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The Reformed Hooker: A Rentboy Explains How His Life Has Been Changed

rentboy1Rentboys are just lazy.

At least that’s what I used to tell myself during my first couple of years living in New York City, a time I now like to think of as my “re-education,” or the unlearning of those stubborn Midwest values so deeply rooted in my mind. And I didn’t consider myself conservative either for passing that judgement onto the men that were pointed out to me as escorts or Rentboys. After all, I was a go-go dancer. I may have shaken my ass but I drew the line firmly — albeit self-righteously — there. Rather than turn tricks, I chose a path of odd and poorly-paying jobs to “make it,” a plan that while grueling, was at least “real work,” I assured myself. Those other guys at the bar were “just hookers.” “How could Rentboys be so blind as to think they could sell their bodies and be considered ‘professionals?’ How could they ever expect to be taken seriously?”

I laugh when I now think about how “liberal” I considered myself in my early twenties simply for being an out gay man,” especially considering that up until Tuesday, August 25, I was an active, even featured member on Rentboy.com. I laugh, and I cringe. The old judgements I held for the Rentboys and sex workers I encountered in my first years in New York City was completely textbook. I was unhappy with my life. I was broke. And most importantly, I was jealous of other men in my situation who were bold enough to take control of their lives, bodies, and desires to make their own happiness. I feel the same respect now for female and trans sex workers. I also recognize that my personal circumstances and decision to become a Rentboy can in no way speak for all those involved in sex work. However, for the scope of this editorial, I’m going to draw from my own (literal) firsthand experience.

Related: RentBoy CEO And Six Others Arrested In Prostitution Ring Bust

00_Cover_Rentboy_2014_CalendarThe judgement I felt was certainly a part of that brittle bedrock of “American values,” but it is not unique to small town America either. That moralizing doctrine that loves to play police man is also a part of a larger narrative shared by many gay men, especially in urban areas like NYC where our sexuality itself is rarely called into question, neither socially nor legally. It’s baffling and yet it makes perfect sense. For many adults, “being gay” is almost as normal as, well, “being straight.” It is the expression of my sexuality though that is still regularly called into question, more often than not by other gay men. Now that Rentboys have been publicly labeled as criminals, it’s become even easier for straight and gay communities to write us off as “just hookers.”

Thankfully for me, by my mid-twenties my personal biases against Rentboys dramatically shifted, especially when I acknowledged that they stemmed more from my own desire and interest in sex work. I had also befriended a plethora of people from my adventures in NYC. While no two were alike, what I was shocked to discover was that sex work wasn’t actually all that uncommon. It wasn’t uncommon for a freelance writer to vend a helping hand during a lap dance. It wasn’t uncommon for a photographer to massage his way through one of NYC’s most distinguished but exorbitantly expensive art schools. Sex work was actually fairly common, whether a person chose to occasionally dabble or make it his career. Even more so, after my first Rentboy session, I was shocked to discover how natural it felt it to me, a literal “second hand” nature. Escorting wasn’t harmful to me or any of the people I knew. If anything it empowered us to take control of our financial situations and improve our lives.

51I5PHRSU7L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I like to think that I’ve since graduated from my NYC “re-education” after signing on as a Rentboy, but even now I’m constantly surprised and then humbled by the range of talented, smart, and well-adjusted sex workers that cross my path. Unbeknownst to them, many have become role models for me, examples of how I can simultaneously use my body to build myself a better life and take pleasure from it as well. I have to continually remind myself, “Oh yeah, it is possible to be a sex worker and be well adjusted.” And on its tail end is the more personal reminder, “Hey, YOU are well adjusted. You’ve got your own apartment and health insurance and a savings account. You pay taxes, and you built back your credit.  You open the door for old ladies and tip your barista and wink at dogs and you are ‘ok.’”

I owe these self-assured feelings to my role models, many of whom were arrested last Tuesday and accused of running an “internet brothel.” Their kindness, so generously shared, helped me gain a more positive understanding of myself. But now the public is told that Rentboys and sex workers from all walks of life are criminals. Our careers are wrong, our bodies are wrong, our desires are wrong. We are being told we are “just hookers.” It’s my old prejudiced mantra echoing ghost like in my ear and boldly exclaimed across the social media boards: “Those Rentboys are going to crawl back to the corners they came from, lol,” insert winky-smiley face.

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Authorities removing boxes of files from RentBoy.com’s headquarters in Manhattan on August 25.

That emoji may be cruel — never mind pointless — but I do understand those comments, because I once quietly thought them to myself as well. They are tributaries to the deeper misconception that sex workers run away from ourselves and the “real world.” However, I know that it was only through sex work that I began to cultivate a better understanding of myself. I am not “just a hooker,” I am a “reformed hooker.” However, my absolution comes not from denouncing my involvement in sex work, but instead from accepting that I can live my life fully and whole heartedly, all the while employing my body as I see fit.

Before Tuesday, August 25, that would have been the conclusion to this article. As much as I wish I could wrap things up neatly and conclude, “Rentboys are people too, yay sex positivity,” I’d be ignoring the multitude of issues now facing myself along with every escort and employee connected with the Rentboy raid. Technically, I am indeed backed into a corner. I’d like nothing more than to publicly decry the raid — social opinion and “hater gays” be damned. But there is also the very real fear of further legal persecution. I may have personally come to terms and won against my personal prejudices of escorting, but publicly, the struggle to recognize sex work as “real work” and its employees as real people is still unfolding before us.

[Editor’s note: The author of this op-ed requested his name not be used. The opinion expressed here is his own.]