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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 28, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 35
Rentboy bust leads to protests: LGBT organizations call for decriminalization of sex work
Section One
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Rentboy bust leads to protests: LGBT organizations call for decriminalization of sex work

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The August 25 raid on the offices of escort website Rentboy.com has many LGBT activists up in arms, with some organizations renewing their calls to decriminalize sex work.

Shortly after U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents and New York City Police descended on the website's Manhattan office, carting away records, computers, and seven Rentboy staffers, a coalition of five national LGBT groups tweeted out links to a joint statement on sex work.

Lambda Legal, GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders), the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center said they 'applaud and support Amnesty International's recent resolution to protect the human rights of sex workers by calling for decriminalization of sex work...'

'For many LGBT people, participation in street economies is often critical to survival,' the groups said, '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...

'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 more 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 organizations were quickly joined by a number of individual activists, who also condemned the raid.

'To many in our community this feels like a throwback to when the police raided gay bars in the '50s and '60s,' Transgender activist and performer Justin Vivian Bond wrote in a widely circulated email.

'This invasion of a consensual hookup site which is run for and by members of the LGBT community feels like a real slap in the face after gentrification and the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations drove so many gay bars out of business and forced people to meet online instead of in person.'

Activist Danny Cruz said he had posted ads on Rentboy 'to supplement income' for about seven years after he moved to New York. He said he had talked regularly to the executives who were arrested, both about his business and about staying safe.

'I don't see why the government would be interested in what two people do behind closed doors,' Cruz, who is now involved in the Los Angeles Sex Workers Outreach Project, said.

Derrick De Lise, publisher of the online magazine Queer Voices, said the fact that the government went after a Gay escort website, without making mention of protecting sex workers, made it seem as though the site's Gay orientation attracted the government attention.

'With no rhetoric coming out of their press releases or statements about trafficking or concern with the sex workers, it doesn't match what is happening in other cases,' he said. It was as if 'yet another homophobic raid had occurred,' he added.

For some activists, the focus on sex workers, Gay or straight, is problematic.

'It's troubling to think that we're investing resources and time to target Rentboy and sex workers,' writer and activist Alex Garner said, 'when what we really should be having is a reasonable and thoughtful conversation about the decriminalization of sex work. We have an entire police force we should be overhauling, we have murders of trans women happening in large numbers, and we're devoting our time and energy to cracking down on sex work. Who's choosing to prioritize it?'

Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurrant, one of the seven arrested in the August 25 raid, denied running a criminal enterprise.

'Twenty years we've been doing it [running Rentboy.com],' he said. 'And I don't think we do anything to promote prostitution. I think we do good things for good people and we bring good people together. And I hope that justice will be done in the end.'

Hurrant added that 'there is no place on this website where somebody says I'll have sex for money because that is against the law.'

Hurrant and the other arrestees are charged with 'conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.'

In addition to the contents of Rentboy's offices, federal officials have seized more than $1.4 million from six bank accounts belonging to Hurrant or his company. The domain name 'Rentboy.com' was also seized and the site is now offline.

The federal complaint alleges that between 2010 and 2015, Rentboy.com grossed more than $10 million.

In 2014, federal authorities seized myRedBook, a California-based website that ran sex ads. MyRedBook's owner, Eric Omuro, was charged with using the mail and the Internet to promote prostitution and with laundering money derived from the site. Omuro pleaded guilty in 2014 to facilitating prostitution, and admitted that the site allowed prostitutes to post ads. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison.

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Rentboy bust leads to protests:
LGBT organizations call for decriminalization of sex work

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