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After Rentboy raid, protesters in Brooklyn demand sex work decriminalization

A protest in front of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in downtown Brooklyn  for the legalization of sex work. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

A protest in front of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in downtown Brooklyn for the legalization of sex work on September 3. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

In response to the recent raid on the New York City headquarters for escort website RentBoy.com, activists protested in front of a Brooklyn courthouse on September 3 to demand the decriminalization of sex work.

“[We’re] demanding US Attorney [Kelly T.] Currie for the Eastern district stop the prosecutions. Drop the charges,” Bill Dobbs, one of the protest’s organizers, said. “And because there are so many thousands of arrests in this town that result in prostitution or prostitution-related charges, it’s time to decriminalize sex work.”

Starting at around 12 p.m., dozens of activists, many of them sex workers themselves, rallied and chanted outside of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in downtown Brooklyn. Though the demonstration was relatively small and consisted mostly of protesters marching in a circle and chanting, the demonstration attracted mainstream media as well as militarized police equipped with bulletproof vests and rifles.

With the raid of RentBoy.com, an escort site that largely caters to gay men, and the arrest of seven current and former executives from the site, many LGBTQ activists have come out to condemn a modern version of pre-Stonewall raids on gay clubs and bars and once again call for the legalization of sex work.

“Sex workers deserve protection. They deserve the same protection any banker on Wall Street would get. They’re not even getting that,” Janice Thom, the director of operations at the National LGBTQ Task Force, said. “Protecting sex workers and making sure that it’s considered real work will save lives.”

The RentBoy.com raid took place on August 25 at the site’s offices on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Officers with the Department of Homeland Security and New York City Police Department stormed into the offices and seized documents and computers. The site’s CEO, Jeffrey Hurant, and six other employees were arrested at their homes, which were also seized by the feds, along with their bank accounts and money. According to a Department of Justice press release, everyone arrested was charged with “conspiring to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.”

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Protesters march in a circle and chant for the legalization of sex work in front of a courthouse in downtown Brooklyn on September 3. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

But along with the people who run the site, the raid also affected the people who advertise on the site. The site described itself as “the world’s largest male escort site” and, for many young queer men, it was a vital source of revenue that helped pay bills, buy clothes, and put food on the table. It also provided a much safer alternative than trying to do sex work on the streets.

“In a lot of ways it was difficult to get a job, especially with me moving around a lot and not really having stable rent, and so advertising allows that safety tool to happen, and also, it’s not this biweekly pay thing, it’s really instantaneous money cause I needed it to move,” Michael, a 22-year-old former advertiser on RentBoy.com who refused to give his last name, said. “It’s a screening tool. You’re able to filter out a lot of individuals. Also, they provided various resources to STI treatments, how to stay safe.”

Michael, who had advertised on RentBoy.com for over a year, said that even though his income wasn’t always stable, the site provided him with a stable place to advertise. His ad was always up, and he knew that he was visible on the site. Now, with the shutdown of the site, that source of income is gone. When later asked how the raid of RentBoy.com affected him personally, Michael replied with an uneasy laugh, “Well, right now I can’t pay rent!”

Other sex workers at the protest voiced the same concerns about how the criminalization of sex work affects the lives of so many people, particularly trans people of color, who are often denied jobs with livable wages and are just trying to provide for themselves and their families. The protest lasted about two hours and ended with organizers determined to carry on the fight in the near future.

“What we’re thinking next is a town meeting about the war on sex and also going after City Hall because there are thousands of arrests every year of people for sex work and for wanting to engage with sex work,” Dobbs said at the end of the protest. “And some of it, like Prospect Park targeting for cruisers, doesn’t involve money at all. So all that stuff has to be addressed and the buck stops with Mayor [Bill] de Blasio.”