About 100 activists rallied outside Brooklyn federal court on Thursday afternoon to demand that prosecutors drop the charges against the seven recently arrested staffers of the male escort site Rentboy.com and decriminalize prostitution. The crowd represented a spectrum of genders and a range of ages, from teens to Social Security age, with veteran gay rights activists picketing alongside Rentboy advertisers, female sex workers, and public health and sex worker activists.
The timing of the bust, two weeks after Amnesty International proposed decriminalizing the sex trade, dramatized the growing disconnect between law enforcement and popular opinion on how to approach the industry, organizer Bill Dobbs said.
"This raid, strange as it may be, is a turning point," he said. "There's increasing momentum around this issue."
Indeed, within three days of the August 25th arrests, the New York Times published an editorial calling the decision to commit Department of Homeland Security and U.S. attorney resources to the investigation "baffling," and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance took pains to stress that his office wasn't involved. A recent YouGov poll found that 44 percent of Americans believe prostitution should be legalized entirely, up from 38 percent in 2012.
Sex workers and advocates on hand at the rally said that the website, essentially a global, male-escort-focused classifieds page, created a layer of safety for escorts by allowing them to screen clients over the phone and by email before meeting up. For many who used the site to find johns, its closure only means a move to sites such as Backpage or Craigslist, or to more dangerous street work, they said.
"Because sex work is criminalized, many sex workers’ bodies are exposed to harm," said Michael Tikili, a member of ACT UP and health advocate at Health Global Access Project. "And [criminalization] also increases [HIV] infection rates globally by not allowing these individuals to operate within systems that are safe."
The NYPD arrested 1,790 people for prostitution in 2014, and another 732 for patronizing prostitutes, according to a department spokesman. That's down from the 3,481 and 1,311 arrested in 2007, the last year the NYPD formally released such data, but it's still a substantial number of affected lives. Often, carrying condoms is used as evidence of prostitution, driving street workers to have unprotected sex. A bill banning the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution is before the state legislature.
Allen Ruskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, likened the Rentboy crackdown to the anti-gay police raid at Stonewall Inn that lead to the historic Stonewall riots. "This is an updated, digitized raid just like Stonewall."
Andy, a 24-year-old sex worker who never signed up for Rentboy because of the $59.95 monthly ad fee but knows many advertisers, lamented the loss of a tool for tracking johns.
"That's one of the things these platforms create, is a trail, which if you think of folks who kill sex workers or harm sex workers, that trail could be so helpful for sex workers if that information is given to us," he said. "But it's not, it's being held in there," he said, looking toward the U.S. District Court, where body-armor-clad U.S. Marshals stood watching with assault rifles.
Other activists—between chants including "1-2-3-4, hey feds here come the whores; 5-6-7-8, we're here to fuck the state"—questioned the involvement of Homeland Security, and why after operating out in the open for 18 years, Rentboy was targeted now.
"There's no reason for our tax dollars to be used this way," said Janice Thom, director of operations for the National LGBT Task Force. "I don't feel any safer. These people are not terrorists."
The criminal complaint in the Rentboy prosecution is notable in that, unlike many sex work prosecutions, it doesn't mention anyone being coerced by the managers of the website, though acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Kelly Currie called the site an "internet brothel," nor does it claim that minors were involved.
Skylar, a 19-year-old sex worker and mother of three, said that narratives about people in the sex trade as helpless victims or privileged people acting purely out of choice get it wrong. Having worked in retail, she said the low minimum wage is a big factor driving her to continue.
"Me being a teen mom, me living on my own, I have a lot of bills and a lot of expenses," she said. "So, if I can't support that by $8.75 an hour, it's not fair to my children the up and down and the instability of [me] being a mother who's fighting to make something positive."
The seven Rentboy staffers are facing charges of conspiring to promote prostitution across state lines. All seven are out on bail and no follow-up court date has yet been set.