How Does a Gay Escort Stay ‘Legal’?
After the feds busted Rentboy.com, escorts and legal experts question how far—and revealing—the authorities’ investigation will delve.
After the bust, the questions—the multiplying questions.
On Tuesday morning, the NYPD and Department of Homeland Security raided the self-proclaimed “original and world’s largest male escort site” with the belief that CEO Jeffrey Hurant—and six other employees—were promoting and managing prostitution across state lines and international borders.
“Twenty years we’ve been doing it [running Rentboy.com]. And I don’t think we do anything to promote prostitution,” Hurant told reporters. “I think we do good things for good people and we bring good people together. And I hope that justice will be done in the end.”
The complaint (PDF) lists the businesses name (“rent boy” is British slang for a male prostitute), slogan (“Money can’t buy you love…but the rest is negotiable.”), and thousands of escort advertisements, even though the “Terms of Service” explicitly state that the “site may not be used for the advertising of sexual services or to engage in activities requiring the payment of money for sex or other illegal activities.”
“As the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is responsible for the enforcement of laws that promote the legitimate movement of people, goods and currency in domestic and foreign transactions,” ICE Spokesman Khaalid Walls said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
“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. We allege violations to the federal Travel Act, which forbids interstate or foreign travel for the purpose of criminal acts.”
But why—after almost twenty years in business—is the Department of Homeland Security getting involved? Are the escorts also at risk? And what does this mean for the dozens of other internet-based escort services and their clients?
“The issue here is what is the Department of Homeland Security doing investigating prostitution?,” Lawrence G. Walters, a first amendment attorney and RentBoy.com’s attorney for the past year, told The Daily Beast. “There’s no federal law that prohibits prostitution, so they are having to rely on a New York statute for any federal prosecution.”
Walters’ guess is that the raid is all part of the global war on human trafficking—DHS is the lead agency to pursue those kinds of cases, particularly online through advertising networks.
However, there is no mention or allegation of human trafficking in the complaint, only the facilitation or promotion of prosecution, which could send competing organizations into panic mode if DHS decides to broaden their investigation.
Dozens of websites like rentmen.com, men4rentnow.com, and hourboy.com facilitate similar advertisements for escorts. Thousands of ads describe the physical appearance and sexual preference (think, position and fetishes) of men selling their time not sex.
There’s a big difference when it comes to the legality of prostitution.
“If you were to book me, you wouldn’t be booking me for a specific sexual act—you’d just be booking me for my time,” porn star Duncan Black, who is also one of RentBoy.com’s escorts, told The Daily Beast last year. “We could go to dinner, or for a walk, or just hang out and talk… or, y’know. Other things can happen, too!”
The act of selling time, not sex means everything. It’s kept thousands of websites, escorts and clients embedded in the right side of law and out of jail… until now.
“This is new territory for the law,” Walters said, admitting it was a deeply concerning issue for the tech community as a whole.
“This goes beyond an erotic service provider issue. If we are going to start holding passive Internet intermediaries liable for the posing of third parties, that is going to be a very deep concern for not only advertising networks, but also social networks and tech giants who allow the internet to function without the constant supervision of every posting.”
Imposing a monitor or holding these intermediaries liable, Walters said, could shut down the entire Internet. “There’s just no way to make sure that every posting is free of any reference to prostitution or illegal activities,” he said.
Businesses facilitating social engagement have been protected for years.
Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code, passed in 1996 with the Communication Decency Act, gives web hosts a safeguard against any claim brought towards to posts written by third parties.
In New York, organizations are offering urgent “Know Your Rights” workshops to cover “broad-stroke legal concerns for advertisers on the RentBoy.com platform, as well as prostitution-related New York State laws,” according to posts on Facebook.
“The meeting is intended to be informational in nature,” it reads, offering a warning of potential undercover agents. There will be lawyers present to discuss e-discovery, asset seizure, forfeiture, and tax issues, among others.
“They are worried. They absolutely are,” Hayley Gorenberg, a legal representative with Lambda Legal, told The Daily Beast about how sex workers are feeling in the wake of the bust. “If they are targeted for exploitation or something like that, criminalizing what they are doing makes it harder for them to protect themselves. These are often situations for many people who have limited choices.”
Lambda Legal recently joined Amnesty International in calling for the decriminalization of sex work. It would undoubtedly legitimize the RentBoy.com business as well as prostitution across the board.
“We know that across our community there are people who are marginalized and vulnerable due to any number of discriminatory factors,” Gorenberg said. “Young people and adults who have been turned out of their homes. They’ve been harassed or discriminated against in education and employment. Their options are very limited and there are may people out there who are using sex exchange as a means of survival and putting food on the table or a roof over their heads.”
For the industry, advertising sites like RentBoy.com offers a layer of protection for the escorts by allowing them to screen their clients prior to the exchange.
“Then, when customers are criminalized,” Gorenberg added, “there is downward pressure on sex workers to keep what they are doing hidden, perhaps remote, perhaps unprotected. It makes it more difficult for people to negotiate boundaries and barriers like condoms and overall make themselves safer when they are working in a criminal framework as opposed to a decriminalized framework. This really effects the whole system.”
Major Internet porn studios like CockyBoys, where Black was once an exclusive model, also find the seemingly out-of-the-blue raid on Rentboy.com an outrage.
The studio has worked with numerous escorts from the site and even filmed a docu-series titled “Love Me, Want Me, Rent Me,” which explored sex worker’s place in society.
“We always had the position at the company where we never really thought one way or another or had to police whether someone could escort or not,” Jake Jaxson, the owner and lead director of CockyBoys, told The Daily Beast.
His position is that sex “is something that should be celebrated,” when it involves two consensual adults, which RentBoy.com has so far proven itself to advertise, he said.
“We just have to be realistic,” Jaxson said. “This is a political action. It feels like it’s kind of out of nowhere considering that this organization has been in business for eighteen years. This is an organization that believed it was operating legally within the components of free speech.”
Jaxson said that none of CockyBoys exclusive performers—at least that he is aware of—are currently on the site. Therefore, the company has not had to take any steps to protect their models and performers as of yet.
“No matter what, when dealing with our guys, we’ve always taken the approach to think with both of your heads before you do anything,” Jaxson said. “That is something that has applied to everybody and how we interact with our customers—just be smart.”
Walters “sincerely doubts that the Department of Homeland Security would use its resources to start investigating street-level escort advertisers.”
He also believes customers will be safe throughout the entire ordeal.
They have “absolute legitimate privacy rights,” Walters said, “and the government would have to think very carefully before releasing any information that was shared on the site given the privacy rights of individuals who have not been charged and have not been alleged to be involved with any illegal activity.”
The protection of Section 230 will be the most significant issue at play, Walter says, “because the government is relying upon a state law—the State of New York prostitution law—to build its federal prosecution. If that state law does not apply to an Internet network such as RentBoy.com, then it might be that the prosecution will fail.”