3 min

What the sudden Rentboy closure really means

Who is the real target of the Homeland Security raid?

Credit: Drasko Bogdanovic

In 2003, shortly after gay marriage began its two-year march to becoming a reality in Canada, a friend of mine was very severely bashed. Though he (miraculously) survived without physical scars, the psychological ones were deep. And while a combination of body-based practices, therapy and a supportive partner helped him heal, it’s clear the reality of what happened that night will live with him for the rest of his life.

When the news broke on Aug 25, 2015, that US escort site rentboy.com had been shut down after the Department of Homeland Security raided its offices, speculation filled my Facebook feed. People wondered why the job fell to DHS (“Because apparently ISIS is under control?”). Questions arose of why the government, if its aim was to protect marginalized populations, would start with male sex workers (those least likely to face violence when plying their trade).

Theories that something else must be at play (drugs, money laundering, etc) were tossed around. Some (including Boston Globe columnist Michael A Brodeur) speculated that the recent Ashley Madison hack caused scared politicians, fearful of being outed for using the site, to clamour for its closure. Personally, I thought of my friend who got bashed.

Seven people from Rentboy (the current CEO, and six current and former employees) have been charged under a rather obscure law known as the Travel Act. Inked back in 1961, the federal statue forbids the use of the US mail service and interstate or foreign travel for the purposes of engaging in certain criminal acts.

More recently, it’s been interpreted to cover telecommunications (including the internet). Essentially, the staff of Rentboy have been charged by the feds with doing something that’s illegal in the state of New York (the promotion of prostitution) through a medium that “travels” (the internet), courtesy of this particular federal law. If convicted, each is facing a fine of $250,000 and up to five years behind bars.

While there have been calls to use this as a rallying cry for the decriminalization of sex work and to unite sex workers with other social movements like #BlackLivesMatter, the larger point of what’s going on here (at least as far as I can see) has been missed.

There are countless, busier, more profitable and (potentially) far more exploitative sites featuring female sex workers operating all over the country. It’s possible the feds will start going after them too, and if they do, I’ll admit I’m wrong. But for the moment, this looks to me like nothing more than good old-fashioned homophobia. Rentboy has been in business 18 years. And while homophobia has certainly been around much longer than this or any other website, the fact that it’s happening in the wake of the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage is something we in the gay community should be cognizant of.  

In the days following my friend’s assault, we here hanging out at my place, processing what happened and he said something that’s stuck with me to this day. Gaybashing, he said, has always happened. But we should prepare for more of it. While the march toward gay marriage was signalling a new era of tolerance, we had to be prepared for backlash. His assault, he was convinced, and the others like it that would surely follow, were a kind of collective payback for us stepping up to claim our rights. As George W Bush had quipped two years earlier when asked why 9/11 happened, “They hate our freedoms.”

I know this sounds terribly paranoid, and I’m not suggesting there’s a collective plot that has infiltrated the highest levels of government to push gay people back into the closet by cutting off their source of income and/or their access to high-end hookers. But I do think gay people south of the border need to face the fact that in the wake of their recent victory for marriage equality, the spectre of homophobia will not only continue to lurk, it will fight back in increasingly creative and violent ways. Shutting down a male escort site is just one step. As much as I loved Rentboy, I’m much more worried about what’s next.