Why the Rentboy.com Raid Hit Such a Nerve

CUNY School of Public Health's Christian Grov.

CUNY School of Public Health's Christian Grov.

The outraged reaction to the federal government’s raid on rentboy.com and the arrests of seven staffers there, including the escort website’s chief executive, reflects the positive status that escorts and for-hire sex have in the gay community.

“It’s much more socially acceptable,” said Christian Grov, an associate professor at the CUNY School of Public Health, who was the lead author on five recent studies of gay escorts and their male clients. “It’s written into gay culture in so many ways.”

The US Department of Homeland Security raided the Manhattan offices of rentboy.com on August 25. The website was seized and shut down, and Jeffrey Hurant, rentboy.com’s founder and chief executive, was arrested along with six staffers.

Gay community attitudes toward escorts, changing views of sex work, and escorts’ own sense of self are all factors

The seven are charged with violating the federal Travel Act, which bars using the mail, a telephone, or the Internet, to facilitate interstate or foreign prostitution, among other offenses. The case is being prosecuted by the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which is headquartered in Brooklyn.

As Gay City News went to press, New York activists were planning a September 3 protest at the federal court in Brooklyn while groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles were organizing protests for September 5 in those two cities.

“This is not just an attack on sex work, it’s an attack on the community,” said Grov, who was characterizing the response to the rentboy.com prosecution. “Rentboy has a float in the parade every year. They are an essential part of the community.”

The political aspect of the protests arises from the community’s longstanding liberationist impulse that seeks to maximize individual autonomy and minimize government and social sanctions on that autonomy. Overturning sodomy laws, which was achieved in a 2003 US Supreme Court decision, is the best known example of that effort. Many voices that have condemned the raid have also called for prostitution to be decriminalized.

Before the raid, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the Transgender Law Center, and the National Center for Transgender Equality endorsed a statement that called for decriminalization. They were among at least 28 organizations, including the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the National LGBTQ Task Force, that later condemned the raid.

But it is also true that escorts are seen by some in the community as providing a valuable service in a way that is readily accessible. The few studies that have been done on sex work, escorts, and their clients among gay and bisexual men suggest that it is relatively common for such men to have paid for sex, been paid for sex, or both, though such studies indicate that a majority of the study participants have not engaged in these behaviors.

“It does reflect the growing acceptance of sex work and sex workers as a field particularly among gay and bisexual men,” Grov said.

In a 2012 study, the clients were asking for a range of services, with many going beyond sex. The study recruited “495 male clients… via daddysreviews.com.”

It found that “Repeat encounters were significantly more likely to include non-sexual behaviors alongside sexual activities.” The non-sexual behaviors included dinners, cuddling, and taking walks or shopping. The authors concluded that “research implies that many clients seek emotional as well as physical connections with the men they hire.”

And then escorts are stitched into the fabric of gay sexuality. There are “porn stars who are escorts, escorts and go go boys who are porn stars,” Grov said. In studies, the escorts were interested in “how to be a better escort,” Grov said.

In a 2013 study of 418 “Internet-based male escorts,” the men were asked to choose among 14 workshops offered by Rent University, an “ongoing outreach program for male sex workers.” Sixty-five percent selected “Attracting the ‘right’ clients and keeping them,” 64 percent selected “Escorting and legal matters,” just under 63 percent chose “How best to market yourself online,” and just under 53 percent chose “Financial planning and planning for the future.”

The results suggest a degree of professionalism and an interest in what might be called career development that is also found among some female escorts.

“What I can say is one of the things that was among their top priorities was attracting better clients,” Grov said. “A fair number of them were interested in their longevity as an escort.”

Escorts are also concerned about the “emotional labor” that is part of their job. They have to set boundaries with clients while meeting client needs.

“What you’re talking about is the emotional labor of being an escort, managing the amount of yourself that you give in your job so you can give in your life as well,” Grov said.

Sex work among men who serve male clients is also seen as inherently different than women escorting with men.

“A lot of the gender power dynamics aren’t there so some of the concerns around trafficking aren’t there,” Grov said.