In a coordinated takedown at 6 am on August 25, teams of agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and officers from the NYPD appeared unannounced with guns and vests at the homes of the CEO and several employees of the popular 19-year-old website Rentboy.com. Another team ransacked the site’s offices on 14th Street. The subsequent fanfare included handcuffs, perp walks with photographers in pursuit, and two press releases, one from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the DHS and another from prosecutors at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. In the end, CEO Jeffrey Hurant and six Rentboy employees were arrested and charged with conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.
Clearly those law-enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors considered this a big, bold police action against a criminal organization. They threw around phrases like “Internet brothel,” “international online prostitution ring,” and “global criminal enterprise.” The press releases linked to the legal complaint filed by DHS Special Agent Susan Ruiz after an undercover investigation. At the arraignment of six of the defendants in Brooklyn, two densely packed rows of agents on the case rose to identify themselves to the presiding judge. This was the beginning of an important and high-profile win for the government in the fight against illegal commercial sex, or so the DHS agents and prosecutors must have thought.
But things started going badly for the government right away. Over the next few days, the raid was vigorously condemned by sexual-freedom and sex-worker advocates (Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, Sex Workers Outreach Project); LGBT groups (Lambda Legal, National LGBTQ Task Force, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality); human-rights and free-speech organizations (ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Harm Reduction Coalition, Free Speech Coalition); and even many media outlets, including The New York Times. The ACLU and Lambda Legal later initiated a meeting with prosecutors to defend Rentboy’s positive role in the community, which included funding scholarships and other educational projects.
The critics raised a number of points:
- Law enforcement officials seemed to misunderstand how websites like Rentboy.com function, or they were deliberately obfuscating the nature of the business with inflammatory language like “Internet brothel” or “racket.” Rentboy.com was neither a brothel nor an escort agency. It was not an employer of escorts at all. Rentboy offered advertising space for a fee as a service to independent escorts. This business model had been developed over many years, and it has been adopted by escorts as one of the safest ways to operate. Offering their time only in ads on the website, escorts negotiate the exact terms of exchange with clients in private. During Rentboy’s 19 years of operation, this model was widely considered legal—regardless of any illegal activities of sex workers advertising as escorts. Previous arrests and lawsuits involving similar website operators, such as the prosecution of MyRedBook.com in 2014, or actions against Backpage and Craigslist before that, included charges involving minors, sex trafficking, or money laundering. There were no such allegations in the Rentboy case. Those arrested were accused of violating the 1961 Travel Act forbidding interstate commerce in the promotion of illegal activities. The only illegal activity invoked in the complaint was promoting consensual adult prostitution.
- Many critics wanted to know why the DHS was in the business of policing consensual adult sex in the first place? Previous cases against escort websites had involved the FBI, not the DHS. Created after 9/11 to unify the operations of 22 federal agencies, the DHS was designed to focus on terrorism, cyber crime, border security, and so-called national preparedness. And yet in recent years it has apparently strayed far from that mandate. In 2014, it conducted a widely mocked “panty raid” on a local lingerie shop in Kansas City for unlawfully reproducing a sports-team logo on 36 pairs of cotton underpants. The DHS’s ICE agents also garnered considerable ire from LGBT and arts groups after a six-year campaign against gay Buffalo artist Lawrence Brose on child-pornography charges. The child-porn charges were ultimately dropped; Brose pleaded guilty to an obscenity charge in 2014, after running out of resources to continue his fight.
- Inquiring minds wanted to know why the case was brought by the US Attorney for the Eastern District in Brooklyn, rather than by the Southern District in Manhattan, where Rentboy’s offices were locate. Given that New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance pointedly and publicly objected to his mention in the press releases about the raid, some critics wondered if Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District, also had better things to do than embarrass his office with this prosecution.
- The targeting of Rentboy.com raised questions about possible anti-gay motives. Though gay men are far less often arrested on prostitution-related charges than women (gay or straight, including trans women), the language in the legal complaint reads as if lifted from a 1960s police report, or the 1980s Meese Commission on Pornography. DHS agent Susan Ruiz’s complaint in particular adopted a scandalized tone: “Based on my investigation, I have learned that a sling, also known as a ‘sex sling,’ is a device that allows two people to have sex while one is suspended and a rimchair is a seat resembling a raised toilet seat designed so that the anus is accessible while someone is sitting on the seat. I have also learned that ‘rimming’ refers to the touching of the tongue to the anus.” The public, however, was not scandalized in the least. Instead, LGBT- and human-rights organizations expressed outrage about the sensationalism and about the criminalization of sex between consenting adults. At protests against the arrests organized in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, some LGBT protesters called the Rentboy bust a new Stonewall of sex work, a moment for renewed rebellion against state harassment. To emphasize that many of the original Stonewall participants were sex workers, writer Melissa Gira Grant tweeted, “Stonewall was actually the Stonewall of sex work.”
- In asking the question “Why Rentboy?” many critics jumped quickly to the money. Federal agents seized $1.4 million dollars in six bank accounts controlled by the website, in effect the total operating budget of the company. The civil asset–forfeiture laws that allow such seizures, whether or not the asset owners are convicted or even charged, have been subject to public and political scrutiny lately as the root of much law enforcement corruption. Such laws, which allow police forces to keep a sizeable portion of the funds seized, have been an important motor for the war on drugs and mass incarceration. They create incentives for police to follow the money in enforcement practices. In federal cases like the Rentboy prosecution, the money would be collected in a federal asset-forfeiture fund available to enhance the budgets of local law enforcement. Recently, asset sharing from that fund has been suspended due to federal budget shortfalls, but, absent significant public protest, the loot sharing is expected to be restored.
After such widespread backlash, the prosecution stalled, so far requesting four delays in the 30-day deadline for indictment. Though such extended delays are not unusual, as investigators search for further evidence and try to locate cooperating witnesses, no new charges have surfaced in this case.