Have you been following the news about the raid on the Rentboy.com offices? Rentboy was a website designed to connect trans and cisgender male escorts with clients. Two days ago, police arrested the CEO and six staffers, charging them with promoting prostitution. When we compare the way that Rentboy is being talked about compared to how Redbook was, we can see some patterns in how we think of male sex workers versus female sex workers. That shines some important light on our gendered attitudes about sex.
When Redbook (a comparable site for female sex workers) was raided in June, a lot of the publicity around it focused on how the website was supposedly enabling illegal sex trafficking, particularly child prostitution. There was plenty of talk about how the women who advertised sexual services needed to be rescued. Given how the myths around sex trafficking are interwoven into the discourse around female prostitution, this isn’t a surprise. But what is a surprise is that there hasn’t yet been any mention of trafficking when it comes to Rentboy. It’s as if men are magically immune to sex trafficking, while women couldn’t possibly be involved in commercial sex without it.
I think this tells us a lot about our cultural attitudes about gender and sex. For a lot of people, sex is something men do to women. He fucks her, but the only way for her to fuck him is by wearing a strap-on and taking on the “man’s role.” We have this idea that men are the ones who make the decisions, who make the moves, and do all the work. In my coaching practice, I see how these ideas shape and limit people’s sex lives. I talk with women who struggle with allowing themselves to take sexual agency, who worry about being shamed for asking for what they want, or who don’t know what they want because they’ve never learned how to figure it out. And I’ve worked with men who wish that they didn’t always feel responsible for “giving her an orgasm,” who wish their female partners could meet them halfway, or who feel shame for having fantasies that fall outside of the “get it up, get it in, get it off” model of male sexuality. All of this is mirrored by the different ways that Redbook and Rentboy are being talked about in the media. Female sex workers (especially cisgender women) are portrayed victims, while men aren’t.
Of course, there are some related patterns that need to be recognized as part of these issues. There are gendered differences in how violence and sexual assault happen. There are gendered differences in economics, which limit women’s choices differently than men’s. That’s all real. But they also aren’t as clear cut as many people present them. Sexual assault happens across all gender lines, and in all directions. (Women commit it far more often than is usually acknowledged.) Issues of class, race, eduction, and access intersect with economics to limit many men’s choices more than some women’s. And while many radical feminists make the point that choice around sex work is a valid question when people need money to survive, I notice that far fewer people make the same argument with respect to male sex workers. Besides, we could make the same claims about any industry. How many of you would be working as baristas, accountants, mechanics or writers if you didn’t need the cash? Does that mean that you don’t have any choices about your labor? Do we need to shut your profession down in order to save you from economic coercion?
This is one of the things I find most striking about the “end demand” rhetoric against sex work. It assumes that the only demand for sex work comes from clients (assumed to be men). But in a world in which people need money to survive, support their families, get an education, or simply thrive, there’s a demand on the part of sex workers, too. Making sex workers’ lives more difficult by removing their access to the screening mechanisms available online, and by making it harder for them to connect with clients and guard themselves from risk, anti-sex work folks aren’t actually ending that demand. They aren’t putting food on the table, clothes on someone’s kids, or helping them buy books for college. All they’re doing is making people’s lives harder, in the name of “rescuing” them.
This is a personal issue for me. People I know, people I respect and admire, people I love are at far more risk as a result of these raids. People I love have less access to the work they need to do to support themselves. People I love are now less able to protect themselves by screening clients and assessing their choices. Their need for income and their demand for work haven’t gone away, but now, they have to make harder decisions about how to meet them. During the Vietnam war, a major was quoted as saying “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” That pretty much sums up the “end demand” approach.
That’s what that I find most scary about the Rentboy raid. Nobody is presenting this as saving male sex workers. The police aren’t even pretending that this is about rescuing anyone. All they want to do is destroy them by taking away their access to work. When we take the thin veneer of “protecting women and children” away, we see what’s really fueling the anti-sex work side. It’s about ending something that some people find distasteful, without any respect for the rights of the folks who feel differently about it and choose to do it.
The irony in all of this is that Rentboy has done far more than any rescue organization to actually help sex workers. They started a scholarship to help sex workers go to school and “think about long-term career paths outside of the sex industry.” They made it easier for individuals to manage their labor and safety, which took pimps out of the equation and increased sex workers’ autonomy. In the words of a man who advertised on the site, “Rentboy…made this a safer business to be in.” That safety has been taken away. What do you suppose will happen now?
The guys who advertised on Rentboy aren’t being portrayed as victims, in the way that the women who advertised on Redbook were. That says a lot about gender roles and expectations. But at the end of the day, they’re all victims of the anti-sex work forces that want to destroy them.