Rentboy and the Travel Act

In August of 2015, the US escort site rentboy.com was shut down – a raid conducted by the Department of Homeland Security and New York Police Department resulted in the closing of the site and a flurry of rumours and confusion. Theories of money laundering and trafficking were the most popular, but the truth, as always, is more complicated.

The charges laid in the Rentboy case come under a US law known as the Travel Act – a federal statute that forbids the use of US mail services and interstate or foreign travel for the purposes of engaging in criminal acts, including sexual services. The Travel Act also covers telecommunications, like Internet correspondence, though it is an unusual application.

The Rentboy offices were headquartered in New York, where there are laws against the promotion of prostitution, and the Internet is considered, in this case, a medium that would be covered by the Travel Act. Should these charges result in a conviction of conspiring to violate the Travel Act, the CEO, Jeff Davids, and six Rentboy employees could face fines up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison.

The closure of Rentboy did not go unnoticed – voices in the queer and sex worker communities have been raised in support and questioning why Rentboy was targeted over the multitude of other sites offering similar or identical services, but with a more overt focus on women providers and men as clients, or sites that are operating in ways that exploit the workers using their platform. Why was Rentboy targeted so specifically? It is difficult not to focus on the importance of the site to queer and trans workers, or its activism – Rentboy provided opportunities for scholarships and spoke openly about the organization’s politics, and has been a major organizer of the International Escort Awards and the traveling cabaret, Hustlaball. Sex workers, activists and allies have decried the decision to shut down Rentboy, citing the harms it could do to its community.

What does the Rentboy case mean for sex workers that advertise online? It is difficult to say before the trial concludes, but the ripples of Rentboy’s closure are still felt in our community. Earlier this year, as discussed in a previous Safety Tip, VISA and Mastercard’s withdrawal of payment support on Backpage began important conversations and focus to the ability of sex workers to safely advertise, and how our community members can support each other in the face of systemic barriers.

Squirt, which has long been a supporter of sex workers rights and activism, sent out a message to its users as a whole on October 21st explaining why they had decided to remove ‘all references to escort and massage services […] from Squirt.org’. The decision came in response to the Ontario government’s move to enforce Canada’s new sex work laws, and Squirt.org made this move in light of recent events to protect itself and its userbase. Canadian workers may access many mediums in order to advertise their services and network within communities, and in short order to important and supportive hubs have, for different reasons, blinked off the map. Squirt has updated its terms of service to reflect the changes but also continues to assert the importance of sex worker rights, and ‘will continue to champion those rights in our journalism and activism work’.

The waiting game continues into 2016 as the digital landscape shifts as a space for sex workers, not only for work but for community connections, activism, and resource access. The Rentboy case may have further ramifications on sex work online and the future focus of activism efforts, but there is also strength that comes from other platforms, such as Squirt, voicing their support while protecting themselves from government action. HUSTLE continues to provide online outreach supports in the interest of health promotion and helping men who have sex with men to make informed decisions about their personal health care, and will continue to maintain our presence as a resource and referral hub online.

For a summary review of Bill C-36 and the current status of legislation in Canada, including an overview of selling sex online within Canada’s new laws, check out our previous safety tip here. We have also created a short article about online security and privacy, and how to protect yourself: Working Online.