This morning, The Guardian published an op-ed by a member of the #HookUpCollab, titled Rentboy was a tool to stay alive in this economy of violence.
Our favorite line? “The latest e-raid on Rentboy is nothing compared to the daily street sweeps of street families, the Swat-team raids on massage parlors and shared apartments where we gather to increase our security, the constant interrogation and arrest of people who are or are profiled as trading sex for carrying condoms and the targeting of people of color for prostitution-related arrests and prosecutions every day, everywhere.
Rentboy wasn’t my ‘brothel’. It was a tool to stay alive in this economy of violence
Pushed out of home by Evangelical parents as a teen when I came out, I worked double shifts as a bus boy, pieced together odd construction jobs and yardwork and informally traded sex for money and shelter – sometimes with “friends” my age, but more often with well-moneyed older men.
So by the time I posted my first ad on Craigslist’s “Erotic Services” section, it was just another – albeit particularly – odd job. I hadn’t been paid a living wage before Craigslist. After months of knee-scraping encounters, I began to get a handle on it. It took three years to make the transition from $50-blow-and-gos to a $200-an-encounter rentboy; my business weathered first Craiglist’s move to charge $10 for posts during its “Adult Services” rebrand and then the prohibitionist panic of 2008 (the activists among us dubbed it the “Pink Scare”), which triggered an escalating machinery of fees, phone authentication and credit card-capturing requirements designed to facilitate Craigslist’s emerging collaboration with the boys in blue. Phone authentication reduced ads by 80%, Craigslist announced, and as a result 2.88 million US posters were pushed to other means of soliciting clients. (The Polaris Project estimated there were 3.65m adult services ads per year on Craigslist.)
Then on 4 September 2010, Craigslist.com bowed to the pressure of 43 vote-starved U.S. states and territories attorneys general and closed its “Adult Services” section, and I was out of a job – or at least a means to connect with my employers. Craigslist’s closure resulted in a 50% reduction in online advertising sales to people in the sex trades.
Fortunately, the growth I’d achieved in my business because of Craigslist meant that I was able to squeak by most months and still meet the $59 monthly fee for Rentboy.com postings. Then again, I am a white, masculine-presenting top, unlike many of the people I with whom I worked alongside for specific clients – particularly my co-workers who were transgender, gender non-conforming, bottoms and/or of color. I went to Rentboy.com with a higher fee already secured, the capital contribution for my first ad, a secondhand laptop to set up shop and a nest egg to lean on during the dry months.
In a statistical study of escorts advertising on a premium platform in the US similar to Rentboy, on average escorts charge $200 per hour for an outcall—meaning a date with a client where they play the host—but with a standard deviation of $64.46. The comparative earnings of escorts on non-premium sites like Backpage or Craigslist have always been significantly less. While no reliable study has yet pinpointed earnings on these providers, in New York City my going-rate on Craigslist and Backpage was between $100 to $150 each visit (though I occasionally charged just $50 when my rent came due). It was always a fraction of the $200 to $250 I could reliably charge on Rentboy.
But on 25 August 2015, the US government arrested seven key Rentboy.com staff on felony racketeering charges, served warrants authorizing the seizure of over $1.4m of alleged criminal proceeds from six bank accounts and shuttered the domain of Rentboy.com. And they ended a reliable, safe way I had to find clients.
The US attorney responsible for the raid claims that between 2010 and 2015, Rentboy collected over $10m in gross proceeds from their minimum monthly subscriber fees of $59.95. The law-enforcement agencies involved stand to benefit directly from at least $1.4m in seized assets – each dollar earned by the sweat and tears of those of us who advertised on Rentboy – to fund their ongoing enforcement efforts to lower our wages and rip up the modicum of safety we’ve carved out on third-party platforms like Rentboy.com.
The federal prosecution of third-party advertisers like Rentboy and myRedBook –and, looming on the horizon, that pesky people-peddler Backpage.com – will not result in a world-wide financial crisis in the formal economy. But it will destroy an informal economy that includes many of us whom are undocumented, or don’t have a degree or other means to surmount the high barriers of entry to an occupation in the formal economy.
These advertising sites represent the most equalizing force in the sex industry in generations, because they allow for anyone (and their mother, if you’re into that kind of thing) to advertise their services for a small fee, from a position of safety and without paying 50% of your fees to agencies and other parasites. These platforms are directly responsible for moving many of us into safer working conditions, while the mounting pressures of prohibitionist campaigns and prosecutorial whack-a-mole instead open us up to policing and labor exploitation.
The prosecution of Rentboy is only one symptom of law enforcement’s far larger and more insidious efforts to criminalize people in the sex trades’ networks of mutual support and safety. The latest e-raid on Rentboy is nothing compared to the daily street sweeps of street families, the Swat-team raids on massage parlors and shared apartments where we gather to increase our security, the constant interrogation and arrest of people who are or are profiled as trading sex for carrying condoms and the targeting of people of color for prostitution-related arrests and prosecutions every day, everywhere.
Craigslist, myRedBook or Rentboy weren’t perfect: they all required us to be able to pay upfront capital costs and have some technological capacity; many escorts had to contend with price differentials subject to the racialized and ableist whims of a discriminatory consumer market. Like most other businesses, the sites were always already shot through with the occupational barriers to entry and earnings that are essential to post-industrial capitalism.
But we can’t afford to lose even one more tool that keeps us alive in this economy of violence. There are already too few options for people in the sex trades to sacrifice another to the legions of the hand-wringingly pious. It’s high time to circle the wagons. We must preserve the scraps of real estate that remain to us, whether on the street corners or “internet brothels” where we ply our trade, and keep the political scavengers at bay.
Those of us who trade sex need better working conditions, living wage opportunities, shelter and long-term affordable housing options and the closing of the gender and race wage gaps and the homophobia and transphobia that fuel job discrimination in the formal economy. What we don’t need is one more obstacle to the month’s rent or our children’s health insurance co-pays.
The criminally self-serving publicity stunts represented by the closure of Rentboy.com and myRedBook are nothing but a knot in the ever-expanding dragnet of state violence. It is population control by other means, and it does nothing to improve our lives or our safety. Instead these enforcement actions line the pockets of an owning class and deflate our earnings, so that the same prosecutors and politicians who persecute us can better afford to pay for our cake, eat it and screw us too.
Anonymous is a member of The #HookUp Collaborative, a loose working group of people who have advertised – and people in community with advertisers – on Rentboy.com, including lawyers, community members and organizers. It is not affiliated with any company or organization.