How the Rentboy Case Highlights the Myth of the “Good Samaritan” Sex Trafficker and the Neglected Issue of Male Sexual Exploitation

09/05/2017 10:34 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2017

Sex traffickers will always lie about who they exploit and how they do it. One of the most recent examples received national media attention last month when a disturbingly lenient verdict was handed down by Judge Margo Brodie of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn to Jeffrey Hurant, CEO of the website Rentboy.com, which prostituted boys and men.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) has chosen to speak out on this matter because it believes every individual, no matter their sex or sexual orientation, should be free from the harms of prostitution and sex trafficking, and the Rentboy.com sentence has shown how easily people can sexually exploit others—especially when the victims are male or transgendered—and avoid justice.

Spin Doctors of Sexploitation

Prior to his trial and subsequent arrest, Mr. Hurant ran what the government has called “one of the largest sex work ventures ever prosecuted.” Rentboy.com, has now been taken offline, but was portrayed by Mr. Hurant during this trial as a profitable online enterprise and provider of important “social services” to prostituted males who were solicited on Rentboy.com. Mr. Hurant claimed that the purpose of his website was to help those in prostitution avoid the ills of drugs, pimps, abuse, harassment, and violence, as well as help the gay community.

In truth, this “noble mission” was a farce and a front facilitation of prostitution—i.e. pimping— and sex trafficking in the interest of making money.

Evidence presented by prosecutors demonstrated that Rentboy.com was covertly working with pimps and fronts for prostitution (popularly referred to as “escort services”) to traffic men and boys. In one instance, an account on Rentboy.com was shown to belong to a sex trafficker using the website to sell 10- to 12-year-old boys for sex.

The facilitation of prostitution and sex trafficking on his website earned Mr. Hurant more than $10 million since 1997. Yet, despite profiting immensely from sexual exploitation for the better part of two decades, Mr. Hurant was sentenced to a mere six months in prison—less than half of the government recommended maximum term!

Although appalling, Mr. Hurant's success in securing only a six-month prison sentence for his crimes is not unique. In fact, he followed a familiar pattern that other online facilitators of sexual exploitation often use: he used spin to put a positive twist on his stake in the global supply chain of sexual exploitation.

Perhaps the most notable among spin masters of sexploitation is Backpage.com, the nefarious website known as “the hub” for prostitution advertising and where countless individuals advertised for sex by sex traffickers.

Despite numerous federal court cases and a congressional investigation that led the U.S. Senate to use its contempt powers for the first time in two decades, Backpage.com has succeed in convincing people in many quarters that it is essentially providing a public service because it serves as “a resource” for law enforcement agencies looking for sex traffickers. The irony of such an argument is stunning—we’re supposed to give criminals a platform to facilitate criminal activity so that we can catch criminals? If you ask law enforcement how much of the illegality on Backpage they can attack, the answer varies from between 1-5%, which means the 95-99% of the illegality on Backpage is now risk-free and uninvestigated. So rather than helping mitigate crime, Backpage gives it a very public, low-risk stage.

The Sexploitation Double Standard

The Rentboy and Backpage websites provide useful illustrations of another important issue—the normalization of the sexual exploitation of boys and men.

Backpage is routinely in the headlines and has earned national opprobrium from anti-sex trafficking activists, law enforcement officials, and elected leaders for its indisputable role in facilitating the sexual exploitation of girls and young women. Undoubtedly boys and men are also sexually trafficked via the website, but the national spotlight on sex trafficking is so keenly focused on females that the potential sexual exploitation and trafficking of males and transgendered persons on Backpage is completely overlooked.

The failure to recognize sexual exploitation of boys and men doesn’t stop there. Ironically, the prosecutors who brought charges against Rentboy were criticized by New York congressmen Jerrold Nadler and Sean Patrick Maloney for wasting government time and resources on a victimless crime. But if Rentboy had been operating under the name Rentgirl, would Nadler and Maloney have dared to make such an argument? Are we to believe that law enforcement efforts to fight sexual exploitation are only an appropriate use of government resources when the victims are females primarily serving heterosexual males?

Mr. Hurant’s defense touted during the trial was that Rentboy.com was beneficial to the gay community. Though Mr. Hurant will tell you his intentions were always to serve, protect, and provide the gay community with “an image of pride and positivity,” remember that he knowingly exploited them for a personal gain of $10 million.

Importantly, payment for sex is a form of sexual coercion whether those being sold serve hetero, homo, or transsexual buyers. Male prostitution is simply male sexual exploitation, and male victims of sexual exploitation are often homeless,[1] suffer from mental illness, and/or are victims of sexual abuse.[2] The idea that selling them online benefits them was a twisted lie Hurant used to put a gloss of altruism on raw sexual exploitation to convince a gullible judge to lighten his sentence.

Bringing the Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Boys and Men Out of the Shadows

At the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) we believe it’s time to bring the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation of boys and men out of the shadows. That’s why we are working with leaders like Tom Jones of the H.O.P.E. Project, himself a survivor of sexual exploitation, who works with other men who have suffered sexual exploitation. Recently, Tom spoke out about his experiences at Creating a World without Sexual Exploitation: How Consumer Demand Drives the Commercial Sex Trade and What We Can Do About It, an event sponsored by World Without Exploitation and National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Be sure to watch Tom’s video.

Additionally, this week the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, together with the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking and Washington College, is hosting the upcoming symposium, Out of the Shadows: Addressing the Sexual Exploitation of Boys and Men. The symposium will take place on September 8th in Washington, D.C., and will bring together various experts from across the country to educate the public and form collaborations to create real solutions to prevent sexual exploitation of boys and men.

Register for Out of the Shadows event or watch it online at https://www.facebook.com/centeronexploitation/.

[1] Gary L. Yates, Richard G. Mackenzie, Julia Pennbridge, and Avon Swofford, “A Risk Profile Comparison of Homeless Youth Involved in Prostitution and Homeless Youth Not Involved,” Journal of Adolescent Health 12, no. 7 (1991): 545-48, doi:10.1016/0197-0070(91)90085-z.

[2] Kimberly A. Tyler, Les B. Whitbeck, Dan R. Hoyt, and Ana Mari Cauce, “Risk Factors for Sexual Victimization Among Male and Female Homeless and Runaway Youth,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 19, no. 5 (2004): 503-20, doi:10.1177/0886260504262961.

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