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Opinion

The Laws Used Against Rentboy.com Increase Marginalized Communities' Vulnerability to HIV

August 28, 2015

The war against the sex trade continues. On Tuesday morning, the headquarters of rentboy.com, the country's largest male-escort site, was raided by the Department of Homeland Security with the aid of local law enforcement agencies, resulting in the arrest of rentboy.com's CEO and six other employees. The seven men are facing federal charges in the Eastern District of New York for conspiracy to violate the U.S. Travel Act by promoting prostitution.

Despite the government's interest in shutting down the sex trade, it will continue to function -- the question is how it will function. With rentboy.com shut down, thousands of male sex workers are left wondering how they will now make a living. Some may move to smaller advertising websites or agencies; others may revert to traditional means for finding dates in person, such as cruising gay bars. Many are probably lying low for now. What is clear is that this raid increases male sex workers' vulnerability and marginalization. Displaced sex workers will have to make riskier decisions as they seek new ways to pay end-of-the-month bills such as rent.

With both clients and workers moving further underground to avoid arrest, customary methods of screening for violent or bad clients are becoming much harder to use. The leverage that many male sex workers felt they once had to negotiate condom use and other safer-sex practices has been increasingly eroded by the government's war on sex work.

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As government assaults on the LGBTQ and sex worker communities continue, we are reminded of our roots and the path paved by activists from the Stonewall riots in 1969. People like Sylvia Riviera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and other leaders of that time come to mind. They were fierce and courageous trans woman of color, many of whom had experience in the sex trade and found it impossible to separate the interconnected struggles of racism, homophobia, transphobia and whorephobia. Their struggles undoubtedly gave many of us in LGBTQ community the freedoms we have today.

At a time when sex workers are still struggling for basic forms of recognition, we cannot allow anti-sex work attitudes to erase the interconnected reality of our fight for sexual liberation. Consensual sex, and the enjoyment of it, is a human right, and any law that prohibits it goes against our country's principles. In California, the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLER) has begun challenging the federal constitutionality of state anti-prostitution laws, building on precedent established in Lawrence v. Texas -- the Supreme Court case that decriminalized acts of sodomy in 2003. It is still too early to know where this legal challenge will take us.

Even though the White House refuses to recognize sex workers as a population worth spending HIV funding or resources on, there has been enough global research to prove that the eradication of HIV is impossible without addressing the health disparities experienced by sex workers -- disparities that continue to exist because of social marginalization and criminalization.

Many female and trans sex-worker activists wonder what changes will come now that rentboy.com, a visible face for the LGBTQ community since 1997, has been struck down. "What male sex workers experienced this week is nothing new," says Cris Sardina, director of the Desiree Alliance. "Non-male identified sex workers know too well the violence that the state is capable of when enforcing [anti-prostitution] laws."

Historically, male sex workers have largely operated with impunity, while female and transgender sex workers have felt the greatest impact of anti-prostitution, and now human-trafficking laws. Earlier this month in Alaska, a woman who set up basic forms of safe working conditions was found guilty of trafficking herself and others into prostitution. Last year, Monica Jones fought back against a "manifestation of prostitution" charge after she was arrested simply for walking down the street as a transwoman of color.

These are the daily realities with which so many people are living with. While the "moral" right wing focuses so heavily on the fantasy of weak women held in bondage by grimy foreign men, everyone else in the sex trade is left wondering: where are our rights?

Derek J. Demeri is South Jersey regional director for the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance.


Copyright © 2015 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.


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