The Federal Raid Of Rentboy, An Escort Website, Has Angered LGBT & Sex Worker Activists

On Tuesday, Aug. 25, the gay escort site Rentboy.com was raided by federal investigators, a move that has left many in the LGBT and sex worker communities shocked and upset. The site, which was founded in 1997, claims to be "the world's largest male escort site." During Tuesday's bust, CEO Jeffrey Hurant and six other employees were arrested for allegedly violating the Travel Act by promoting prostitution, according to authorities. According to U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie, the New York-based company that boasts over 10,500 members is in actuality a front for prostitution. "As alleged, Rentboy.com attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution," Currie said in a statement.

Rentboy has operated for years in a kind of legal limbo. The site offers companionship, instead of sexual acts, and the terms and conditions state 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." But, as the U.S. Attorney's office alleged, the intent of the site is to facilitate sexual encounters for money, and the escorts often provide detailed profiles including their sexual preferences, physical descriptions, fetishes, and rates.

The bust has spurred backlash and outcry from the LGBT and sex worker industries, who view the move as an attack and attempt to further criminalize already underrepresented workers. The timing of the raid coincides with increased, organized efforts by sex workers to push for decriminalization, to provide safety nets that are lacking in the sex industry.

As Chris Sosa of The Huffington Post argues, Rentboy provides an unprecedented amount of freedom and protection for their escorts, which increase their safety. "It's a popular online destination that allows escorts to set their own rules and rates," Sosa writes. "RentBoy's platform gives its escorts a degree of agency that sex workers forced to walk the street or be managed by a pimp simply do not have."

One Rentboy escort, Duncan Black, told The Daily Beast that clients pay for his time, rather than for sex, which is a popular argument used to defend Rentboy's legality. “The difference between escorting and prostitution is that a prostitute offers sex for money, whereas an escort offers time for money,” Black said.

Duncan, along with other Rentboy escorts, argue that the site allows stigma-free companionship, without judgement, to those who otherwise would not have support for their lifestyle and sexual preference. Others, like Viktor Belmont, told Mic that his work "empowers people to enjoy sex more and be less ashamed of their innate desires."

There are also arguments that Rentboy provides crucial services for the community. In addition to providing opportunities for individuals of multiple orientations to meet each other, it can also provide important services to those outside of the United States. "In countries where homosexuality is illegal, even punishable by death, sites like Rentboy provide a service to gay men who have to operate completely underground," Mary Emily O'Hara of The Daily Dot points out.

But the strongest argument that has arisen from the bust is that many believe the sex industry should be decriminalized. In early August, Amnesty International voted to decriminalize sex work, and Sosa points out that the World Health Organization has also called for decriminalization. Sosa alleges that the bust is based on "petty moral outrage," and that the United States should work to reform the existing laws regarding prostitution and sex work.

Hurant and his employees are already out on bail, but federal investigators have reportedly seized $1.4 million from employees' bank accounts. If convicted, Rentboy employees could face up to five years in prison, or a $250,000 fine, according to CNN. Many in the industry believe that this is the first federal investigation against a gay male escort agency.