Whore Next Door: Rentboy, One Year Later

(Photograph by Isabel Dresler/Isabeldresler.com)

Last Aug. 25, I awoke to the panicked news that Homeland Security had raided the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com, arresting seven employees including CEO Jeffrey Hurant and seizing documents, servers, and most of the gay escort advertising platform’s assets. This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Rentboy raid, which has refocused sex work decriminalization as an LGBTQ issue.

With an absence of any charges or complaints of coercion or human trafficking, employees faced allegations of violating the Travel Act, which prohibits the use of interstate communication facilities — mail, phone, internet — to engage in illegal activity. “Promoting prostitution” is a rarely prosecuted misdemeanor in New York, but doing so across state lines is considered a federal offense.

The news of the Rentboy raid came just days after five prominent LGBT organizations had declared their support of the worldwide decriminalization of sex work, and I wondered if they would be ready to walk the walk now that the shit was hitting the fan.

After confirming that my friends and chosen family who had been associated with Rentboy were safe, I put on my metaphorical April O’Neil trenchcoat and got on the phone.

It was my first time reporting breaking news, and as I dialed organization after organization, only to be given the brush-off by one receptionist after another, my palms sweated and my stomach churned. Investigating the criminalization of sex work is intense on its own, but as someone who is still active in the industry, the stakes felt even higher.

At first, It was hard to get people to talk, but I eventually got in touch with Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal. She seemed nervous to talk to me and anxious to say the right thing, but to my delight, she assured me that her organization would be doubling down on its support for decriminalizing sex work and standing with the people of Rentboy.

The charges against Rentboy come in a long line of attacks against platforms that facilitate independent sex work, ignoring that online platforms have done more to keep sex workers safe than cops ever have or will, by giving workers valuable time and space to screen clients in the manner they see fit and eliminating the need for third-party agents.

Impeding workers’ access to online platforms only puts people out of work and on the streets, where they are more vulnerable to violence — particularly from law enforcement. And it’s working-class queer and POC communities who are disproportionately affected by laws against sex work, as systemic marginalization often impedes access to other career options.

In the days following the Rentboy raid, the LGBTQ community rallied. There were demonstrations at Harvey Milk Plaza, editorials in The Advocate, and mainstream nonprofits publicly declaring their support. This wasn’t an attack only on Hurant, but on an entire community and workforce.

“Criminalizing sex work is just another way of criminalizing being poor, brown, and queer in the United States,” I bellowed into a small PA system to a crowd of more than 100 protesters gathered under the giant rainbow flag waving above at Castro and Market streets on a sunny Saturday following the raid.

A tourist couple from the Midwest, rocking Tevas and backpacks, stopped to talk to me after my speech. I told them about Rentboy’s fate, and the fight to decriminalize sex work worldwide, now backed by a growing list of human rights and LGBT organizations.

They were very concerned, took my business card and wanted to know how to get involved.

We hugged. As they walked down toward 18th Street, I thought if a straight, married couple from the Midwest can easily see that sex work is work, and the laws that criminalize it only put marginalized people at risk, then maybe there’s hope.

Now, one year later, six of the seven employees who were arrested have had their charges dropped, but 51-year-old Jeffrey Hurant’s fate remains uncertain.

While his legal fees continue to mount, his assets remain frozen, and a trial date has yet to be set, Hurant can only wait and hope. The Rentboy legal defense fund has raised over $60,000 thus far — less that 5 percent of the total legal fees.

If convicted, Hurant could face years in prison, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, and the permanent seizure of his life savings.

There’s the possibility of taking a plea deal, but Hurant sees the issue as bigger than him, and a win could set an important precedent for sex workers everywhere.

Today, and every day until Hurant, and all of us, are free from puritanical, oppressive laws that target our incredible community, let us remember the Rentboy raid, stick together, stay strong, and fight until we win.

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