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On Rentboy, Sex Panics, Feminism, and More

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August 25, 2015





We woke up to the news that Rentboy, a popular online male escort service, has been raided by the feds.  An NBC report says that the raid was part of a “money laundering and state prostitution investigation.”  Newser quotes U.S Attorney Kelly Curie in a statement dripping with puritanical moralising: "As alleged, attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this internet brothel made millions of dollars from promotion of illegal prostitution.”  

Note the words internet brothel.  In other words, this place was a hive of immoral whores.

The news comes in the wake of equally disturbing news, from Poz online, that “the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is serving subpoenas to sexual health testing centers, asking them to turn over private medical files of adult film actors, according to the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), which is a trade group for the porn industry.”

Allow me to state the obvious: that such moves are entirely to be expected in an era of The New Gay, post-gay marriage, a time when it’s assumed that gay men don’t actually copulate with each other in their marital beds and if they do, it’s within the parameters of monogamy and never in front of their many adopted children.

Rentboy has been in existence since 1997, and we’re expected to believe the feds have only just figured out that this escort service does more than provide charming and handsome young men to serve as arm candy?

Allow me to also remind us of important bits of history: that sex work has been as integral to queer history as to feminism.  The history of women’s right to earn their living independent of patriarchal economic systems has included more than a few blowjobs and paid nights, and mainstream feminism has forgotten or wilfully erased that history as not respectable enough, not feminist enough, or just too sleazy to be remembered (Mindy Chateauvert’s book is an important reminder of that history).

Similarly, the history of rentboys — of various genders — making their way out of often oppressive situations and mapping different literal and metaphorical geographies of desire and safety has also been a part of queer history of, again, blowjobs and street trade and hustling that was, to be sure, not always idyllic but was at least for some/many a ticket out.

The rent of Rentboy, coupled with the language of whoredom and immorality, of venality and sin, a language straight out of the 1950s, is symptomatic of an age of The New Gay.

As we move forward, here are some things to consider:

Where are the gay or straight media outlets reporting on this?  As the story moves forward, I suspect that it will not be the gay press but conventionally straight outlets that do a better job of exposing what really lies behind the raid.  For decades, the gay press served an important function, of reporting on the kind of stories that nobody else would touch, like that of the AIDS crisis.  Following the advent of gay marriage and its triumphant aftermath, much of the gay press has languished in a pit of petty gossip, rumour, innuendo, and aggregation and lacks the financial resources and the journalistic chops to do any real work (one exception is, of course, Windy City Times, where I learnt how to be a journalist).


It’s significant that none of the major gay outlets like The Advocate have even hinted that they’re aware of this breaking news, so far (and when they do, it will be with aggregated links).  They might well argue that they are waiting for all the facts to come in, but this belies the thoughtlessness and sensationalism with which they’re willing to approach other gay-related stories, particularly those about the “persecution” of gays abroad. The Advocate was happy to quickly “report” on a story with no basis in fact, that gay Iranians were being killed, and despite numerous criticisms of the story, it remains online (see Scott Long on the history of all that, and Electronic Intifada for more on media reports on homosexuality abroad).

But a verified and verifiable story about a gay escort site being targeted by the Feds in 2015, smack in the middle of Manhattan? Not a peep from The Advocate.  As for the rest, even when they do “report,” their work is not likely to take on much more than the aggregation of links from sources like NBC.  In other words, the gay press, such as it is, remains, with few exceptions, incapable of having the talent or the resources to do any kind of real investigative work on this story.

I doubt that the Human Rights Campaign or the The Task Force will do much by way of statements against the raid but, if any of us still believe in the illusion that these organisations represent LGBTQ people anywhere: now is the time for you to demand that they do something, even if it simply means a statement of support.

Who will take up the cause of Rentboy and, more importantly, take the time and trouble to situate it in a larger context of sex panics and, even more importantly, an interrogation of a neoliberal sleight of hand where sex panics are read as only being about sex? Because, make no mistake, to simply read this incident as one about a new kind of gay morality is short-sighted.  This is, of course, about the Gay Marriage campaign having taken root and wilfully shut out a larger and more prevalent queer population that has been critical of it. The Woodhull Alliance, to some of its credit, has come out against the raid.  

But make no mistake: we cannot think about Rentboy and not also think about, for instance, the larger reach of law enforcement and the expansion of the prison industrial complex.  We cannot think about queer sex being constrained and not ask about how that is actually part of an economic system which defines particular bodies and acts as productive or not productive. We cannot think about Rentboys and not, also, think about the damage done by sex offender registries (see Roger Lancaster, Andrew Extein and my own piece for more on that).  If we continue, as too many of us have, to insist that this is about morality, we miss the bigger picture: of sex being intertwined in a larger and ever more rapacious neoliberal system which also creates false panics around sex trafficking.  Sex panics function to strengthen the power of a global economic system which forces migrants, domestic and international, to flee their homes, compels them to sell their bodies and labour to survive, and then subjects them to brutal laws of exclusion and imprisonment in order to sustain itself.

If we forget to make these connections, our resistance will have failed from the start.

My sympathies, like those of many, many queers everywhere, are with Rentboy.  I know that there is more of the story to be uncovered but as a long-time sceptic of sex panics and scandals, I am unlikely to be swayed by even the most scurrilous stories spread by the feds.  Many of the people we love have sustained themselves with sex work, and many, many of them are worried about what might happen in the coming weeks.

Our only consolation might be this: Rentboy clients undoubtedly include many of the wealthy gay and very married men who have been the BFFs of the new, gay-friendly Obama White House.  Our best hope is if all the hypocritical, smug, married gay men who have gone on and on about family values and love and whose phone numbers are likely to be part of the database swarm the Obama administration to have this matter quietly dropped.

Update: See also Kami Chisolm's piece. "Wedding or Prison?: and the Privatization of Queer and Trans Sex.


This is a free piece intended to raise questions, not provide all the answers.  

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