As LGBT Groups Call For Decriminalizing Sex Work, Government Moves on Rentboy.com

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. | DHS.GOV

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. | DHS.GOV

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD | Leading LGBT rights legal organizations in the US, on August 20, issued a joint statement supporting Amnesty International’s recent resolution advocating for the human rights of sex workers, including the repeal of laws against prostitution.

Just days later, on August 25, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raided the Manhattan offices of rentboy.com, the world’s largest online escort website, carted away boxes of business records and computers, and arrested the company’s chief executive officer, Jeffrey Hurant, and six employees.

Amnesty International, on August 11, called on governments to repeal laws criminalizing sex work, while asking them to move to prevent and combat sex trafficking, to ensure that sex workers are protected from exploitation, and to enforce laws against the sexual exploitation of children.

Homeland Security action comes amidst growing calls for different, more effective response to prostitution

In short, AI suggests that adults should be able to freely consent to engage in sexual activity for compensation without criminal penalty, and that continued maintenance of criminalization exposes all sex workers, whether children or adults, to exploitation, violence, and severe health risks.

Sex work for pay is currently legal in some countries –– including Canada and the United Kingdom –– but outlawed in most. Even those countries that don’t criminalize prostitution as such generally maintain laws against promotion and public solicitation of prostitution.

In the US, every jurisdiction except some counties in Nevada treats all sexual activity for monetary compensation as unlawful, though they differ in classifying the offense and in the penalties imposed. The Model Penal Code, as adopted in the states, decriminalized private consensual sexual activity between adults, but not when such activity involves a commercial transaction, and courts have been unanimous in holding that the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision striking down sodomy laws, Lawrence v. Texas, does not create a protected liberty interest extending to commercial sex or sex between adults and minors.

The LGBT organizations that joined in the statement endorsing AI’s resolution are the Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Their joint statement explains, “For many LGBT people, participation in street economies is often critical to survival, particularly for LGBT youth and transgender women of color who face all-too-common family rejection and vastly disproportionate rates of violence, homelessness, and discrimination in employment, housing, and education.”

The statement goes on to describe hazards faced by sex workers that are amplified by the criminalization of their activities –– with a particular emphasis on the difficulties experienced by transgender sex workers.

“Laws criminalizing sexual exchange –– whether by the seller or the buyer –– impede sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use and other boundaries, and force many to work in hidden or remote places where they are move vulnerable to violence. Research and experience have shown that these laws serve only to drive the industry further underground, make workers less able to negotiate with customers on their own terms, and put those who engage in criminalized sex work at higher risk for abduction and sex trafficking,” the statement reads. “And as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization have recognized, criminalization also seriously hampers efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS –– efforts in which people involved in the sex trades are crucial partners.”

The Complaint and Affidavit in Support of Arrest Warrants that Homeland Security submitted to the US Eastern District of New York Court described rentboy.com as “a commercial male escort advertising site that promotes prostitution.” The complaint quotes rentboy.com advertising itself as the “original and largest male escort service online.”

Homeland Security agents accompanied by NYPD officers appeared at Rentboy.com’s offices on West 14th Street in Manhattan to conduct their raid and arrested the employees, some at their homes, effectively shutting down the website’s operation. The defendants were listed as Jeffrey Hurant (the owner) and employees Michael Sean Belman, Clint Calero, Edward Lorenz Estanol, Shane Lukas, Diana Milagros Mattos, and Marco Soto Decker.

The complaint sets out a detailed description of the rentboy website, providing graphic descriptions of the activities advertised, and asserting repeatedly that the disclaimers on the site that sexual activity was not being exchanged were meaningless and that the entire operation was set up to connect customers with prostitutes. Anyone interested in a detailed description of the online male escort business will find it in this complaint.

The complaint asserts that the term “escort” is a euphemism for a prostitute, and quotes rates for services an escort is willing to engage in. The complaint also notes cross-references in some of the advertisements to another website, daddysreviews.com, which has detailed customer accounts of their experiences with the escorts, including the money charged.

It’s unclear if the raid on rentboy.com is a precursor to actions against similar websites as part of a general crackdown on the use of the Internet for commercial sexual assignations and whether Homeland Security is also targeting heterosexual escort sites. Rentboy.com may have been singled out for prosecution because of its owner’s brazenness in stating clearly in published interviews that the website’s purpose was to assist escorts in marketing their sexual services.

Hurant, the complaint notes, uses the email address cyberpimp@rentboy.com, which is hardly subtle. The complaint quotes him telling one interviewer, “There is no place in this website where somebody says I’ll have sex for money because that is against the law. We can talk about what you look like, what you are, what you like to do, what people say about you in bed… People say I’m a great top, people say I fuck like nobody’s business, but you can’t say I’ll fuck you for two hundred bucks.” The website includes a disclaimer that rates quoted by the escorts on the site are only for their time, and that any sexual activity that takes place is a private matter between consenting adults.

In justifying the arrest of the employees as well as the owner, the complaint states, “There is probable cause to believe that anyone employed by the organization was aware that its aim was the promotion of prostitution, based on its publicly-disseminated advertising and promotional material and the content of the site itself.”

Illustrating the openness with which rentboy.com went about its business, the complaint describes how the company applied to the Department of Homeland Security for an occupational visa for one of its employees. It also describes an annual public event held by Rentboy.com, the “Hookies,” at which awards were bestowed on escorts listed on the site as the “best” in particular categories of sexual performance. It was there that Hurant gave his business card to an undercover agent.

The prosecution relies on a federal statute that provides “(a) Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses the mail or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce, with intent to… (3) otherwise promote, manage, establish, carry on, or facilitate the promotion, management, establishment, or carrying on, of any unlawful activity, and thereafter performs or attempts to perform –– (A) an act described in paragraph… (3) shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both… (b) As used in this section (i) “unlawful activity” means (1) any business enterprise involving… prostitution offenses in violation of the laws of the State in which they are committed or of the United States.”

The complaint cites provisions of New York law criminalizing “promoting prostitution” and engaging in prostitution activity, thus satisfying the federal statutory requirement that the proposed defendants are using a “facility in interstate or foreign commerce” with the intent to “promote” an “unlawful activity.”

News reports indicated that the prosecution may also involve charges of “money-laundering,” but that is not specified in the complaint submitted to the federal court to get the arrest warrants. Of course, the complaint submitted to get the warrant does not limit the scope of the ultimate prosecution. In a footnote, it states that because the complaint was submitted “for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause,” it does not “set forth each and every fact learned during the course of this investigation.”

One might expect that the investigation would include rigorous tax auditing of rentboy.com and its parent corporation, as well as the seven individuals arrested, and that the US attorney, acting as a prosecutor on behalf of Homeland Security, is likely to assert as broad a range of charges as the government’s investigation could support.

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