community are being left out in the cold. It's time to ensure equal opportunities for all in the LGBT community, and until that day comes, respect and protect the many ways that LGBT people struggle to pay the rent.