It has been almost two years since the offices of Rentboy were raided by the New York Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security on 25 August, 2015. Six employees were arrested alongside CEO Jeffrey Hurant, but changes against every except Hurant were dropped after a the case became the subject of national attention with condemnation coming from LGBT and Human Rights organisations such as Lambda Legal, the ACLU, and Human Rights Watch.
Rentboy provided paid advertising space to thousands of male escorts. Jeffrey Hurant, founder of the website Rentboy, pled guilty last June to charges of promoting prostitution. This month Hurant was sentenced to 6 months and a $7,500 fine by a Judge in a Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York. Former Rentboys responded to the news of the indictment sadly. In addition to advertising space the company provided sex workers with free educational training and a scholarship fund. The company operated publicly with floats in the Gay Pride Parade and promotional events, including the Hookies - an awards ceremony for male sex workers.
Leo Sweetwood Porn Actor and Hookies winner of Best Social Media, spoke about what the end of Rentboy meant for him. He said, “it's honestly very sad. RentBoy was a community I loved that was around for almost 2 decades and it's sad to see it end and upsetting to see it close the way it did. It wasn't just a website to find escorts, it was a community of like minded people to celebrate sex work.”
The Rentboy bust happened soon after the FBI seizure of Redbook - a escort website providing advertising space and forums to escorts based in California and Nevada - and The Review Board - an escort review site operating out of Seattle. Backpage - a national classifieds website which has offered adult service advertising has repeatedly faced lawsuits, federal investigations and pressure from anti-trafficking organisations over the past few years. In reaction to the battle against Backpage, there has been governmental efforts to create laws criminalising online platforms. A recent bill entitled ‘Stop Entitling Traffickers Act’ would hold companies legally liable if they “knowingly facilitate” sex trafficking on their platforms. 10 tech trade groups have joined together in opposition of the bill. Their concern is that the bills ambiguity will leave platforms open to prosecution for allowing users to post explicit content, and will therefore force those platforms take extreme measures to remove content or face enormous lawsuits.
Tyler Dårlig Ulv, a New York male escort, spoke on the growing pattern of criminalising sites for sex work advertising. “In a political climate that sees the ‘us vs. them’ dynamic dramatically heightened, saving the ‘innocent victims’ of sex trafficking is a common ground that politicians are grasping at. Never mind that there is little statistical evidence to support these efforts; that nobody actually gets helped, and lots of people with complex situations get hindered or harmed,” said Tyler.
Many have pointed out the initial report of the bust as seeming motivated by homophobia. Language of law enforcement focused on specific sex acts that were described in escort ads and described the website as an “Online Brothel”. Judge Brodie, however, acknowledged the complexity of Rentboy providing an alternative to the more dangerous option of street-based sex work. “The very thing that was illegal” she said during sentencing, “it also did a lot of good.” Mercades, a transgender woman escort in New York, points out that Rentboy, while subject to state homophobia received more public support and less accusations of trafficking than sites focused on women. “It feels remarkable to me that the fight around Rentboy has been framed as a civil rights issue, but Backpage or Redbook never received the same outcry. Promoting men selling sex may be considered illegal, but those who do so for women are considered traffickers. This does point to societal misogyny to me - that women can never choose to have sex,” said Mercades.
For everyone, she wants the opportunity for escorts to be able to communicate with each other and clients freely, and sees online platforms as an integral part of that. She hopes that the current focus on removing online platforms will not wipe out the mechanisms for safety sex workers have created. Tyler agrees. He said, “thousands of providers lost a safe place to advertise their work that encouraged and celebrated them as individuals, and are left with options that don't provide anything close to the client traffic or staff compassion that Rentboy offered. However, that hasn’t stopped us. More and more male providers are confidently claiming their identity as sex workers, showing their faces in their ads, and on social media, and creating personal sites designed to proudly show all the ways they are not victims desperately awaiting rescue.”