A federal judge Wednesday sentenced Jeffrey Hurant, founder of Rentboy.com, to six months in federal prison for promoting prostitution.
In a turn both remarkable and infuriating, the judge, Margo Brodie, acknowledged that both Hurant and Rentboy.com have done good things for the gay community before sending him off to prison. From The New York Times:
In court papers filed in Brooklyn, Mr. Hurant has pointed out that aside from making money — lots of money — Rentboy permitted prostitutes to move their trade from the streets to the safety of the internet and to work independently of pimps. The company ran Rentboy U, he said, which offered escorts classes in financial management and safe-sex practices. And, he added, it made large donations to the fight against AIDS and H.I.V., working at times with government agencies like the New York City Department of Health.
On Wednesday, a judge in Federal District Court in Brooklyn gave credence to his arguments, saying that while Mr. Hurant had broken the law, he had also done enormous good for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Even amid the overwrought panic over human trafficking in the culture of American sex work, the federal bust of Rentboy.com in 2015 stood out. The site had existed for nearly 20 years and was well-known as a resource for men to connect with male sex workers. It was operating in the open, not via some dark web resource.
When they were busted by the Department of Homeland Security, nobody in the government even tried to claim that anybody had been victimized. The shutdown of the site and the arrest of workers and founder Jeffrey Hurant was based solely because prostitution was illegal and that Rentboy was making millions of dollars facilitating it—which the government then immediately moved to seize.
It wasn't until after the site was shut down that the feds began investigating the possibility that any human trafficking or involvement with underage participants might have happened.
Following the bust, Reason interviewed a client who had been relying on Rentboy.com to find partners for sexual fulfillment. He said he would not be having sex at all if it weren't for the men he had been connecting with through the site. Read the interview here.
On Wednesday Brodie affirmed, "The very thing that was illegal, it also did a lot of good," before sentencing Hurant to less than half the time prosecutors asked for. Apparently she feels bad about it!
To be clear, it is still very possible to find gay escorts online. The sites are a little less obviously named (and given what happened to Rentboy, I'm obviously not going to link to them), and Rentboy's shutdown has probably fragmented the sex work marketplace. The end result is online male sex work operates in a more shadowy, secretive area with fewer safety protections and less of a community. After all, they wouldn't want the government to take note.
Sex work has actually become more dangerous for prostitutes and clients and everybody involved with this case knows it. Enforcing the law as written actually causes American citizens greater harm with the potential to lead to actual human trafficking.
(Small update to respond to the comments: Brodie did have the option to not sentence Hurant to any prison time, and in fact, she gave him the opportunity to essentially beg for his freedom. There was not a mandatory minimum sentence binding her decision here. Apologies for not making that more clear.)