How the Feds Took Down Rentboy.com
The site has been shut down by Homeland Security agents and employees are now facing life-altering punishments for allegedly helping sex workers connect to clients.
Homeland Security agents came on Tuesday morning for the staff of Rentboy.com, one of the oldest escort websites on the internet. They came to their Manhattan offices, reportedly removing computers. They came, a defense attorney told me, to their homes. Initial news reports claimed Rentboy staff were suspected of money laundering, but when charges came down, they were for "conspiring to violate the Travel Act," a 1961 law that historically has been used against interstate business enterprises.
Seven staff members were arrested.
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents were there with the Rentboy defendants Tuesday afternoon at federal court in Brooklyn. The agents sat shoulder to shoulder, filling two front benches. They outnumbered the attorneys. They wore T-shirts and jeans, badges on their hips, looking relaxed and confident against the murmur of suits and ties. One agent stood and turned to us, the press and families and advocates in the back benches, and we could read the slogan on his shirt: "Vindicated—Justice Will Be Done."
"You sure you brought enough guys?" one of the defense attorneys spoke into the air.
The charges against Rentboy.com are reminiscent of those against the California-based escort website MyRedbook.com, raided last June by the FBI. In both cases, the government used a law against interstate illegal activity to place federal charges for violation of lesser state laws against prostitution.
The Rentboy defendants, according to a press release from Kelly T. Currie, acting United States Attorney from the Eastern District of New York, each face "up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000."
Rentboy was an "internet brothel," Currie states in the release. This ignores the government's own complaint and its detailed accounting of Rentboy's alleged activities. It is not possible to conduct prostitution on the internet; there's no such thing as an "internet brothel."
The government goes further. Rentboy.com "promotes prostitution," the criminal complaint and affidavit signed by HSI Special Agent Susan Ruiz alleges. As evidence, the government offers a close reading of the website's promotional copy:
RENTBOY.COM takes its name from a British slang term for a male prostitute...
RENTBOY.COM's slogan is "Money can't buy you love... but the rest is negotiable."
The government complaint also provides a crash course in the Rentboy.com user experience:
There is also a navigation button that allows a user to search for escorts. A user may search by a number of parameters including geographic location.
In the "Physical Attributes" category, the escorts are asked to select answers for the following attributes: "Foreskin," "Cock Size," and "Build."
The government complaint goes on to offer descriptions of watersports, spanking, and fetishes for sneakers. The document signed by Ruiz also details several escorts' advertisements.
"I am aware that 'top' is slang for a sexually dominant partner," Ruiz writes.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) says it has seized or is in the process of seizing "over $1.4 million of alleged criminal proceeds" from Rentboy.com.
By the close of court on Tuesday, six Rentboy.com defendants were released on bond, ranging from $50,000 to $350,000. I watched two of the men joined at the stand by their husbands to secure their bonds with a signature, as the judge asked them if they understood their spouses were accused of "conspiring" in the promotion of "unlawful activity, specifically prostitution."
Tuesday's raid on Rentboy came five days after the announcement by several major American LGBT legal advocacy organizations—Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and National Center for Transgender Equality—that they will join Amnesty International in calling for the decriminalization of sex work. Transgender Law Center has condemned the Rentboy raid, stating, "the US federal government is not only jeopardizing countless people's lives and only source of livelihood, but sending a clear and troubling message that the country is less invested in addressing systemic issues of racial, economic, and anti-LGBT injustice than in further criminalizing the individuals most marginalized by those systems."
Rentboy is marketed as a site for men seeking male escorts, though it employs and serves a broader queer community. This community remains targeted by law enforcement, even as gay marriage and military service go mainstream.
It's also true that queer sex workers are regarded as legitimate targets for exclusion even within LGBT communities. Advocate editor-at-large Diane Anderson-Minshall noted this July that her own magazine was "once a premium place for sex ads." And, she adds, "as LGBT media evolved, those sex ads blossomed, filling the pages and paying the bills until many—including this one—purged their pages of sexual content in a late-1980s bid for mainstream advertising."
This purge opened the way for a site like Rentboy.com to flourish online for nearly 20 years.
Rentboy.com CEO Jeffrey Hurant was arraigned last on Tuesday, along with former Rentboy employee Diana Mattos. She stood like the other defendants, her hands clasped behind her back. The judge described the charges against her, speaking slowly, seeming to lose steam over the word "prostitution" after having said it several times that day. Mattos's left hand, her nails painted dark red, gently circled her right wrist. When she turned to speak to Hurant, you could see a tattoo that wound close to her ear.
Jeffrey Hurant's father's voice was soft, too. His dark hair was combed neatly back, and he signed for his son's $350,000 bond.
The defendants each left the courtroom with their court-appointed lawyers, trailed by HSI agents. The reporters followed. In the hall, one of the defense attorneys asked if those just released had money to get home. There are two pits of seats set into the wall just outside the courtroom doors, and in the right-hand pit, the agents lingered as a group. The defendants, within earshot, didn't offer the assembled press comment.
Hurant's attorney, Charles Hochbaum, told reporters his client was "upset and confused that a legitimate business should be the target of a Homeland Security investigation."
It's not clear how long Rentboy.com was under federal scrutiny. According to the complaint, at least one undercover agent made contact with Hurant at Rentboy's annual Hookies award show in 2015.
"[Hurant] said that he went to Oxford University," DHI Special Agent Ruiz writes in the complaint, "and learned that 'rentboy' was 'the word for escorts.'"
Additional public comments by staff are cited in the complaint. One of the Rentboy employees arrested was their social media coordinator. Another staff member's tweets are quoted.
"Escorts are not just sex objects," staffer Michael Belman is quoted as saying. "They are real people performing a valuable service." He was also arrested on Tuesday, released on a $200,000 bond.
There are no future court dates set. Local news have secured their gay escort headlines, their perp walks, and their government-commissioned account of explicit homosexual sex. One defendant, according to advocates in contact with him, remains in custody as of this publication, though it is not clear why. Those who advertised on Rentboy.com are now left potentially exposed, their listings in government custody, and for now are largely out of work. Rentboy was their hiring hall, a community center, one place where advertisers could manage their work and find one another.
Yet Rentboy.com, or parts of it, still appears online. Assistant US Attorney Tyler Smith—who represented the government at Tuesday's arraignment—told reporters they remain in the process of "seizing" the website. You might be able to visit Rentboy.com, for now, though under what kind of surveillance it is not known.
Rentboy.com was called to answer for something before the law on Tuesday, though prostitution was just one part of it. They are charged with providing a website where escorts can advertise, but more so: for doing this without hiding.
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