Thousands of men across the world have just lost their companions.
On Tuesday, federal agents raided the New York City headquarters of RentBoy.com, a digital platform that bills itself as “the original and world’s largest male escort site.”
CEO Jeffrey Hurant and six other employees were taken into custody while authorities began to question the legitimacy of the business.
They are alleging that $1.4 million of the company’s $10 million proceeds from the past five years were illegally obtained as a “global criminal enterprise,” according to Glenn Sorge, the acting special agent in charge.
The bust comes during a time of long-standing debate over the legalization of sex work, which would undoubtedly legitimize the RentBoy business that falls into a very murky gray area as well as the act of prostitution nationwide.
RentBoy, or their legal team, could not be reached for comment. Hurant and the six employees are expected to appear in court later Tuesday.
Authorities believe the organization has been facilitating the “promotion, management, establishment and carrying on of an unlawful activity, namely an enterprise involving the prostitution,” according to the complaint (PDF) filed with the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of New York.
After all, “rent boy” is British slang for a male prostitute.
The subscription-based website—rates range from $59.95 to $299.95 a month—lists thousands of paid advertisements describing the physical appearance (height, weight, penis size) and sexual preferences (position, fetishes) of thousands of working men.
Often times, they include sexually explicit videos and photographs with their hourly, or nightly, rate.
It’s teeming with porn stars and industry hopefuls. Previous clients are even able to rate their sexual satisfaction.
But by offering “companionship” instead of “sex” and outlying their “Terms of Services” to include that “this 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,” the company has lived in a legal gray area that has previously prevented them from being classified as prostitution.
“The difference between escorting and prostitution is that a prostitute offers sex for money, whereas an escort offers time for money,” Duncan Black, one of the site’s escorts, told The Daily Beast last year.
“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. We could go to dinner, or for a walk, or just hang out and talk… or, y’know. Other things can happen, too!”
Whether or not physical intimacy is involved is superfluous, because these clients are paying for the time, not the sex. The distinction has kept Black—and thousand of others escorts and clients—grounded on the right side of the law, even when sex is what they are typically known for.
Since 2006, RentBoy has recognized the physical attributes and sexual talents of their most popular escorts at the Annual International Escort Awards, aka “the Hookies.” They’ve doled out awards for “best boyfriend fantasy,” “best dressed/style,” and “best cock.”
Last year, when The Daily Beast profiled Black, who was up for two of these awards—“Best Newcomer” and “Best Ass”—and is exclusively signed with one of the Internet’s biggest gay porn studios, CockyBoys, he insisted that the only service he has ever offered was his time, not sex.
“I’m not a hooker,” he asserted, before detailing some seemingly innocent situations with clients which he describes as “social service.”
“I’ve had clients tell me about their coming-out stories, how if it weren’t for escorts, that they’d have probably committed suicide,” he said. “They don’t have someone to talk to, but with escorts, they can talk about their sexuality and their feelings.”
But not all of the escorts are as coy about their profession. Some know that’s exactly what clients want and see the value in the commodity without fear of the escort-or-prostitute.
Fellow RentBoy escorts Raj and Viktor Belmont emphasized to Mic that their “jobs empower people to enjoy sex more and be less ashamed of their innate desires,” Belmont said in an article titled “7 Surprising Things We Can Learn About Sex and Intimacy from Professional Sex Workers.”
“There’s so much stigma,” Raj said. “And there’s a fear of being judged.” His clients are able to find solace in non-normative desires—kinks and fetishes—by hiring a RentBoy who is open to the same sexual fantasies.
And while sex may play a huge part in the website’s dynamic, they are also looking to give back to their community in a big way.
Just recently, they initiated the “Cash4Class” scholarship fund, which is still accepting applications.
In a 500-1,000 word essay or a 1-5 minute video, escorts advertising on their site must reveal why going to school is part of achieving their dream. The winners receive $1,500 toward any college expense.