Metro Weekly

Sex Panic Flashback

The Rentboy.com bust is an unwelcome reminder that the bad old days of anti-gay panic haven't really gone away

A screenshot of Rentboy.com's contact page. (Credit: Rentboy.com)

A screenshot of Rentboy.com’s contact page.

Given the fetid state of the primary season, having a good old-fashioned sex panic is almost refreshingly nostalgic. Or at least that’s how it felt to me when I first saw the news that Rentboy.com had been busted by the feds for prostitution, like I was watching a weird edition of VH1’s I Love the ’90s.

Of course, that’s also why it’s not really funny in the present — it’s easy to recall this sort of thing happening back in the days of sodomy laws and Jesse Helms, and uneasy to realize this is coming in the present from an administration that’s purportedly our friend.

Let’s get a couple things out of the way here, because even in the LGBT community discussions about escorts and prostitution can get tangled up in irrelevancies and bias. First, and most important, is to note that this has nothing to do with human trafficking, which as our cultural taboos about sex work have weakened has become the argument most frequently used to support anti-prostitution laws and enforcement.

It is a fundamental truth that human trafficking and sex slavery are antithetical to human rights. It’s also true that prostitution does not equal human trafficking, even if there are awful instances where they overlap. And human trafficking doesn’t overlap with Rentboy.

Second, stigma against sex workers remains strong even among LGBT people. Despite a long history of gay men idolizing porn actors, too many of us still look down on escorts as less than. It trivializes the lives of people who in a better world would get the support and safety society owes them.

I once worked as the “Male Sex Industry Project Coordinator” for the then-Whitman-Walker Clinic, which gave me the best business card in Washington, D.C. In the days before effective HIV treatments and PrEP, I provided condoms and safer-sex information to escorts, prostitutes, nude dancers and others involved in the subculture.

I unlearned a lot of the biases I’d brought to the job. It helps to see escorts as people instead of commodities, even if their bodies are their business. Did I meet a few people who had severe problems in their lives? Yes. I’ve also met people with severe problems who work in law firms. The difference is that a paralegal has access to support and compassion, while an escort often doesn’t.

It’s the hypocrisy that stings about the Rentboy bust. There are many thriving web sites promoting female escorts, none of which were targeted when the gay site was. Of the journalism outlets covering the story, nearly all of them — gay and straight, mainstream and alternative — have taken escort advertising in the past, and the only reason not all of them do anymore is that the advertising all went online. Then there’s the spectacle of the Department of Homeland Security for some reason busting up victimless crimes occurring between consenting adults.

And most glaringly, how can we have a society that tolerates — and often celebrates — pornography while simultaneously harassing a separate class of people who have sex for pay. I realize the distinction between prostitution and free expression could be framed as the difference between commerce and art, but really it just comes down to a difference in who’s writing the checks.

The only thing achieved here has been to push escorts further back into their own stigmatized closets; increase the risk of danger they face because they have to resort to less-safe ways to conduct their work; and undermine activist and public health efforts on HIV prevention. All around a very good show on the part of the Obama administration, which should really know better.

Our community, both individuals and the organizations that represent us, need to speak up loudly and often to make sure we don’t get a repeat. We don’t need this negative nostalgia in our lives.

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Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.