What are multiple United States law enforcement agencies doing shutting down Rentboy.com, a website serving male escorts and their male clients?

Law enforcement officers seize evidence from the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com in New York August 25, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

On August 25 federal agents raided the offices of Rentboy.com in Manhattan, arresting the CEO and six current or former employees. The government also took steps to shut down the site and issued warrants for the seizure of assets. 

The investigations involved US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations, the US Attorney's Office, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the New York City Police Department.

The US Department of Justice says it is charging Rentboy.com with “conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.” Acting US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Kelly T. Currie said: “Rentboy.com attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution.”

Surely the Department of Homeland Security has more pressing concerns than to fritter away precious time and resources on something that shouldn’t even be criminalized in the first place.

Rentboy.com connects male escorts to clients in the same way that Uber does for transport, or Airbnb does for accommodation. There are no middlemen, thus affording users control and autonomy over the services brokered through the website. The website connects consenting adults. None of the government statements about the raid have alleged any coercion or involvement of underage persons.

Surely the Department of Homeland Security has more pressing concerns than to fritter away precious time and resources on something that shouldn’t even be criminalized in the first place.

It is hard to see the harm done by Rentboy.com, but it’s easy to see the harm done by the raid on society at large. The criminalization of voluntary, consensual sexual relations among adults is incompatible with the rights to personal autonomy and privacy – internationally recognized human rights that everyone, including individuals engaged in sex work, is entitled to. Criminalization creates barriers for those engaged in sex work to exercise basic rights and to seek access to justice, health care, and other available services.

In July the Obama administration released an updated National HIV/AIDS Strategy that virtually ignored sex workers, heading in the opposite direction of UNAIDS, which appeals to governments to work toward decriminalization. On August 20 US-based LGBT groups released a statement in support of Amnesty International’s recent resolution supporting sex worker rights. Subjecting sex work to the criminal law contributes to conditions where violence and other abuse are tolerated. 

Criminalizing sex work does considerable harm – it endangers sex workers, it compromises public health, and it infringes on human rights. Legal recognition of sex workers and their occupation maximizes their protection and dignity.

The main cause of the raid appears to be the illegality of an enterprise that should – from a public health, human rights, and common sense perspective – be decriminalized. Subjective morality is never a good basis for lawmaking.