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Protest Against Rentboy.com Raid Targets Brooklyn Courthouse

A demonstrator outside the Brooklyn federal courthouse on September 3 protesting the raid on rentboy.com.

A demonstrator outside the Brooklyn federal courthouse on September 3 protesting the raid on rentboy.com. | DONNA ACETO

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Some 70 people turned out to the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn to protest the raid on rentboy.com and the arrests of the gay escorting website’s chief executive and six of its employees, and to demand that the charges against all seven be dropped.

“This is a waste of taxpayer money,” said William Dobbs, a gay civil libertarian, during the September 3 protest. “This doesn’t make the world safer or better.”

Rentboy.com was raided by the US Department of Homeland Security on August 25 with help from the NYPD. Jeffrey Hurant, the chief executive, and the other six employees have been charged with violations of the federal Travel Act, a 1961 statute that bars using the mail, a telephone, or the Internet to facilitate interstate or foreign prostitution, among other offenses. The case is being prosecuted by the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which is headquartered in Brooklyn.

Crowd of 70 demands charges be dropped, echoes widespread calls for sex work decriminalization

“Right now, the US attorney controls seven people’s lives,” Dobbs said. “He is on the spot to drop the charges.”

Holding signs saying “Decriminalize sex work” and “Protect sex work,” among many messages, protestors chanted and marched in a circle across from the courthouse while police, including NYPD, and some federal employees watched from across a street that is closed to through traffic.

Protesters point to the health and safety downside of criminalizing sex work. | DONNA ACETO

Protesters point to the health and safety downside of criminalizing sex work. | DONNA ACETO

The raid and arrests have sparked angry denunciations on websites and Facebook and condemnations from at least 28 groups, including a number of leading LGBT groups. Members of the National LGBTQ Task Force turned out for the protest. A number of groups that condemned the rentboy.com raid had joined Amnesty International in calling for the decriminalization of prostitution just days before the raid.

“This is an updated, digitized raid, just like Stonewall,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBT political group, during the protest.

For escorts who advertised on rentboy.com and joined the protest, closing the site has made their lives and livelihoods more difficult.

Justin, 24, had used rentboy.com, craigslist, and backpage during his four years of escorting. Craigslist and backpage restricted the language he could use, and he found himself having to negotiate more with clients.

“Negotiating was much more difficult,” Justin said.

Rentboy.com did not produce that problem because it allowed him to say upfront what he would and would not do and what he would charge. He made more money on rentboy.com.

“What made it easier, I didn’t have to worry that my posts were suddenly going to disappear,” Justin said. “I didn’t have to use coded language that was easily misinterpreted.”

Demonstrators make the case that decriminalizing sex work can lead to better public health outcomes. | DONNA ACETO

Demonstrators make the case that decriminalizing sex work can lead to better public health outcomes. | DONNA ACETO

Michael, 22, did not fully share Justin’s view of rentboy.com, but it did allow him to be more selective among clients.

“It’s a screening tool,” Michael said. “You’re better able to filter out a lot of people.”

Andy, 24, has been in the sex trade for 10 years and finding his clients on the street or trading sex for a place to stay. He never used rentboy.com because of its $59.99 monthly fee. But he has friends who used it, and he was aware of its reputation.

“I think rentboy was one of the most explicit online platforms,” he said. “In that way, it was safer… I think it felt safer to people because it allowed people to be more explicit.”

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