This week, federal and state law enforcement officials shut down the well-known website, Rentboy.com, which provided a venue for thousands of gay escorts to post ads and screen potential clients. In a raid on the site's headquarters in New York City, the officers arrested seven of the site's employees, including its CEO, and charged them with selling sex and laundering money.
The Rentboy raid is just the latest salvo in what civil rights attorneys and sex worker rights advocates say is an "ongoing war against sex" by the government. Earlier this year, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, pressured Mastercard and Visa into refusing to process transactions for Backpage, an online website that posts ads for sex workers. And last year, federal authorities shut down myredbook.com, an online site that allowed sex workers in California and other states to post ads and share tips about doing sex work safely. The operator of myredbook recently plead guilty to facilitating interstate prostitution and was sentenced to 19 months in prison.
Civil rights attorneys say this is all part of a broader effort by state and federal government to crack down on companies that provide financial and advertising services for sex workers and others in the adult industry. At a time when much of the developed world has decriminalized sex work - with Amnesty International recently calling for decriminalization as the answer to much of the violence and abuse that surrounds commercial sex -- the United States appears to be lurching in the opposite direction toward harsher criminal and civil penalties for sex workers and those who make their lives easier.
The passage last spring of the federal Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act has only exacerbated this trend. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., two First Amendment lawyers said this federal law, omnibus legislation that included a hodgepodge of bills including the SAVE (Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation) Act, is a dangerous intrusion on free speech rights and will make it more difficult for law enforcement to go after real traffickers. The new law may also penalize any website that permits sexually explicit content, even Google and Facebook.
"If the SAVE Act establishes that it is a crime to post sexually explicit content, then Twitter and Facebook could be criminally liable," said Emma Llanso, director of the Free Expression Project at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.
Llanso and Lawrence Walters, a D.C. attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, say the federal trafficking legislation passed last spring threatens free speech on the internet because it may over-ride a section of the 1997 Communications Decency Act that provides strong protection to online websites. "Section 230 says that any operator of an interactive online site cannot be treated under law as the publisher, so the website can't be sued for defamatory tweet or content," Llanso explained. "This was crucial protection, allowing free speech on the internet."
The new trafficking law not only threatens the internet's tradition of unfettered speech, but it may actually undercut its own purpose: to curb sex trafficking. Since the SAVE Act makes it a crime to knowingly advertise a person who will be engaged in a sex act, websites like Backpage may stop working with law enforcement to target those who traffic underage sex workers.
"These advertising networks currently act as a conduit for law enforcement to go after traffickers," Walters says. "These networks are not going to to work with law enforcement if they are liable themselves."
Even more problematic, shutting down such online websites only makes sex work more dangerous for the men and women who choose to do it. As a blogger for Huffington Post who criticized the recent raid, noted, "RentBoy's platform gives its escorts a degree of agency that sex workers forced to walk the street or be managed by a pimp simply do not have."
Similarly, Backpage (and myredbook before it was closed down) allows sex workers to more carefully screen potential customers and work indoors. As I discovered in researching my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, research shows that when sex workers can't advertise online, they are often forced onto the street, where it is more difficult to screen out violent clients and negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). Sex workers are also more likely to have to depend on exploitative pimps to find customers for them.
By going after sites like myredbook, Rentboy and Backpage, law enforcement officers are not going to stop actual traffickers (who will simply gravitate to off-shore advertising sites). They are only making it more difficult for the men and women who are doing sex work by choice to protect themselves -- from physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases. How counterproductive is that?