Agency Should Guard our Borders, Not your Bedrooms
With the dust having settled on the raid at the Rent Boy headquarters, some fundamental issues have emerged which warrant discussion in the mainstream media and the LGBT community.
First and foremost, the Department of Homeland Security, who engineered this law enforcement action and deployed its valuable resources to effectuate it, has transparently violated its duties and core mission.
Second, the next civil rights issue in America may be the fight for the legal rights of adult sex workers who want the ability to have dominion and control over their own bodies. Nationally and locally, laws governing prostitution need to be revisited.
Third, given that there is a wealth of transparently obvious hookup sites for consensual adults so much bigger than Rent Boy, with so many more issues, such as Craig's List, was this raid homophobic in origin and purpose?
Duties of Homeland Security
As a New Yorker and American who saw friends and colleagues die in the World Trade Center on 9-11, I am livid with rage over the use of Homeland Security assets to target an alleged consensual adult hookup site. This agency was created to fight terrorism after 3,000 of our citizens were the victims of a heinous massacre.
Do you think there would have been Congressional authorization to fund this billion-dollar agency if George Bush said he wanted to use it to spy on alleged hookers? Since 9-11, life on Earth has not gotten much safer. All over the globe, from passenger trains in Madrid to beach resorts in Indonesia, people are being slaughtered by random acts of terror.
Whether it's ISIS or Al Qaeda, or one of its disciples attacking a military base in Texas, we are all exposed to risks in an ever more dangerous world. Forgive me if I don't join in and echo the remarkably misguided thoughts of a government official, Glenn Sorge,in declaring Rent Boy the kind of "global criminal enterprise" I want our US attorneys to target.
However, my personal views are consistent with the law and facts. You see, the core mission and purpose of Homeland Security is defined by statute and regulations. Its strategic priorities are outlined in regulations and its own quadrennial review. None outline supervision of the world’s oldest profession as a law enforcement goal.
There are five homeland security missions. First, it is to prevent terrorism and enhance national security. Second, to secure and manage our national borders. Third, enforcing our immigration laws. Fourth, safeguarding cyberspace from hackers. Fifth, ensuring a resilient response to national disasters. That's their charge, purpose and duty.
In more detail, Homeland Security published its quadrennial report in 2014 outlining their strategic priorities. Do you want to know what they say they must do? The priorities enumerated in the report declares that the agency will interdict "urgent biological threats," "mass casualty attacks," and "prevent entry of terrorists, diseases, and invasive species." Dare I say that investigating alleged consensual male prostitution was never mentioned in a summary of their high priority targets?
The seven defendants are charged with conspiring to violate the federal Travel Act. First passed in 1961, the Travel Act makes it a federal crime to use the mail or interstate or international travel or communications for the purposes of engaging in certain illegal acts or for distributing the proceeds of certain illegal acts. It was designed to target businesses and bribery not boys and their butts.
Unfortunately, the list of illegal acts covered by the law includes crimes like gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking, extortion, bribery, and arson. While this is not a complete list, the law provides Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney's office a statutory and lawful basis to conduct this investigation. It doesn't provide an answer as to why they did it or whether they should have.
Rentboy.com allegedly violated New York’s laws against prostitution, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office is arguing that Rentboy.com facilitated and promoted prostitution crimes across state and international borders. It wasn't the government's first use of this law either. Last year, the U.S. shut down myredbook.com.
What if Homeland Security broadens its investigation? Dozens of websites like rentmen.com, men4rentnow.com, and hourboy.com facilitate similar advertisements for escorts. Those businesses should today be in panic mode. So you have this singular law enforcement operation, suspect though it is, chilling a score of similarly situated business enterprises.
If the Department of Homeland Security is successful in abusing the intent of the federal Travel Act with this prosecution, it will only extend the power of the federal government to reach beyond its limits and further invade your privacy as a United States citizen.
Sex Workers Have Rights
In separate statements, the Transgender Law Center, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Harm Reduction Coalition, the Global Forum on MSM & HIV, and the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance condemned the raid.
Whether it is a pizza, a penis or some pot, adults should have the free choice to have dominion and control over their own bodies. It is behavior you should control, not your government. As Amnesty International noted in its global report this month, "Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse."
The report recommends that Amnesty International develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work. The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.
Research and reports on sex workers internationally have shown they can be exposed to physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from social services, including health care and housing. It's time to protect them, not persecute them.
The persons using the Internet to engage rent boy contractors are employing sex workers professionally, not exploiting them personally. Customers buy time and companionship. There is no certainty that the shared experience will result in a sexual encounter. Ultimately, what the parties do after they meet should be a matter for them to decide.
It's morally presumptuous for the government to suggest otherwise- and it's going to be extraordinarily difficult to prove up as a matter of law that all of the 10,000 rent boys on their website sold themselves solely for sex. It's going to be equally difficult to prove up that the proprietors and employees of Rentboy had any idea what their contractors were doing every single time they met one of their clients.
If two people decide amongst themselves to barter or pay for sex, with a car or cash, why should that be illegal anyway? If that constitutes prostitution, then it's time, isn't it, to put an end to the laws making prostitution illegal? You worry about the sanctity of your bedroom, and Homeland Security gets to work on the security of our borders. Perhaps the attorneys for the defendants will use this case to challenge the constitutionality of New York's prostitution laws.
The Raid Targets the LGBT Community
The ' 'legitimate' and 'mainstream' LGBT organizations like the HRC are unlikely to jump into this fight. They are too busy trying to be accepted by the establishment to stand up strenuously against it. Rent boys represent a fringe element they don't want to be associated with.
Nevertheless, don't ever forget that the LGBT civil rights movement did not start with corporate Vice Presidents stepping out of the closet in the workplace. It began with drag queens taking to the street in Greenwich Village and AIDS activists marching on Washington.
While we have put an end to sodomy laws and advanced the cause of gay rights nationally, personal acceptance of your sexual identity still remains a challenge for millions of Americans. Escorting services provide a vehicle and conduit for human beings to explore their own identities privately and individually. It's healthy, not harmful. Those decisions should be protected, not prosecuted. Perhaps this raid may the impetus to start a class action on behalf of those whose rights have been compromised.
The government's decision to target the largest gay escort service in the world is clearly a message to every other similar one so operating. It says none of you are beyond our means or outside our striking distance. It's also a threat to every young gay man and client that ever contracted with rent boy. The criminal complaint enumerated only a few, but an out of control prosecutor can target many more.
You only have to read the criminal complaint to understand how badly the government wants to go after the fetishes of the LGBT community. With detail and specificity, the government points to individual boys who have openly advertised their services. Their position is these young men promoted and engaged in acts of male prostitution by advertising physical attributes, sexual positions and pet fetishes, such as water sports and spanking. The complaint goes into much more detail to try to prove every escort is selling themselves for sex.
The United States of Surveillance walked out of the Rent Boy offices in New York City with dozens of cartons and a host of email servers. Investigators employed by those law enforcement agencies will now methodically collect and systematically gather identifiable data including your personal communications. They will be stored and housed, saved for their random review. If you feel uncomfortable, unfortunately, you should be.
The cartons the Homeland Security Agency collected won't be discarded. They will be reviewed and catalogued, gathered in a data base so that law enforcement will know a lot more about your lifestyle then you want them to know. It's up to us to make sure that does not happen.
In closing, you should be outraged that the rights the gay community has spent years fighting for are now being compromised by a misguided criminal prosecution of a gay escort site that has been operating in the sunlight for 18 years. Using their powers and the existing laws, our government has shut it down and will likely put its operators in jail for a year or two.
The Department of Justice was so proud of their Herculean effort three rows of special agents showed up at the courthouse for the defendants’ first hearing. Then I thought of the journalist beheaded by ISIS in Syria, and I said to myself, “my god, this is their idea of safeguarding homeland security?”
What if the investigation turns out you used the services of these young men? Are you next? And what of these young men? Aside from the obvious and immediate loss of income streams, will our government not charge some or many of them down the road? Will there be constructive tax audits of their tax returns, subpoenas to find out who their clients are, forfeitures and asset seizures of their property? Should we automatically presume an invasive law enforcement agency will look the other way?
Frankly, we should all be very frightened. The government has spied on us for a long time in many ways. The only thing that has changed is the way they do it. But every way they do it compromises your freedom and the integrity of law enforcement in America.
Norm Kent, the publisher of South Florida Gay News, is a constitutional rights and criminal defense attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.