This article appears in VICE Magazine's Algorithms issue, which investigates the rules that govern our society, and what happens when they're broken.
It was about 6 a.m. on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, and Jeffrey Hurant was awakened to the sound of his doorbell ringing. Groggy, he dragged himself out of bed, went downstairs, and opened the door, where he came face-to-face with four Department of Homeland Security agents hoisting battering rams, outfitted in tactical gear.
They stomped into Hurant’s house, moving from room to room seizing computers, flash drives, Kindles—anything they could find that could possibly contain the data they were looking for. Hurant—who was the CEO of Rentboy, a website for men seeking male escorts—watched as every electronic device he owned was hauled away. None of the agents would tell him why this was happening. After letting him get dressed, they cuffed him and placed him in a van.
Meanwhile, in another part of New York City, TT Baum, the brand manager of Rentboy’s massage site, ManWorks.com, and about a dozen other Rentboy employees were working in the company's corporate office when DHS agents unlocked the front door and ransacked the place, Hurant and Baum said. Rentboy had existed for 18 years when DHS raided it, and there was nothing secretive about the site. Everyone knew that Rentboy served to connect mostly cis male male escorts to their clients, even though no financial transactions were made on the site. If there was any question whether escorts were selling sex, Rentboy’s yearly Hookies awards laid them to rest. Airing on Showtime, the male-escort Oscars featured awards for Best Porn Star Escort, Best Cock, and Best Bottom.
Baum watched while every hard drive, computer, and phone was confiscated and six of his co-workers were shackled and whisked away. Agents seized 836 terabytes of data from Hurant’s home and Rentboy’s office that day, the equivalent of 1,600 laptops worth of data, Hurant said.
Hurant rode in the DHS van through New York City until it stopped at an ad agency on 23rd street between 9th and 10th, he said. After the agents led him inside, Hurant realized the ad agency was a cover for a secret DHS office. They fingerprinted him, collected DNA samples, and took pictures before taking him to a federal courthouse lockup in Brooklyn. When he got inside, he saw six guys from Rentboy there.
“And then I was like, ‘Oh, that's what's happening,’” Hurant recalled. “I didn't expect it to happen. I mean this kind of advertising had been going on for years… When I started, it was in the back of every magazine. New York magazine had escort ads in it.”
Inside the freezing cold lockup, the six men and one woman were arraigned and charged with promoting prostitution. They each faced five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Hurant’s bail was the highest, at $350,000. His father put his house up as collateral. After nearly eight hours in lockup, they were released.
Within a few days, Rentboy was shuttered.
The feds never fully explained why they targeted Rentboy. After all, it was one of dozens of escort websites that existed online. Even the New York Times editorial board rose to Hurant’s defense. “The criminal complaint is so saturated with sexually explicit details, it’s hard not to interpret it as an indictment of gay men as being sexually promiscuous,” they wrote. But reasoning aside, when DHS took down Rentboy, they didn’t just destroy a male escort website: they destroyed a network that helped keep thousands of male sex workers safe.
At the time of its shuttering, about 3,000 men were placing ads on Rentboy, and they didn’t just use the site for advertising. Many also took part in the free workshops held around the country by Rentboy’s educational arm, Rentu, that taught escorts about everything from HIV prevention to how to correctly file taxes. As an incentive, if escorts attended a class, they would receive two weeks of free advertising on Rentboy.
The courses were a part of their non-profit arm, HookOnline, which included a website that provided advice on how to safely interact with clients and deal with police, and a place for live chatting with experts about topics like the Affordable Care Act. There were also forums for escorts to communicate with each other and share knowledge about clients.
When Hurant founded Rentboy in 1997, male escorts, particularly gay male escorts, were generally a reviled group, portrayed on film as murderers (The Living End), thieves (Midnight Cowboy), or drug addicts (Less Than Zero). Rarely, if ever, is the profession shown in a positive light in popular media ( 2017’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a notable exception). Rentboy was a rebuke to these images.
“We were always working to reduce the stigma and increase the pride that people had in the fact that they were doing a job that was noble and it helped people,” Hurant said. “I feel like we did everything we could to make sure that we taught survival skills and that people were thriving.”
Presenting male escorts not as victims or as debaucherous, but as people with dignity who were doing important work, was a radical notion. Female sex workers and their allies have been making the argument that sex work is a form of labor that deserves dignity and respect for decades. Rentboy’s clients were nearly all queer men, and the site was a profitable and politically active part of the gay community. Rentboy donated to HIV/AIDS groups, provided a scholarship fund for its escorts, and even created a #LoveWhatIDo section of their webpage with beautiful headshots of escorts accompanied by interviews.
But was their visibility what made them a target, as opposed to multiple other forums where men sold sex? Rob Yaeger, an escort who advertised on Rentboy from 2010 to 2015, thinks so. The Hookies were “an open and obvious celebration of sex work,” Yaeger said. “In hindsight, though, perhaps that openness led to the raid: Here was a sparkling LGBTQ event that celebrated what technically could be considered a crime.”
Three days after the closing of Rentboy, many of the thousands of male escorts moved their profiles to Hurant’s competitor, Rentmen, which is based in Hamburg, Germany, and therefore not subject to U.S. laws. Although similar in name, Rentmen lacked most of everything that made Rentboy a safe haven for escorts: the classes, the community and the sense of dignity bestowed upon escorts.
“Rentboy was a much better platform in basically every way: It was easier to navigate and the quality of the clients was considerably better,” Yaeger said. “The mere fact that Rentboy did have community outreach and offered social programs differentiates it from what we have now, which is basically nothing. “
Charges ended up being dropped against the six of the seven Rentboy employees, and only Hurant was left facing prison time. He wanted to plead not guilty, but his lawyers advised against it. Hurant said it would have cost around $750,000 to defend himself against the government if the case had gone to trial, with no guarantee of a victory. So, like 90 percent of federal defendants, Hurant pled guilty. The judge assigned to his case, Margo J. Brodie, was sympathetic to him, and sentenced him to six months in federal prison, less than half the mandatory sentence. In court she said of Rentboy, “The very thing that was illegal, it also did a lot of good.”
While Baum didn’t face charges, he did lose his job, which he’d had for around three years. He continued to work as, per his description, a sacred intimate and erotic healer, which involves things like erotic body work sessions. But the loss of his job and of Rentboy hit him hard. He’d been a sex worker activist for years before he worked at Rentboy, and was drawn to the company's social justice bent. After Rentboy was destroyed, “I took a break from activism because I was feeling burnt out,” Baum said. “As you might imagine, having your company be hated by the federal government took a little bit of a toll on my mental health.”
“Rentboy disillusioned a lot of male and masculine-of-center sex workers,” Baum explained. They didn’t want to create a new community because they saw the threats of prison, he thinks. “Unlike female sex workers who live with the threat of violence and incarceration all the time, that's not necessarily a part of our day-to-day experience as male sex workers.” Research on male sex workers is lacking, but some research shows that male sex workers get assaulted by clients at lower rates than female sex workers. Around 80 percent of prostitution arrests in the United States are of women. But what happened to Rentboy made male sex workers realize on a visceral level that arrest was a very real possibility.
On August 16, 2017, as the escort business carried on without him, Hurant was booked at a medium-security federal correctional institution in upstate New York (he also had to pay a $7,500 fine). He worked in the boiler room at the prison, handwriting his memoir against the backdrop of the hissing of steam, eating Thai noodles that his friend would skillfully prepare in the microwave.
Nearly four years passed, and in early 2019, Baum was frustrated that, in his eyes, nothing had come to take Rentboy’s place. “What we had had in 2015 as far as resources and best practices and feeling the ability to call each other out when we saw people doing stuff that was endangering not just themselves, but the rest of the community, that had all disappeared,” Baum said. Due to the restrictions imposed by SESTA/FOSTA, an anti-sex trafficking law implemented in 2018 that holds websites responsible for what their users post, it was nearly impossible to create a website like Rentboy.
By this time, Baum, a cis white man, was ready to talk about recreating what the feds had destroyed. So in March of 2019, he tweeted out a call, asking if there were others who might want to join him at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, a yearly conference for sex researchers, educators and sex industry workers, in a discussion about how to organize male sex workers. “I do!” a New Orleans-based sex worker activist named Shaan Lashun, who is a Black trans man, tweeted back.
“As far as we know, we’re the first org that specifically focused on transmasculine sex workers as part of our mission”
By convening focus groups with male sex workers, the pair discovered that after the Rentboy raid, men—including former members of the site—had tried to enter activist groups, but found themselves not welcomed. "There’s a perceived notion that, because the work is different, that we can’t offer anything constructive in those circles,” one told them. The culture of male and female sex workers is different, some focus group members argued. While female sex workers usually check their clients’ references before taking them on, male escorts do not. “If I asked that, I’d get laughed at,” one said.
These weren’t the only barriers: the focus group members also didn’t think they should be asking for help. There’s an “idea that we have a perceived safety or privilege or untouchability as cis-male and transmasculine providers that really isn’t there,” one attendee said. “And it kind of perpetuates that ‘every man for himself’ is the better road to go down.” The focus group members recognized that many male escorts are more privileged than female escorts—they are targeted by law enforcement much less frequently than female escorts are and are subjected to less violence—and they wanted to figure out a way to acknowledge their privilege.
On August 16, 2019, in a 728-square foot conference room in an Alexandria, Virginia, Hilton Hotel, Baum and Lashun stood in front of about 30 attendees at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit. Their talk was entitled “The Challenges of Male Provider Mobilization,” and its intent was to ask how male sex workers could become “an added voice” in the sex work community “without capitalizing on male privilege.” Both were really nervous, wondering if the larger sex worker community would be hostile to a male-focused panel.
At the beginning of the presentation, the focus on men confused the audience, who mistakenly thought the panel was about sex-worker clients. (Even among some sex workers, the idea that sex workers are women and clients are men persists).
“There were several folks from the femme-of-center community who came in with good intentions, like, ‘We want to help, What do you need?” Baum said. “And when our answer was, we don't even know what we need yet because our community has been kind of decimated…that was shocking to a lot of folks in the room.”
They ended up having such a positive response that Baum and Lashun decided to start a new organization just for masculine-of-center sex workers, particularly trans men.
“As far as we know, we’re the first org that specifically focused on transmasculine sex workers as part of our mission,” Lashun said. “This demographic of sex workers is extremely underserved. There's a lot of misinformation that transmasculine folks don't do sex work at all.”
They were stymied, however, by SESTA/FOSTA. Many websites and classifieds where sex workers posted ads shut down out of fear of prosecution, including Craigslist’s personal ads and CityVibe. The Department of Justice used the law to shut down CityXGuide. The law was supposed to prevent sex trafficking, which there is no evidence it has done. There is evidence that it has made sex work less safe, however. According to a 2020 survey of 136 sex workers by Danielle Blunt and Ariel Wolf of the sex worker led collective Hacking//Hustling, one third of sex workers had experienced an increase in violence from clients since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA and 99 percent of respondents said the law “did not make them feel safer.” Sex trafficking and pimping markedly increased in San Francisco in 2018; nationwide, pimps began targeting sex workers as well. Police had trouble tracking down human traffickers because the websites traffickers used were no longer in operation. And research shows that when Craigslist created erotic classifieds sections in the early 2000s, the female homicide rate dropped considerably.
In spite of SESTA/FOSTA (or perhaps because of it) Lashun and Baum launched the Molly House Project in November 2019, naming it after the 18th and 19th century British term for taverns or public houses that served as meeting places for homosexual men. “Molly Houses were this safe place for us to be ourselves back in the day,” Baum said. “We want to create a safe space for you to be able to talk openly about what your experiences as a masculine-of-center sex worker.”
The organization was going to be primarily virtual: monthly Zoom calls, live Twitter chats, newsletters, and a compilation of resources. The pair first reached out to the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) for support. “They pitched this idea to me that there was this huge gap in online community for masculine-of-center sex workers,” said Christa Daring, the inaugural executive director of Sex Workers Outreach Project. “I'm trans myself and tend to be on a masculine-of-center spectrum, so it's close to me as a person, wanting to make sure [there’s a space] for transmasculine sex workers who sometimes don't really fit into either world.”
SWOP became their financial sponsor, handling donations, taxes, and insurance, and serving as the parent non-profit. (Officially, Molly House is a “project” of SWOP.) Some money came from a donation PornHub gave to SWOP, and individuals contributed as well. “Honestly, we haven't been as successful as other fundraisers I've seen and part of me knows it is because of who our demographic is, and the perception of the lack of need or the perception of automatic privilege…because [we’re] men or masculine,” Lashun said.
They attempted to recreate in some ways what Rentboy had provided: a space for discussions among sex workers about safety and best practices. Their Twitter account and newsletter have served to warn members of the community about the dangers of using Rentmen’s chat feature to talk to clients because it isn’t encrypted and the company’s terms of service say “that they will hand over any relevant data to law enforcement during investigations.”
They began recruiting members on Grindr, setting up a page for their organization, but nobody joined. So they switched to another tactic, relying on their own networks of people to get members, and began to organize in-person meet-ups in cities in late 2019.
Still, SESTA/FOSTA prevents MHP from doing too much. “Anything that could be construed as enabling prostitution is liable under SESTA/FOSTA,” said Daring. “If we say that we are helping somebody do sex work in a safer way or giving them advice”—that could be enough to get them in trouble.
“If we're caught organizing in a way that makes us safer, in a way that we share resources, in a way that we educate each other, we are automatically, in the eyes of the federal government, trafficking each other.”
The pandemic hitting in March 2020 ended MHP’s in-person meetings, but it led to a wave of interest and memberships after MHP set up a COVID-19 relief fund for male and masculine-of-center sex workers. Within four days, 70 people applied for funds, and within a week they had to stop applications because they’d run out.
Creating a fund for sex workers who are men or masculine-of-center is highly unusual in the sex work community, and it caused tensions to flare. In spite of being clear about who the funds were for, they still got a lot of trans women applying. “There's just difficulty in communicating that not everything that says trans is for trans women,” Lashun said. “We've gotten a lot of pushback. They're like, ‘Oh, well, you don't care about the girls. And what about us?’ To which we respond: Here's a link of seven specific funds for trans women only. This one over here, this is for us.”
MHP continues to hold monthly virtual meetings focused on timely issues. In June, they hosted a #blacksexworkersmatter meeting, and last month they invited FTM porn star Dick Dopamine, where they discussed Disclosure, the new Netflix documentary about how transgender people have been portrayed in the media.
Later this year, MHP plans to create “an online forum that exists outside of the meeting space, where we can gather and share resources and ideas,” Baum said. “We're also working on beefing up the website, so there's a resources page for people around the country. Like, if you have physical need of something that you can't get through Molly House, we can at least point you in the right direction to have access wherever you are in the world.”
“In an ideal world [MHP] would be a rebirth of HookU,” Lashun said. But even making a video instructing sex workers on how to best set their rates could led to serious legal consequences. "Under the current law, we become traffickers,” Baum replied. “If we're caught organizing in a way that makes us safer, in a way that we share resources, in a way that we educate each other, we are automatically, in the eyes of the federal government, trafficking each other.”
While MHP continues to find its footing, Hurant has laid low since his release from prison in February 2018. Although he got off probation early last year, he hasn’t spoken to the press until now.
“Even talking about this, I realized how PTSD I am about it,” Hurant said. “It’s like somebody who's been abused in some way. You know, like, I just feel like I've been told to shut up so much about this, and I've gone through so much pain for it.” Hurant doesn’t have any plans to re-enter the escort business, but he says that he misses Rentboy every day. “My job wasn't about keeping suffering in the world. It was about multiplying joy,” he said. “I don't see how society is any better off now.”
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