Human trafficking issues are raised to make site operators look bad, but the charges don't match
Five months after arresting the chief executive officer and several employees of Manhattan-based Rentboy.com, a site that hosted men offering escort services to other men around the world, the Eastern District of New York has finally gotten federal indictments via a grand jury.
The indictments are only against founder and CEO Jeffrey Hurant and the company, Easy Rent Systems Inc., which controlled Rentboy.com. None of the other employees have been indicted, but a spokesperson told Reuters that criminal complaints against former employees are pending (one assumes, after they agree to plea deals in exchange for providing ammunition against Hurant).
I've got plenty of observations about the contents. There are three charges in the indictment. The first is promotion of prostitution against Hurant. Hurant is accused of running a business enterprise that violates New York's prostitution laws. But yes, this is a federal indictment. The U.S. attorneys are invoking the federal Travel Act, which allows the Department of Justice to turn certain state-level crimes like gambling, prostitution, bribery, and arson into federal crimes if it involves interstate or international communication. The second and third charges are money laundering conspiracy and money laundering charges for obviously taking money to host the escort ads at Rentboy.com. Those are the only charges in the indictment. This will become relevant as I explain the actual content included in the indictment.
Some things to note:
That Rentboy.com prohibited text advertising sex for money is presented as evidence of promotion of prostitution. The indictment notes that Rentboy warned escorts in advance of police prostitution stings and told escorts they could not actually offer sex for money, because that was illegal. What they could offer was their time in exchange for money. That Rentboy.com was advising its clients that they could not advertise prostitution and warned them whenever there were police anti-prostitution activities in their area is apparently proof that they were promoting prostitution. At one point, in response to police actions in Miami, Rentboy.com warned "ESCORTING IS LEGAL as long as you are offering your time and companionship, or non-sexual massage in exchange for money. OFFERING SEX FOR MONEY IS ILLEGAL. You cannot offer sexual services in exchange for money."
None of us are naïve about what Rentboy.com actually did. Clearly the clients it hosted often provided sex for money. Nevertheless, it is telling that the indictment puts such an emphasis on how Rentboy.com tried to make sure its clients were not advertising prostitution essentially as proof that Rentboy knew that prostitution was going on.
The indictment attempts to tie Rentboy.com to human trafficking cases, despite no human trafficking charges. When Rentboy.com's offices were raided, the initial complaint gave no indication that anything non-consensual was happening through Rentboy.com's advertisements that Rentboy.com knew about. There was no implication of human trafficking or forced participation. The absence of such claims in an environment where police and prosecutors are quick to insist (often inaccurately) that women are being trafficked against their will for heterosexual prostitution was telling. As a result, critics of the Department of Justice's behavior (myself included) blasted a crackdown and arrests for behavior that all appeared completely consensual and prosecution that appeared on the surface to be driven by puritanical attitudes toward sexual interactions between men, complete with lurid descriptions of sexual practices.
Apparently this criticism did not go unnoticed by the attorney's office. Obviously an order went out to find any evidence that Rentboy.com might have facilitated any sort of non-consensual human trafficking. Between the period where Rentboy.com was raided and yesterday's indictment, Florida saw a very high-profile forced gay sex trafficking case. Three men stand accused of luring men from Hungary to the United States and forcing them into sex work. It's a very serious, horrifying case. One man has already been convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
According to the indictment, these men advertised their victims on Rentboy.com (and elsewhere). Rentboy.com does not stand accused of knowing that these men were being trafficked or participating in the trafficking in any way. Hurant is not charged with violating any human trafficking laws. The kidnappers met their victims through a completely different site. It's a transparent attempt at guilt by association. The indictment notes that one employee (apparently not Hurant) said in an email, upon hearing about the sex trafficking arrests, that he highly doubted the victims were sex slaves. What does this personal opinion have to do with the actual charges against Hurant? Very little.
Additionally, the indictment has a lengthy section criticizing Rentboy's less than stellar handling of possibly underage male escorts in advertising originating from Asian countries. I don't want to dismiss the concerns here, because if these accusations are true, the company, at Hurant's and managers' urging, did not adequately apply their own standards for proof of age for escort ads originating from Asian countries. One email (the indictment doesn't make it clear who sent it) said "In Asia ok to approve them … unless you see a baby … :)"
So, that's not very good, and yet the indictment fails to provide any actual evidence that ads for underage escorts appeared on the site, and again, neither Hurant nor Rentboy.com are facing any human trafficking charges, though it wouldn't surprise me if the DOJ were trying to hunt some of these escorts down for proof that they were minors.
The DOJ wants a payday. The final four pages of the indictment list everything the U.S. attorney's office wants to seize and keep from Rentboy.com. It includes $71,000 taken from Rentboy.com's, office, about $228,000 from four different bank accounts (including Hurant's personal bank account), approximately $1.2 million from two Ameritrade accounts held by Hurant and Easy Rent Systems, and ownership of the Rentboy.com Internet domain name.