About 70 protesters chanting "Sex work is not a crime, prosecution is a waste of time" demonstrated in front of federal court in Brooklyn Thursday over the promotion-of-prostitution charges filed last week against the gay escort website rentboy.com.
The charges against a website that has been in operation for nearly 20 years were investigated by an arm of the Department of Homeland Security and the NYPD, and have triggered complaints of anti-gay bias, calls for decriminalizing sex work and claims that online sites are safer than street hookups.
"We want to put them on notice that what they're doing here is outrageous," said Andy Humm, an activist who hosts the cable TV show Gay USA. "This case started under Loretta Lynch. Is this the policy of the U.S. government? Is this what we're going to spend Homeland Security resources on?"
"We use sex work to support our families and ourselves," said Jenna Torres, who identified herself as a prostitute and spokeswoman for a group called the Red Umbrella Project. "Online advertising creates a safety net that allows us to be proactive in protecting ourselves."
Prosecutors in the Brooklyn U.S. attorney's office once headed by Lynch, now attorney general, said in their complaint that rentboy.com, despite disclaimers, was a thinly veiled sex-for-sale marketplace that pulled in gross revenue of $10 million from ads for sex services since 2010.
They called it the world's largest online male escort service. Owner Jeffrey Hurant and six staffers were charged with conspiracy, and the site was seized. Lawyers for Hurant and other defendants said the site was protected by the First Amendment. No users of rentboy.com were charged.
Some protesters compared the case with the infamous police raid on the gay Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969 that led to riots and is generally credited with triggering the modern gay rights movement.
"This is an updated, digital raid, just like Stonewall," said protester Allen Roskoff. "Now they don't have to go to our bar; they just go online."
A man identifying himself only as Michael said he used the site to advertise his services and "screen" customers, and complained that he now is without work and broke.
A group calling itself the #Hookup Collaborative, identified as a working group of rentboy.com advertisers, distributed a leaflet. "The agencies involved in the rentboy.com raid will . . . rip up the modicum of safety we've carved out on third party platforms," the statement said.
A spokeswoman for Kelly Currie, the Acting U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, declined to comment on the protest.