On Tuesday federal authorities raided and seized assets from Rentboy.com, a gay male escort service, whose headquarters are on the 14th Street at Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Many gay activists were infuriated.
A federal complaint says that Rentboy.com, had a disclaimer telling visitors that they could not exchange money for sex, that was “clearly” happening. Escorts, the complaint says, posted ads including penis size, pay rate and preferred fetishes, and the site’s visitors then contacted them directly. On a separate website, DaddysReviews.com, clients would review the individual escorts, the complaint says.
The New York Times Reports:
For some gay activists, it had shades of bathhouse raids and gay-bar roundups from decades ago. On Tuesday, federal authorities burst into the Union Square office of the gay-escort website Rentboy.com and arrested the chief executive and several employees on prostitution charges.
Rentboy, which federal authorities called the biggest male-escort website, had been around for almost two decades, allowing escorts to pay to advertise themselves. It was well known in the gay community, hosting pool parties, dances and awards shows throughout the country.
After federal authorities charged its top executives with promoting prostitution, seized the website and went after the business’s assets on Tuesday, many gay activists were infuriated. The Transgender Law Center, a civil-rights group, criticized the arrests, as did some male sex workers. Several activists said they would use the episode to renew calls to decriminalize prostitution.
“To many in our community this feels like a throwback to when the police raided gay bars in the ’50s and ’60s,” Justin Vivian Bond, a performer and an activist who is transgender, wrote in an email. “This invasion of a consensual hookup site which is run for and by members of the L.G.B.T. community feels like a real slap in the face after gentrification and the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations drove so many gay bars out of business and forced people to meet online instead of in person,” the activist added, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Danny Cruz said he had posted ads on Rentboy “to supplement income” for about seven years, starting when he moved to New York. He said he had talked regularly to the executives who were arrested, both about his business and about staying safe.
“I don’t see why the government would be interested in what two people do behind closed doors,” Mr. Cruz, who is now involved in the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Los Angeles, said.
Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which participated in the investigation, said in an email that “any insinuation that a specific population was targeted is categorically false.”
The federal complaint says that although Rentboy.com, whose headquarters are on 14th Street at Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, had a disclaimer telling visitors that they could not exchange money for sex, that was “clearly” happening. Escorts, the complaint says, posted ads including penis size, pay rate and preferred fetishes, and the site’s visitors then contacted them directly. On a separate website, DaddysReviews.com, clients would review the individual escorts, the complaint says.
The seven current and former Rentboy executives were charged with conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution, and each faces up to five years in prison.
Mr. Walls said: “As the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE is responsible for the enforcement of laws that promote the legitimate movement of people, goods and currency in domestic and foreign transactions. Our allegation with this case is that the business and its principals purported itself to be an escort service while promoting criminal acts, namely illegal prostitution.”
Rentboy’s chief executive, Jeffrey Hurant, 50, said in an interview excerpted in the criminal complaint that “there is no place on this website where somebody says I’ll have sex for money because that is against the law.”
The director of the site, Michael Sean Belman, 47, said in another interview excerpted in the complaint: “We say that escorts are selling their time only.”
“What happens between you and the escort is up to you,” he said. “That way it’s legal.” (The complaint says he “incorrectly” summarized the legality.)
Derrick De Lise, publisher of the online magazine Queer Voices, said the fact that the government went after a gay-escort website, without making mention of protecting sex workers, made it seem as though the site’s gay affiliation attracted the government attention.
“With no rhetoric coming out of their press releases or statements about trafficking or concern with the sex workers, it doesn’t match what is happening in other cases,” he said. To him, he said, it seemed as if “yet another homophobic raid had occurred.”
In 2014, federal authorities seized myRedBook, a California-based site with ads for sex. But unlike in the Rentboy case, the charges included money laundering. The authorities also said myRedBook allowed child prostitution, which has not been cited in the Rentboy case.
MyRedBook’s owner, Eric Omuro, was charged with using the mail and the Internet to promote prostitution and with laundering money derived from the site. Mr. Omuro pleaded guilty in 2014 to using a facility of interstate commerce with the intent to facilitate prostitution, and admitted that the site allowed prostitutes to post ads. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison. In an affidavit submitted for sentencing, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had found more than 50 juveniles advertised for prostitution on his site.
Mr. Omuro was the first website operator to be convicted on prostitution charges, the Department of Justice said.
For some gay activists, the focus on sex workers, gay or straight, is problematic.
“It’s troubling to think that we’re investing resources and time to target Rentboy and sex workers,” said Alex Garner, a writer and activist in Washington, “when what we really should be having is a reasonable and thoughtful conversation about the decriminalization of sex work. We have an entire police force we should be overhauling, we have murders of trans women happening in large numbers, and we’re devoting our time and energy to cracking down on sex work. Who’s choosing to prioritize it?”
Nellin McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.