A website on which male escorts advertise just got busted. The CEO of Rentboy.com and six of its employees have conspired to promote prostitution, according to an indictment unsealed by Kelly T. Currie, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York; Glenn Sorge, a Department of Homeland Security official; and William Bratton, the Commissioner of the New York City Police Department.
Prostitution is illegal. And if the graphic criminal complaint can be trusted, there’s strong evidence that the site facilitated and encouraged prostitution.
On the other hand, having pondered how many man hours the Department of Homeland Security should spend trying to stop men paying other men for consensual sex, there’s a strong case can be made that the answer is “zero.” I find it hard to believe New Yorkers want the NYPD working this beat. And can’t federal prosecutors find more threatening conspiracies to thwart?
Even if this case didn’t represent a dubious use of scarce criminal-justice resources, I’d still argue that, in the end, it will leave the world a worse place than it is today.
Gay prostitution is not a riskless enterprise. Like all intercourse, it can spread sexually transmitted diseases. Just like maids, masseuses, plumbers, and babysitters, gay prostitutes enter the homes of strangers, making them vulnerable to being attacked; and just like straight sex workers, football players, attorneys, and politicians, some gay prostitutes will always stand behind their past choices while others will feel that the job caused them some degree of physical, mental, or spiritual injury.
But I’ve seen no evidence presented that Rentboy.com has even a single victim. Human trafficking doesn’t seem to be a large concern among gay prostitutes; there’s some evidence that homeless gay youth may be particularly likely to turn to sex for survival, but it’s difficult to understand how shutting down the site would improve their situation. The practical effect of the site and others like it has been to move prostitutes off the street and onto the web and to enable safer, more predictable encounters for prostitutes and customers. And there is zero chance that taking the site down will end gay prostitution.
Then there are the seven people who’ve been charged.
Instead of earning a living facilitating consensual exchanges, they’re taking up time on a court docket. If prosecutors get their way, they’ll be locked up at taxpayer expense. The majority of the public whose lives are unaffected by the gay prostitution scene will be no better off, despite footing the bill; and the small number of people whose lives are touched by the scene will mostly be worse off.
At Reason, Scott Shackelford sympathizes with a hypothetical customer.
“Not all gay men look like they belong in gym ads,” he writes. “While the increased acceptance of homosexuality has made it easier for gay men and women to come out earlier in their lives, we still have untold numbers of older gay men who came out late (or still aren’t comfortable coming out at all) and didn’t move to big gay metropolises like New York City or San Francisco to find love. Gay men (and women!) are still a small part of the population. It is inaccurate—even heartless—to assume that all gay men are able to find a sexual companion through conventional means ... Say you’re a pudgy, lonely 55-year-old in southern Illinois with a fetish for something very kinky. You’re a minority within a minority. What do you do if you can’t find somebody around you who shares your interest?”
Maybe that man looks elsewhere on the web, making the government’s action pointless. Maybe he looks on the street, creating a negative externality that comes with street prostitution. Or maybe the oldest profession endures, as it always will, but at the margins there’s a lonely 55-year-old that makes do with pornography instead. If you want to foot the bill for the prisons, courts, and law-enforcement agencies necessary to bring about that “best-case scenario,” support existing prostitution laws and prosecutors. If not, it’s hard to see much to celebrate in the announcement.