Commentary Human Rights

How Sex Workers’ Rights Made the Mainstream

Melissa Gira Grant

When law enforcement targets sex workers and the websites they use, mainstream outlets and organizations tend to give them a pass. But with the raid on Rentboy.com, that script has flipped.

Homeland Security agents raided Rentboy.com in late August, seizing the escort ads website and displacing an estimated 10,000 advertisers. As with similar crackdowns on online sex work, sex worker rights groups were the first to draw attention to the politics behind the Rentboy raid. But not long after, they were joined by high-profile organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the editorial board of the New York Times. On Thursday last week, LGBTQ, civil liberties, and sex workers’ rights activists gathered outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn where Rentboy staff were arraigned, calling for charges against them to be dropped and for the decriminalization of sex work—a topic that has, for the moment, become one of mainstream media interest.

The crackdown may have felt unprecedented to some, but it’s the public’s response that’s new. When law enforcement targets sex workers and the websites they use, mainstream outlets and organizations tend to give them a pass. But with Rentboy, that script has flipped. Rentboy was a website where men sought sex with men, and as such, media and advocacy groups who don’t typically bring a political analysis to sex work responded to the raid primarily as an anti-gay attack, while also calling for an end to the policing of sex workers. Some American LGBTQ organizations in particular have rallied around the political nature of the raid—in a way women’s rights groups in the United States, when women sex workers are targeted in similar raids, have not.

In fact, it might be the relative silence of women’s rights groups on the Rentboy raid that has provided space for sex workers’ rights to become the main focus of the story.

The “Pink Scare”

The Rentboy raid was the latest phase of what an anonymous sex worker, writing in the Guardian, referred to as the “Pink Scare”—an escalating panic directed at the intersection of sex work and technology. Though the focus on a men’s site is a twist, the overall agenda is not new: About one year ago, federal agents also raided the escort website MyRedBook, a site used primarily by women escorts. “Neither bust is surprising, although both landed like a punch to the face,” Charlotte Shane wrote at Jezebel. “To sex workers, it’s just more evidence of the campaign against us.”

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When law enforcement came for MyRedBook for sex work ads—and before that, Craigslist and Backpage—there was criticism, but not like this. Immediately, commentators recognized the Rentboy raid as not only an attack on civil liberties, but on sex workers’ rights, including the right to set the conditions of their work.

Perhaps this comes, in part, from the mid-August announcement from Amnesty International in support of sex workers’ rights and the decriminalization of sex work. A week before the Amnesty vote, an anti-sex work organization called the Coalition Against Trafficking Women added a raft of celebrities’ names to their letter opposing Amnesty’s proposed sex work policy before it had even been officially announced. Though the celebrity reaction failed to sway Amnesty, it did garner a response from media outlets that normally might not cover these kinds of policy changes.

Once Amnesty did vote in favor of sex workers’ rights, this attracted another wave of international press attention. Media presented Amnesty’s decision as just the latest in a long fight about sex work, framing sex workers’ position as going against “women’s groups,” as if sex workers were not themselves present in women’s groups, or were maybe even not included in the category “women.” As incomplete as this coverage was, for a moment the issue of criminalizing sex work was back in the news.

In turn, these responses primed the public to examine the impact of criminalizing sex work—rather than dwell on abstract debates—when the Rentboy raid took place. In targeting Rentboy, the New York Times editorial board wrote, law enforcement “shut down a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps.” Critics understood prosecuting online advertisers as an occupational health and safety concern for sex workers. As ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio wrote on the organization’s website, platforms like Rentboy “provide a safer alternative to street-based work where there is less time to negotiate safety needs and higher risk of violence from both clients and law enforcement.”

Much of the coverage also framed the shutdown as an attack on the safety of the LGBTQ community, which includes sex workers. At MSNBC, Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal and Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality wrote, “No one’s life has been improved by the raid on Rentboy, and thousands of lives—a great many of them LGBTQ—are ruined by the criminalization of sex work every day.”

LGBTQ and human rights groups placed responsibility for this harm firmly with law enforcement. “The criminal charges against Rentboy.com by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are misguided and a terrible waste of resources,” the National Center for Lesbian Rights wrote in a statement.

“It is hard to see the harm done by Rentboy.com,” Grame Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Program, wrote on the HRW website, “but it’s easy to see the harm done by the raid on society at large.”

Sex Workers’ Rights as Women’s Rights

Rewind to last summer, when federal agents shut down MyRedBook.com in a similar raid. As with Rentboy, the agents served warrants against the site administrators, charging them with violations of federal law as a result of operating a website where escorts placed their own advertisements. As in stories about Rentboy, news reports circulated somewhat surreal images of federal agents removing boxes of evidence. And as with Rentboy, advertisers on MyRedBook and those in community with them were displaced, losing peer-support networks they fostered through the website. The raid was a direct hit not only to their income, but to their ability to work collaboratively, share information, and support one another without fear of law enforcement surveilling or intervening.

But where some LGBTQ rights activists and organizations joined sex workers in condemning the raid on Rentboy, when sex workers spoke out against the MyRedBook raid—a site primarily used by women to advertise to men—women’s rights organizations said nothing. Where the attacks on Rentboy were understood by activists and organizations as attacks on the LGBTQ community, attacks on MyRedBook were met with comparative silence from feminists, along with cursory reporting and little editorial support from mainstream media.

Why this gap? It could be dismissed as just the result of ongoing “sex wars” within feminism, but there’s more to it than just differing opinions on sex work. Journalists look to feminists as authorities on sex work—something feminists have played into, often to the exclusion of sex workers themselves. This is how “feminists” and “sex workers” are often pitted against each other as discrete groups. As a result, the question of “taking sides” then trumps a struggle for rights, in the media and in the movement. We saw as much in the response to Amnesty International’s vote: the media dwelled on the “controversy” of feminist groups rather than on the actual issues at hand.

What’s lost in this reliance on seeing sex work politics only through “debates” and “sides” is where sex workers fit in. It also obscures the truth: Women’s rights groups have long held a range of perspectives on sex work and sex workers’ rights. In 1973, for example, the mainstream National Organization for Women passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of prostitution. But that was by no means a unilateral decision: In No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, scholar Stephanie Gilmore notes the diversity of approaches NOW chapters took on the subject. Some San Francisco NOW members were members of COYOTE, founded by Margo St. James as the first American prostitutes’ rights organization. (The term “sex work” would not be adopted until the end of the 1970s, after its coinage by sex worker Carol Leigh.) Kansas City and Dallas NOW members were also notably active in COYOTE, engaging in legal advocacy and contributing to its national newsletter, Coyote Howls.

By contrast, New York’s NOW members, like author Susan Brownmiller, promoted the idea that prostitution was intrinsically a form of violence against women, and that men who buy sex should be harshly punished. Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC and NOW New York State, continues this stance today, most recently opposing the Amnesty International decision. Terry O’Neill, national NOW president, also opposed Amnesty’s sex work stance.

Some feminist groups, like the international movement for Wages for Housework and their American chapters, have also stood with sex workers in the past and continue to do so. (I was part of one such effort, I should note, when on staff in 2010 at the Third Wave Foundation—now Third Wave Fund—we issued a collective statement in the wake of attacks on the online sex trade.) There are also many individual American feminist activists, writers, and community organizers who support the rights of sex workers, who may lack the power to issue organizational statements or to shape advocacy campaigns that influence media narratives.

Still, when it comes to standing against law enforcement crackdowns on sex workers, or supporting sex workers’ rights, silence from the overwhelming majority of feminist organizations is the norm. This exclusion of sex workers’ rights from feminism is supported by a range of feminist groups, not only those who explicitly oppose sex work.

There are a few reasons for this, feminist writers and organizers told me.

Some stem from what’s understood as conflict within organizations, where silence is seen as a “neutral” ground. “I was involved in NOW between 2002 and 2012. I didn’t speak publicly in support of decriminalizing sex work until well after I had resigned from my position as a national officer in 2012,” Erin Matson told me. She’s now the co-founder and co-director of the direct action group Reproaction.

“From the perspective of someone who used to be on the inside of an establishment organization,” Matson continued, “I can say there was enormous pressure not to reopen old controversies that I was told had nearly split the organization in two. Literally I was trained to say things in media interviews/public speaking appearances like, ‘there are two sides to that question’ and avoid taking a stand. I was taught that was what ‘leadership’ meant in a divided organization; to silence myself, or be responsible for driving more members away.”

In turn, this silence can create a culture of confusion and exclusion, especially for newcomers. “I’m a third-wave feminist without the gender studies credentials,” Katie Klabusich, freelance writer and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio, told me. “I have approached established feminist spaces—places where people from mainstream, well-known organizations and talking heads gather—without preconceived biases. What was initially surprising and is challenging to navigate as an untethered feminist is the open hostility toward sex workers in mainstream, corporate, ‘white feminism.’ It’s challenging to call out for some (I do it anyway) because it can cut ties and close doors. You can’t be sure where the hostile people are and they swarm to discredit people who support sex workers. I don’t understand where the solidarity gap comes from with feminists and sex workers.”

Nicole Cliffe, co-editor of The Toast, told me she’s “a feminist who supports sex work.” She recalled her part in “discussions of sex work legality that solidify very quickly among generational lines, obviously with a handful of exceptions on either side, and it is almost impossible to convince some older, otherwise fantastic women that being pro-sex workers isn’t some nonsense cooked up by men that young dummies like me have bought, hook line and sinker.” Sex work, she says, “is a job, and a job that the vast majority of studies suggest is substantially safer for all when it’s decriminalized.”

“For me, I came to support sex worker rights because my belief in bodily autonomy means including women’s right to be a sex worker by choice,” freelance writer and feminist activist Lauren Rankin told me. “Honestly, it’s really not hard to say that. It shouldn’t be. For mainstream feminist organizations who are trying to appeal to those in power, taking a stance in support of sex workers may be too much of a risk. (When I say ‘those in power,’ I mean those who occupy patriarchal positions of power. In the case of sex workers, that would mean police officers, conservative legislators, overzealous or sexist prosecutors, or those who occupy a role in power in the prison-industrial complex more broadly.) But we should never make decisions about where we stand as feminists based on what those in power want. That’s how we know we’ve gone astray.”

It will be “a serious black mark on the feminist movement,” Rankin continued, “if we can’t get past this and support the human rights of sex workers. It’s great that independent feminist activists support it, but without structural and organizational support, it won’t be enough.”

Feminism and Rentboy

Even as feminist organizations have remained relatively absent on sex workers’ rights, feminist analysis and action goes on. On the Rentboy raid in particular, writers and commentators have approached the story with a nuanced feminist read on sexuality and gender. They pointed out that media condemning the Rentboy raid was not without its sexist over-simplifications, particularly when contrasted with previous narratives about women sex workers.

At the sex worker-run blog Tits and Sass, Morgan M. Page observed that the media depiction of sex workers affected by the raid on Rentboy was still drawn from law enforcement’s own gendered narrative about sex work. “Male sex workers and the largely male third parties who advertise their services are … ‘running a racket,’ a ‘global criminal enterprise,’ according to the press release. They are positioned as having agency in their lives and thus are not in the pitiable condition of exploited cis women.”

To that end, “The Times board advanced the notion that the men using the site—on both the buying and selling side—were rational actors who were victimized only by hectoring law enforcement,” Lily Burana wrote for The Cut. “Leaving aside the faulty assumption that all men who professionally service other men are gay, a question emerges. Why can’t the issues concerning female providers be presented so pragmatically?”

As it stands, the burst of reactive statements and quick-hit media responses, promising as they may sound to activists, are not the same thing as a lasting movement. Some activists have raised concerns that the recent calls for support of sex workers’ rights from LGBTQ organizations in the wake of the Amnesty decision and the Rentboy raid might not amount to much. “It’s not in their DNA to actually take up a cause like this,” Yasmin Nair, a writer and activist with Against Equality, told Truthout. For LGBTQ groups to support sex workers’ rights will mean more than denouncing a raid, but re-evaluating how much sex workers are understood as a core part of their movement.

“[T]he discourse in the Rentboy.com raid aftermath has been a unique ‘privilege’ granted to indoor male sex workers, one that we need to extend to all sex workers—of all genders and races—working in all circumstances,” Katherine Koster of Sex Workers’ Outreach Project USA and Derek J. Demeri of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance wrote at the Huffington Post. Responding to some gay commentators’ claim that the Rentboy raid was “the Stonewall of sex work,” they observed, “If this is the ‘Stonewall’ of sex work, let it not be the aftermath of Stonewall where a privileged minority colonizes and benefits off the work of society’s ‘others.’”

This is a historic part of movement struggles that feminist activists share with LGBTQ activists. Like some LGBTQ activists, some feminists have also pushed back on the mainstream of their rights movement for over-emphasizing white, cisgender, and middle-class concerns.

Still, on sex workers’ rights, few women’s rights groups have yet to arrive at even the statement-making level. NOW’s own 1973 vote is mostly a memory. Individual feminists, as well as those striking out in new organizations and with their own media, continue to feel pushback from the mainstream for their refusal to treat sex work as a matter of debate. Perhaps big-F mainstream feminism will never address the exclusion of sex workers’ rights from their organizations. It may not matter, if the rest of the movement just progresses.

Meanwhile, the criminal and political campaign against sex workers continues apace, “nothing but a knot in the ever-expanding dragnet of state violence,” as the same anonymous sex worker wrote at the Guardian. “It is population control by other means, and it does nothing to improve our lives or our safety.”

In his words, “we can’t afford to lose even one more tool that keeps us alive in this economy of violence.”

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