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Raid on Gay Male Escort Service Rentboy.com Questioned by LGBT Activists

Feds raided the website's offices on Tuesday, arresting and hauling off seven employees to Federal District Court in Brooklyn to face charges of promoting prostitution.
August 27, 2015, 8:57am
Photo via Flickr

Gay rights advocates and others are asking why federal authorities bothered to raid the Manhattan offices of gay male escort service Rentboy.com on prostitution allegations.

It's one thing when federal prosecutors, Department of Homeland Security agents, and New York City police crack down on violent pimps trafficking in victimized young women, critics said. Few, if any, people, however — including federal prosecutors in court papers — have suggested that the young, strapping bucks who advertise on Rentboy were unwillingly exchanging sexual favors for money.

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"I'm all in favor of government regulating potentially exploitative industries," said Roger Lancaster, an anthropologist at George Mason University and author of Sex Panic and the Punitive State, in an interview with VICE News. But, he added, "I'm confident that most of the young men involved in these transactions are fairly well aware of what they're doing."

The feds raided the website's offices near Union Square on Tuesday, arresting and hauling off seven employees to Federal District Court in Brooklyn to face charges of promoting prostitution.

"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," said acting US Attorney Kelly Currie in a statement.

Rentboy charged subscribers approximately $60 to $300 a month to advertise on the website, according to Currie's complaint. Subscribers could then choose different escorts according to sex acts they were willing to perform (e.g. vanilla, S&M, dressing up like a football coach), the complaint said.

Receiving some 500,000 unique hits a day, Rentboy operated around the world, according to the complaint. Between 2010 and 2015, the website grossed $10 million.

If convicted, the website's employees face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines, Currie's press release said. Access to Rentboy was spotty on Wednesday afternoon.

Chief executive Jeffrey Hurant, 50, denied the charges. "I don't think we do anything to promote prostitution," Hurant told the New York Daily News. "I think we do good things for good people, and bring good people together."

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That sounded a little disingenuous. The complaint mentions how the website gave out International Escort Awards nicknamed "Hookies." The site billed the awards as "covering all aspects of the oldest profession as presented in the newest media."

But some critics asked whether or not it mattered if Rentboy was really a front for a prostitution ring.

Less than a week before the raid and arrests, a group of LGBT rights organizations issued a joint statement in support of decriminalizing sex work.

"Laws criminalizing sexual exchange — whether by the seller or the buyer — impede sex workers' ability to negotiate condom use and other boundaries, and force many to work in hidden or remote places where they are more vulnerable to violence," the groups said. "These laws serve only to drive the industry further underground, make workers less able to negotiate with customers on their own terms, and put those who engage in criminalized sex work at higher risk for abduction and sex trafficking."

The folk at the libertarian magazine Reason were nonplussed about the incident.

"There is absolutely no pretense of pretending there are any 'victims' here," one of the magazine's bloggers wrote. "Nobody is charged with 'trafficking.' There is absolutely nothing in the complaint that even hints at the idea that there is anything nonconsensual happening, that so much as a single human being is harmed, even tangentially, by letting men pay for sex with other men."

Professor Lancaster noted that, ironically, even though gay couples can now marry, the Rentboy raid suggested that authorities aren't any more accepting of the gay lifestyle.

"At the moment, when you have certain domesticated forms of sexuality being normalized, you have all the other variant sexual acts being more aggressively stigmatized," he said.

The US attorney's charges might reflect that bias. The prosecutor's complaint recalls Al Pacino's classic but flawed 1980 film Cruising in its caricatures of gay sex acts, defining "fisting," for example, in a gratuitous manner that implied that some people don't — or shouldn't — enjoy the experience.  "To place much of the hand, or the entire hand, in the bunghole," the complaint reads, "maybe even up to the elbow."

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr
Photo via Flickr