On August 25, Rentboy.com’s CEO, Jeffrey Hurant, was arrested along with six of his employees by agents from the Department of Homeland Security. Over the last two years the cabinet department, created in the aftermath of 9/11 to fight terrorism, has been investigating a gay escort site, despite there being no federal law against prostitution.
On Tuesday the DHS invoked the Travel Act, which makes it illegal to use the Internet (or mail, or, presumably, carrier pigeons) to do something interstate that’s illegal under state law. As of this writing, Rentboy is shut down.
I spoke to sex workers, gay and straight, and sex consumers after the Rentboy crackdown. Most people’s first reaction was shock, including mine. Evan, a former Top 10 New York advertiser on Rentboy, said, “It’s crazy. It sucks. Everyone is outraged. Just like that: overnight.”
The bust happened a week ago. What will be the implications of the bust, for gay sex workers, all sex workers, and everyone else? And in the wake of the Ashley Madison hack, the Gawker-Geithner scandal, and Amnesty International’s decriminalization recommendation, what are the bust’s implications for sexual indiscretion in the digital age?
The feds’ investigation into Rentboy included sending an undercover reporter to the Hookies, an awards show for escorts that I attended in March. In post-ceremony interviews with the winners, most were just as open as the event had been. They discussed the details of their sessions, and I responded in kind. One man diverged, carefully choosing his words and refusing to answer questions with the term “sex worker.” At the time, I thought, “How nit-picky and needlessly paranoid.” I was wrong. When I asked him about the Rentboy development, he told me he was sorry but had no comment.
He wasn’t the only person to tell me “no.” Escorts, gay and straight, are outraged, but also afraid. One escort and sex worker rights activist, Dane (all names have been changed), told me, “All I can think is ‘No one is safe,’ but I’m scared of even dwelling on that because it’ll fester in my head and I won’t be able to work.”
The threat extends beyond working. Will my use of my real name in my activism somehow become the business of the Department of Homeland Security? In the complaint filed with the Eastern District Court of New York, advocacy was cited as evidence. Rentboy COO Hawk Kinkaid founded Hook Online, which, according to the affidavit, is “a non-profit online resource for men in the sex trade.” Dane explains the anxiety involved in pushing for rights in an illegal industry, “The catch 22 of this… stuff is a literally crippling fear that makes it impossible to do anything, or to only do panicked things... Even if stopping to take a moment to acknowledge the crisis and let myself be scared is the respectful thing to do.”
LGBT organizations and allies took on the issue as their own. In a statement entitled “Raiding rentboy threatens our safety,” Lambda Legal argued that bust removed a valuable tool that helped people work safely, and underlined that discrimination leads to the disproportionate numbers of gay and trans people involved in the sex industry. I asked Evan how he got into escorting. “I started in San Francisco, I had $9 in my pocket and wanted to stay off the streets. Put myself through college.”
Beyond the legal effects, many men face a sudden financial standstill. Evan isn’t sure of his next step. “I’m out of my only self-sustaining job I’ve had for 14 years. It’s a huge blow. Still sinking in. I’m more or less very unemployed. Fuck, I was just working in Toronto through Rentboy a few days ago.”
While much of the evidence against Rentboy is in the form of statements made by those charged, the affidavit states, “based on my training and experience… in a prostitution business, the term ‘Escort’s In Rate’ refers to the amount that a customer must pay to engage in a sexual act with a prostitute at a location controlled by a prostitute... The rates are generally listed in amount of United States Dollars per hour.” Tom, a recent West Coast transplant, points out that almost all escort advertising extant today hinges on it being legal to charge for time. He wondered, “Where will advertising happen if we are no longer allowed to charge for our time? If we can’t advertise online anywhere without the feds trying to bust down our doors, people will go back to doing it outside. Is that what people want? You know it’s not going away.”
I reached out to Bill, one of my clients. He wondered why Rentboy was targeted when there are so many other equivalent sites. “I’m inclined to think there was something that made them more legally vulnerable. Could be the NY location—I don’t know where Eros is run out of. Could be something about the revenue model makes a money-laundering charge easier to stick. But I definitely think any online business trying to make money is this area should be worried.”
A gratifying many asked the central question: Why is our government spending money to investigate men having sex with each other? “These busts to me are ridiculous. I feel like the law has used the powers they have, and should be using them to chase REAL traffickers, not make a show of people and play the martyr,” says Kate, an escort with five years in the business. She brings up a friend of ours who was busted last fall. “They actually entrapped her! And what was she doing? She was causing harm to no one!”
What will be the implications of this level of legal interference? Who are the bad guys in the sex industry, she asks, and does criminalization help? “As much as I find my job a mental challenge, I’ve met some amazing men. It dispels all of the imagined ‘men that use hookers’ ideas that the masses have. Of course, there are men who are monsters in this world, but they mostly lurk in the underworld that SHOULD and MUST be policed better!!” Bill agreed: “What a horrible ridiculous waste of resources when there is so much bad in the world.”
Kate speaks to the real dangers of sex work, and the reasons that people continue to do it, despite the risks. “I have girlfriends in London, Eastern European girls, charging knock-down rates, seeing 10 clients a day, mostly to send money home. They are the ones at risk. They get robbed, stabbed, manipulated and pimped. And when this happens, what can they do? Report it to the law? And get arrested themselves for being a prostitute?”
Tom says that gay or straight, buying sex or selling it, the precedent is bad. “Everyone uses the Internet. Everyone. If the federal government has the right to investigate any state crime, with their arsenal of surveillance equipment… do you know what that means?”