(Brooklyn, New York) Last Friday, Jeffrey Hurant pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution. He was the final defendant on a lawsuit against his website, Rentboy.com—the largest website on the internet for gay male escorts, according to the US Justice Department—after six employees under him at Easy Rent Systems, Inc. had been removed from the suit this February.
Some say the lawsuit is an attack on a marginalized group, and for those escorts who used Rentboy to vet and communicate with clients, the effect of last August's raid was felt long before Hurant entered his plea: One year on, the absence of the popular listings website has made their profession riskier, done nothing to tackle larger issues within the sex work profession, and has forced a lot of queer businessmen to think on their feet. Luckily, you'd be hard pressed to find more industrious folk.
Hurant founded Rentboy in 1997 as a site where men could pay to spend time with other men. (According to Lawrence v Texas, it is legal to pay for a person's time; what happens in that time is their business. The site carried disclaimers making clear that those escorts who advertised there were offering companionship, not sex, though the Justice Department says that was mainly what was on offer.) But it expanded into much more than that: partnering to sponsor the Hustla Ball, a "gay porn and clubbing event"; hosting the International Escort Awards (or "Hookies"); throwing dances, socials, and pool parties. "If there was something big and gay in New York, Rentboy was on top of it," said escort Ares Apollo. Through their nonprofit Hook, the company also offered 'harm-reduction classes' called "Rent University" on sexual health, financial advice, and business acumen.
The website was shut down following a raid carried out by Department of Homeland Security and NYPD agents on August 25, 2016. The office's papers and computers were confiscated, and Hurant was handcuffed and arrested while his house was searched.
Ares Apollo said he first saw news of the raid on escort reviews website Daddy's Reviews. He said that, that day, escorts were either trying to deny the news or claim this was "their Stonewall." But it was one of his own clients Apollo remembers clearest: a married man who had become a friend. "He had posted every day [on Daddy's Reviews] for a long time and he totally vanished purposefully," he said. "They had the credit card information of hundreds of thousands of escorts and clients."
Bryan Knight, another escort, attended protests at the first indictment of Hurant. Knight has always been entrepreneurial—a venture into carpentry led to massage, which led to escorting—but the changes to the industry in Rentboy's absence were challenging. Costs for listing on the remaining websites (e.g. Rentmen.com or Men4RentNow.com) "skyrocketed," he said, and efforts among those sites to mitigate chances of being involved in future lawsuits increased. "[They] made it harder for customers to call us directly; some sites even removed their options for listing our prices at all," explained Knight. According to Knight and other escorts, hourly rates were driven down across the industry as Rentboy's diaspora migrated to those sites that remained.
Like Knight, escort Abel Rey has relied on personal branding to ensure clients can find him online without Rentboy. He's hosted a YouTube series called "Ask An Escort" since March 2015 and kept active on social media, allowing past clients to find him via Google searches. But while Rey thinks business will always keep going regardless of which websites prevail, he says Rentboy represented a sad loss. "[The industry] has become a bit lonesome," said Rey. "Rentboy had good excuses for [escorts] to meet up and network, like Rent University, The Hookies and other mixers."
Kate D'Adamo, National Policy Advocate at the Sex Workers Project, a New York–based legal aid foundation for sex workers, said that it may have been Rentboy's work in the wider community that made them liable for prosecution. Others have argued it may have been down to an H1B visa application for an employee made in 2013. But if outreach and visibility is what exposes sites like Rentboy to legal action, D'Adamo said, that's a much bigger problem. "If safety information is silenced because, it's criminalized, that puts people at risk," she said. "There's a fear that's created isolation with serious ramifications."
D'Adamo mentioned RedBook, a popular website for sex workers to find and vet clients based in the Bay Area, which was shut down by the Department of Justice, FBI, and IRS in 2015 for "money laundering derived from racketeering based on prostitution." These are websites where information can be shared, reviews left and blacklists of untoward clients posted—all important measures that ensure escorts don't end up alone in dangerous situations—that today increasingly exist only in private Facebook groups.
Knight said that "there is no sense of community" in his industry now that Rentboy is no more. He misses the ease of promotion Rentboy brought to his work. "And they provided a sense of legitimacy and respect," he said. "We are what we are and we deserve respect for what we do. And sometimes, we individually have to fight for basic day-to-day dignity."
Knight, like Rey, said he's also made a larger push into social media, and is making forays into other interests—animation, graphic novels and music—to bolster his online presence. He said that despite the increasingly fragmented nature of his industry online and a depression in hourly wages, the turn away from central websites has helped him. "I don't have abs, I don't have a ten inch dick," Knight said. "Even those with abs and a ten inch dick? The clients get bored, they want to see something new after a while. So if an escort pretends they're a celebrity, that's probably the best way to handle the business."
Apollo said that not everything that came out of the Rentboy raid was bad. The sheer amount of press that followed demonstrated to him a larger public pushback against the idea that "rentboys are somehow not human, and therefore what happens to them is of no consequence to society," he said. "And there was an awareness that although our personal circumstances were going through changes, the world was talking about us. Perhaps for the first time."