By Nick Divito
September 03, 2015
BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - Though Rentboy.com is adamant that its service for like-minded men is not an Internet brothel, dozens of sex-rights activists rallied in the website's defense Thursday outside the courthouse where seven RentBoy officers face a federal indictment.
"I consider it a digital version on Stonewall," said Allen Roskoff, referring to the riots that erupted after police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar called Stonewall Inn in 1969, unwittingly kicking off the gay-rights movement.
In addition to Roskoff's group, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, other civil rights groups including Amnesty International, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center have banded together in support of Rentboy.com.
The 20-year-old website's main offices in Manhattan were raided about a month ago, and seven of its officers were arraigned last week on charges of running a multimillion-dollar Internet brothel.
With about 50 protesters marching in a circle outside Brooklyn Federal Court on Thursday, local activist Bill Dobbs called the Rentboy.com raid a "wake-up call."
"There's something of a war on sex in New York City," Dobbs said, noting that there are no federal laws on the books banning sex work.
"It's time," Dobbs said. "People want to be able to control their own bodies."
About seven New York City police officers stood by as protesters chanted around them, "Stand up, fight back!"
Their signs read, "Sex work is not a crime" and "Criminalization = dehumanization."
The groups rallied on the heels of similar efforts to decriminalize sex workers from Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the UN Development Programme, UN Women and UNAIDS.
Prosecutors allege that Rentboy.com's subscribers paid a minimum monthly fee of about $60 to set up profiles and search through profiles to find the "sexual services they are willing to perform and the price charged."
Authorities seized more than $1.4 million during the raid, then froze the site.
Jeffrey Hurant, a 50-year-old Manhattanite who founded the business in 1997, and six other Rentboy.com co-defendants face up to five years in prison and $250,000 if convicted of sex trafficking.
The defendants have denied allegations that they ran a sex service, insisting that website merely connected like-minded men.
An attorney for Edward Lorenz Estanol aka Eli Lewis, one of the seven defendants, saw no problem with the protests, however.
"This business has been operating openly for almost 20 years," attorney Joyce David said in an email. "If they can shut down Rentboy and arrest these seven, then why not shut down the Village Voice and arrest anyone who works on the 'personal ads' ... at the end of the newspaper?"
Rentboy.com's raid was set against a series of sexual dustups nationwide.
The cheating website Ashley Madison faces a series of class action lawsuits after a group of hackers culled its database and exposed the identities of its 37 million subscribers.
Several reality stars were implicated in the scandal and publicly apologized for their membership.
Earlier last month, delegates with Amnesty International's decisionmaking body, International Council, met in Dublin and voted to adopt a 13-point manifesto that provides the "highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers."
New York's Police Chief William Bratton is also making headlines for grappling with topless buskers in Times Square.
In addition to Hurant and 23-year-old Estanol, the other Rentboy.com defendants arrested last week are Michael Sean Belman, 47; Clint Calero, 48; Shane Lukas, 41; Diana Milagros Mattos, 43; and Marco Soto Decker, 28.