This article contains sexually explicit material.
On Friday, the day before Halloween, I hopped the subway to Union Square and walked over to the former offices of Rentboy.com for the liquidation sale of the century.
Rentboy is the gay hookup network that was shut down by law enforcement this summer in a shocking federal raid in which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Attorney’s office, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) stormed the site’s office, seized all of the equipment and $1.4 million in bank assets, and sent ripples of terror throughout the gay community. The reasons for the bust remain a mystery: Though escorting itself is illegal in the U.S., the ad hosting site had operated legally since 1997 without any pressure from law enforcement.
When I arrived at the unassuming office building, I had to double check to make sure I was in the right place. I had expected to perhaps push through a throng of hairy lumberjack daddies and smooth-skinned twinks, but instead encountered nothing but the typical 14th Street milieu: gaggles of suburban shoppers wearing Uggs and sipping on pumpkin spice lattes, religious hucksters shouting sermons into microphones attached to portable speakers, and drained office workers whose wan faces could have been mistaken for Day of the Dead masks.
I might have kept walking were it not for a mailbox in the nondescript entryway that read “Easy Rent Services.” Below, a piece of peeling label tape with the name J. Hurant—referring to the besieged CEO of Rentboy, Jeffrey Hurant.
Four flights of stairs and a near-asthma attack later, I was surrounded by giant laserprinted pinups and stacks of computer servers. Hurant himself had opened the door and ushered me inside, draped in a lamé technicolor smoking jacket that he said someone had simply taken off and given to him earlier that day.
“This guy who came to the sale, he said it was his project to give people anything they said they liked,” said Hurant. “And because I had complimented him on the jacket, he just gave it to me.”
Hurant looked relatively at ease for a man who, along with six other Rentboy employees, was recently charged with conspiracy to promote prostitution across interstate lines. He immediately said that he couldn’t talk about the case, which is still open, but explained that the sale was part of a fundraising effort to cover approximately $250,000 in legal fees. A crowdfunding site had already raised around $10,000 by Monday, and the office liquidation sale was designed to beef up the legal fund.
Of course, the sale was advertised on Craigslist—which, for a long time, was the primary hosting site for escort ads until it was pressured to eradicate its ‘erotic services’ section in 2009.
“Nobody responded on Craigslist,” said Hurant. “It was supposed to just be low key and quiet. I didn’t think I would make it into a party, and I wasn’t sure that the world wanted our ephemera. What I discovered is that people are just coming in and wanting a piece of history.”
As I browsed through the sale bins and posters draped across the backs of couches, I found myself wishing I had a rich gay sugar daddy of my own. The beautiful, NSFW neon signage and framed memorabilia from the Hookies (an annual awards ceremony for sex workers) were priced out of a lowly digital content writer’s budget—but I found a $40 t-shirt with the slogan “Money can’t buy you love, but the rest is negotiable” emblazoned across the back.
I asked Hurant which items at the sale were his favorites, and he instantly pointed me to a pair of neon light boxes: “We made them ourselves in house. The dirtier one is my favorite.”
Hurant walked past the neon signs into an office with the biggest laserprinter I have ever seen—as wide as the bumper on a tow truck—and described the process of making light boxes with Lexan backing. Then he shrugged and changed the subject.
“At the end of every sale, I just drink,” said Hurant with an air of nonchalance to the point of maybe giving up altogether. “I’m OK, though. My spirits are high. Things happen.”
Things may happen, but losing a business that took 18 years to build from the ground up is no joke. Especially when that business formed a solid, supportive international community of gay and transgender men.
A couple of young guys walked into the sale and approached Hurant with questions about a portfolio full of prints, mostly old Rentboy ads that ran in magazines and local gay guides. One of them, a clean-cut and soft-spoken guy with a baby face, told me that he’d heard about the sale from his roommate.
“The shutdown is tragic,” said Tayte, which is a pseudonym. “Rentboy should be allowed to continue. I hope it comes back someday. I haven’t used it personally, but it’s just silly. Of course people will still do what they do, it will just be less organized now. It feels like a wild goose chase. Like they are just demonstrating that they can’t tolerate a certain type of desire.”
I asked Tayte which print he was going to buy and he flipped through the portfolio, landing on a photo of a cute, muscled boy wearing nothing but a pair of tighty whities.
“He’s the cutest one,” said Tayte when asked why he chose that particular print. “And also the irony, especially with the coming election. And the recent GOP debate.”
Ironies abound when discussing the Rentboy case. Perhaps the most prominent is the sense of futility around the bust: Why shut down Rentboy after all these years, when there are dozens of other sites (including Twitter and Facebook) that host sex worker profiles and make it easier to connect with clients?
Rentboy, at its core, was no different than sites like Craigslist or Backpage (both of which have also been targeted by law enforcement and anti-trafficking crusaders for years). It hosted profiles and ads for guys who wanted to fulfill fantasies safely and in a community setting.
Even Hurant’s own father is baffled by the massive federal raid on Rentboy. In a sweet, moving letter posted to the crowdfunding page, he expressed his outrage at his son’s arrest and brief imprisonment this August.
On the morning of August 25th I found out my son, Jeffrey, was locked up in prison. I jumped into my car and went to Brooklyn to see if I could help him out. One thing I know is that my son is NOT a criminal. Jeff is a hard-working small businessman who built several successful companies. He employed good people who were then able to support their families. He paid taxes, gave to charitable organizations, and he gave back to his community.
While I’m not personally gay, I’ve always loved and accepted my son. Over the past 20 years I’ve come to understand that Rentboy was a place for people to post classified ads, no different from those that appeared in The Village Voice, NY Magazine, and other publications that ran similar ads in 1997. I assumed that our right to free speech protected those ads.
With Rentboy gone, it’s up to the dozens of other classified hosting sites and social networks to facilitate communication between sex workers. And not just between sex workers and their clients, but between sex workers themselves: sharing information about bad dates, referring clients, keeping tabs on pricing in the market.
Many of the ads that used to grace Rentboy have simply moved over to Rentmen.com, a similar site hosted in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal. There, ads for “Hairy Muscle Ginger” and “Hard Sex Stud” are a portal into a world of hot gay exchanges.
But at the former offices of Rentboy, as a staff of computer engineers scrambles to cover exorbitant legal fees now that their bank accounts have all been seized by the U.S. government, things just aren’t quite as sexy as they used to be.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai