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LGBT Legal Organizations Call for Decriminalization of Sex Work as Federal Government Initiates Prosecution of Rentboy.com’s Owner and Employees

Posted on: August 26th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

On August 20, leading LGBT rights legal organizations in the United States issued a joint statement supporting Amnesty International’s August 11 Resolution that advocates for the human rights of sex workers, including repeal of laws against prostitution. Just days later, on August 25, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raided the New York City offices of Rentboy.com, the world’s largest on-line escorting website, carted away boxes of business records and computers, and arrested the company’s chief executive officer, Jeffrey Hurant, and six employees.

Amnesty International (AI), a non-governmental organization concerned with human rights issues worldwide, 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. 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 presently legal in some countries (e.g., Canada, 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 United States, every jurisdiction except some counties in Nevada treats all sexual activity for monetary compensation as unlawful, although they differ as to the classification of the offense and potential penalties. 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 Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and National Center for Transgender Equality.

The 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 Joint Statement goes on to describe the various 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,” says the Joint Statement. “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.”

Just days before the Joint Statement was issued, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) submitted a Complaint and Affidavit in Support of Arrest Warrants to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn) on August 18, seeking to arrest the owner and employees of Rentboy.com, described in the complaint 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.” The Complaint was submitted under oath by DHS Special Agent Susan Ruiz, who led the investigation leading to the prosecution. The Complaint requested that its supporting affidavit and warrants be kept under seal until they were executed to prevent the defendants from fleeing the jurisdiction.

On August 25, Homeland Security agents accompanied by NYC Police Department officers appeared at Rentboy.com’s offices on West 14th Street in Manhattan to conduct their raid.  They also arrested the employees there and arrested others at their homes, effectively shutting down operation of the website. The defendants were listed in the complaint 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 title of the case on the Complaint is United States of America v. Hurant.

The complaint sets out a detailed description of the Rentboy.com website, defining terms, providing graphic descriptions of the activities advertised, and asserting repeatedly that the disclaimers on the site were meaningless and that the entire operation was set up to connect customers with prostitutes.

Anyone seeking a detailed description of the on-line male escort business will find it in this complaint, which became public upon serving of the arrest warrants and was posted later on August 25th on various news websites. The complaint describes each of the defendants (including aliases used by many of them) and their role in the Rentboy.com business, including past or present escorting activity by some of them.

The complaint asserts that the term “escort” is a euphemism for a prostitute. The complaint describes and quotes from various escort listings on Rentboy.com, including the quotation of rates for services and the listing of specific sexual activity that an escort is willing to engage in. The complaint also notes cross-references in some of the advertisements to another website, daddysreviews.com, at which can be found detailed accounts by customers of their experiences with the escorts in the form of reviews, including reports on the amount of money charged by the escort.

It is unclear whether this action taken against Rentboy.com was a precursor to actions against similar websites operated from the United States as part of a more general crackdown on the use of the Internet for commercial sexual assignations, whether Homeland Security is also targeting heterosexual escort sites, or whether Rentboy.com was singled out for prosecution because of the brazenness of its owner, who is quoted in the complaint as having made clear in published interviews that the purpose of the website was to assist escorts in marketing their sexual services.

According to the complaint, Hurant uses as an email address cyberpimp@rentboy.com, which is hardly subtle. The complaint quotes Hurant 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, and at which Hurant gave his business card to an undercover agent.

The prosecution is premised on 18 U.S.C. Section 1952, a federal statute that provides, in relevant part: “(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,” Agent Ruiz did 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 U.S. Attorney, acting as a prosecutor on behalf of DHS, is likely to assert as broad a range of charges as the results of the DHS investigation may support.