NEW YORK (AP) — Starting with the name, there was never anything discreet about the website Rentboy.com.
The successful site operated for nearly 20 years in an open and racy way, with male escorts paying for ads to attract new — mainly male — customers. That came to an abrupt end last month when federal agents raided Rentboy’s Manhattan offices and arrested chief executive Jeffrey Hurant and six others on charges of promoting prostitution.
The takedown of the popular website was led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, prompting protests accusing federal authorities of anti-gay bias and raising questions about why they would single out Rentboy when other escort websites, gay and straight, continue to do business.
“Surely the Department of Homeland Security has more pressing concerns than to fritter away precious time and resources on something that shouldn’t even be criminalized in the first place,” said Human Rights Watch’s Graeme Reid, echoing the sentiments by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups.
Federal authorities brought the case using a broad statute barring travel to commit or promote a crime. They say the investigation is ongoing and expected to result in additional charges.
Hurant, who’s out on bail, has denied any wrongdoing. His attorneys declined further comment.
The origins of the case haven’t been made public. But even without knowing the specifics, Homeland Security’s involvement is appropriate, said Serina Vash, a former federal prosecutor and executive of the Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement at New York University School of Law.
Part of the agency’s mission is “to secure cyberspace,” Vash said. “It was in their interest to not let this go any further.”
But more than a month after the arrests, the absence of any allegations that Rentboy was of a menace to society beyond simple prostitution — human trafficking, exploiting minors, money laundering — has stirred anger and fear in the gay community.
“It’s scared a lot of people and also baffled them, that Homeland Security does this,” said William Dobbs, a gay activist who organized a rally outside federal court in Brooklyn by protesters demanding the Rentboy case be thrown out.