The story of how a single site brought politicians to their knees, gave sexy young men a place to cruise and the legality of the worlds oldest profession.
This story was originally published on Substance Magazine. Photos by Adolfo Tigerino
Blankets drape the side of a cheap motel bed, the walls are a pastel pink and there is a tacky painting of a ship on the wall. A water stain clings to a corner of the ceiling, and the shitty air conditioner is blasting only slightly cold air into the stuffy and otherwise inconspicuous room. The ugly thing about this place isn't just the decor, but the $65 I shelled out to meet my source, a man who is barely able to buy his own beer. How such a cheap room is this expensive I don't know, but it's by the hour and I am hoping we can move to a less awkward location.
He walks in nearly forty minutes late, smiling and dressed in what I would consider to be gym clothes, but he doesn't look like the type who hits the gym regularly. The light eyes and wide smile coupled with a slender figure leaves me with no doubt that this kid is an escort, and well paid according to him. He is charming and sweet, observant of my slight irritation at his tardiness and apologizes. "I am so sorry, I got a little tied up with a client, I hope you weren't waiting too long." It's fine. I ask if it is possible to move to a coffee shop or something, I don't think it's in my budget to keep this room nor is it too ethical.
He smiles, "it's your show, we can go -- or do -- whatever you want."
For 21-year-old Alejandro Esparanza, who goes by the name Sammy D, this dingy motel is not only a quiet space to be undisturbed, it is also his office. He said that once or twice a week he will rent a room at this motel and begin the hunt for a client on various sites like Rentboy.com or Craigslist. However, with the recent take down of Rentboy in a joint effort by the Department of Homeland Security and the New York District Attorney, Esparanza's ability to find clients has become limited. And although this affects his ability to earn a living, there is more to the closure of Rentboy then meets the eye.
Cofounded back in 1997 by Jeff Davids and Melanie Nolan, the site is -- was -- the largest site dedicated to male escorting and massage in the world. In a statement on the site by Rentboy Company Director Sean Van Sant, "Rentboy.com is not an escort agency. We are an ad listing service for male escorts, where men place their own ads and work for themselves, so that clients can contact them directly. Our mission is to create a non-judgmental space where anyone curious about exploring male-male companionship can hire a man by the hour."
Although many of the over 400,000 advertisers on the site would disagree, that statement to some is code for promoting and pimping prostitution -- their tagline was "You can't buy love...but the rest is negotiable." Regardless of the wording, one thing was clear about the site and its advertisers; they were selling something people were buying.
According to the complaint issued by DHS, Rentboy made over $10 million between 2010 and 2015, and during the raid of the Manhattan offices government officials seized an estimated $1.4 million in illegal assets from six different accounts.
The complaint also names CEO Jeff Davids aka Jeffrey Hurant, Micheal Sean Belman A.K.A. Van Sant, Clint Calero, Edward Lorenzo Estanol aka Eli Lewis, Shane Lukas aka Hawk Kinkaid, Diana Milagros Mattos aka Coco Lopez and Marco Soto Decker as conspiring to "use facilities in interstate commerce with the intent to promote, manage, establish, carry on and facilitate the promotion, management, establishment and carrying on of an unlawful activity," which is later identified as prostitution across state lines.
Kelly T. Currie, acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn conducted the raid, which VICE points out as odd since the raid should have been under the supervision of New York's Southern District which covers Manhattan. According to VICE and the complaint, the filing by Currie was justified because some of the escorts were based in Brooklyn.
It was so odd in fact that the editorial board of the New York Times had something to say about the whole ordeal. The op-ed team explains that the "criminal complaint is so saturated with sexually explicit details, it's hard not to interpret it as an indictment of gay men as being sexually promiscuous."
The op-ed also states that Homeland Security special agent Susan Ruiz said in the claim, '"Based on my investigation...I have learned that a sling, also known as a 'sex sling,' is a device that allows two people to have sex while one is suspended.' Later, she helpfully explained that 'the term 'twink' is a slang term for a young, gay man with an effeminate manner, thin build and no body or facial hair."'
The point to be taken away from a this is that, according to the NYT, the Federal Government should be allocating their resources on more serious crimes like human trafficking rather than pursuing a company that made less in ten years than the annual revenue of a small plumbing company.
However, regardless of where or why the complaint was filed, and the resources used, it is clear that Rentboy may be down permanently, and it's affecting more than just the site owners.
Now ordering coffee at a nearby Starbucks where there were witnesses in case any questions arose over our conversation, Esparanza offers to pay for my drink. I decline, more out of professionalism than anything else. "Oh don't worry, I just got paid I'll be good for about a week, and if I get another client tonight I'm set until Halloween," he says. I assure him that it is alright, and steer the conversation back to our interview by asking about when he first started escorting.
"I would say that I started right out of high school, maybe a little later, but not long after I turned 18. I think I joined because first I liked sex, and second I didn't want to work a 'normal' job that I hated."
We picked up our coffee and sat at a table in the back to avoid being overheard.
Esparanza said he identifies himself as an escort and although the line is thin, he said there is a difference between what he does and actual prostitution. "I am a very sexual person, I like to have all kinds of sex. When I meet a client I am not selling sex or my body, I am selling my time. Just like a therapist or wedding planner, people pay to spend time with me. If we end up having sex then that's that, but I certainly don't expect that to always be the case."
His plan is to work his way up in the sex scene in Los Angeles and eventually gain enough popularity to charge larger amounts and be invited to all the fun escorting events. "If you get famous enough you even get to fuck porn stars."
Despite the stars in his eyes and certainty that he will be the next big thing (he tells me that he already is in one department but that was not confirmed), not all escorts become well known enough to charge large amounts of money for their time. In fact, according to Daniel Rodriguez, some escorts used Rentboy as a means of survival.
"Each individual person [on Rentboy] sets their own rates, the market kind of also has a lot to do with it because when you first go on to back page or any listing site the first thing you are going to do as an advertiser is look to see what everyone else is doing," said Rodriguez, Interim Director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, Los Angeles chapter. "You're going to look to see what kind of pictures they have up, you're going to look to see what kind of text they have up, look to see what they are charging and you kind of go from there. So most people on Rentboy I would say were in the $150-$300 range per hour.
Rodriguez, who advertised on the site for seven years and knew the owners personally, remembers when he first started on the site. "I first heard about [Rentboy] when I was 18, at the time I met someone who was like a sugar daddy type and he told me about the site."
Even after learning about Rentboy, Rodriguez said he did not start advertising until a few years later, about which time it started to gain popularity not just because it was one of the first gay escort advertising sites, but because of the benefits of joining. Rodriguez explains; "From what I know Rentboy started about 18 years ago it was just a place guys could advertise, and for the longest time it was like -- it gained popularity off of A: street based work and B: like the original back pages of like magazines and newspapers and stuff."
When Rodriguez started escorting -- or offering companionship as he sometimes calls it -- seven years ago he did not know much about the site. "When I got to New York City about six years ago I went to a couple of the [Rentboy] events and started meeting the guys that worked in the office and that was right before Hawk came on board." At the time, Rodriguez said that the founders had a unique outlook on the escorting business and integrated that into Rentboy. "At that time they really had this really cool culture of community and getting to know each other."
It was at the New York City Black Party some years ago that Rodriguez met Van Sant and Davids, and mentioned how competitive the New York scene was. He told the owners that he was competing with 300 other guys. That is where the Rentboy philosophy came in to play.
"They were -- from that very first meeting -- they were very quick to say those guys aren't your competition they're your colleagues. Just from that very first interaction with them it was a different culture." According to Rodriguez, Davids and Van Sant didn't want advertisers to see each other as competition they wanted them to network, and to know each other. "They talked about how networking and knowing each other was one of the ways we could keep each other safe." And in the escorting and companionship business, safety is key.
Sex Workers Outreach Project, SWOP, is, according to their mission statement, "a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy." The mission statement also explains that SWOP is a multi-sate network of sex workers and their advocates who "address locally and nationally the violence that sex workers experience because of their criminal status." Rodriguez explained that SWOP is "big into harm reduction" and advocates for the rights of sex workers. The organization also is instrumental in instructing various organizations on how to deal with issues sex workers may face.
"For example in Sacramento they have a really good chapter that has been running for a while and they have agreements with different hospitals on how to handle trafficking victims in an emergency room setting. They do these training for doctors and nurses and the techs, they do talks at different universities about different sex worker issues," said Rodriguez.
He added that SWOP does more than educate and advocate for the rights of sex workers. "[We also set] sex workers up with various harm reduction initiatives, so things like testing and legal aid for different reasons." However, Rodriguez wants to make it clear that there is nothing "in the language in SWOP that promotes prostitution but it's definitely identified as either being sex workers or trafficking victims getting them set up with different kinds of resources to meet their needs." But sometimes those needs get unmet because they are unreported.
Back at the interview, Esparanza is smoking outside while I shuffle through my notes. I can see him standing casually, looking at men as they walk by. Once or twice I see one look back at him to which he nods. He comes in and smiles, "I know that guy, the old one. He called me for dinner about a month ago, it was alright. I think he wants another taste."
And I can't help but think, but what happens if you don't?
The question is one that many people ask when it comes to the safety of sex workers. For Esparanza, there was only one time that a client went too far. "He really was a hot guy, I didn't get why he called me but hey, some dudes get off on paying. Anyway, he was into feet and dildos, I wasn't." Esparanza said that after meeting, the man brought him back to his home where he pulled out a collection of sex toys and socks. "I didn't know what to think because I wasn't sure what he wanted to do. But when he said he wanted to use them on me, I decided to call it quits." He said that when he tried to leave the man grabbed him on forced him to perform oral sex before tossing him on the bed and holding him down.
"In situations like that, I think you go in to survival mode. Some people fight, some don't. I am a small guy and he looked like a gym bunny so I was kind of helpless." Rodriguez said he was sodomized by several different sex toys, and then forced to ejaculate on the mans feet -- with a butt plug inside
"That is an expereince I will never forget. But that isn't the worst of it, when I went to Kaiser they didn't take me seriously when I said I was an escort. One nurse even said I didn't have to lie, they wouldn't report me to the police." Esparanza said that he wanted to file a claim but could not think of a legal way to go about it without exposing himself to possible charges of prostitution. That is where organizations like SWOP come in.
"There is a lot of sex positive lawyers or people that legislate around sex, especially those who work in HIV decriminalization. They are usually very open to stepping up to helping someone who may be involved in like a prostitution offense," said Rodriguez. SWOP also puts sex workers in touch with healthcare that understands the needs of the patient. "We have several clinics that are just starting to pop up around the country, the most notable being St. James Infirmary in San Francisco that is a clinic just for sex workers. There are things like that popping up in New York City." Rodriguez added that there used to be an adult medical clinic in Los Angeles, however that was shut down but the AIDS Healthcare Foundation several years ago.
"Even without a stand alone clinic, just in the harm reduction field there are always ways for people to say 'so and so is a sex worker she is looking for sex worker friendly or at least a non-judgmental place to go get healthcare or get her healthcare needs met.' We can refer her to X, Y, and Z in order to give that to this person," said Rodriguez. When I told Esparanza about the different options and SWOP he said he was unaware that they existed.
"I was never approached or heard of any kind of organization that helped escorts, I figured we were on our own. Except for Rentboy, that really helped me find clients." And what now, that it is closed? Was it really just a site that connected people to companionship, or was it a sophisticated global network of prostitutes working for one pimp?
"Well of course Rentboy's main mission was to connect adults who needed companionship with the kind of people that would make themselves available for hire," said Rodriguez. But the site was also very clear that Rentboy was against the selling of sex specifically. According to Rodriguez, it seemed as if the founders knew how to keep everyone legal and away from the watchful eye of authority, including themselves.
"They were very strict about the type of language you used in your ads. You couldn't say 'blow job is twenty-bucks' it would be a 'time for money or time for companionship' kind of language they would stress you use." The site was also particular about certain pictures and graphics that could and could not be used. Rodriguez said Rentboy was never about advertising sex or a specific sex act for money, it was simply a place where two people could connect. "It is two people running a transaction, or two adults consenting to a transaction for a time, which is why we usually advertise per hour and whatever two people decide to do in that time behind closed doors -- those two people being of similar interest -- that is their business."
The interests Rodriguez alluded to are often what brings one man to seek out the company of another man, especially one who uses pictures of himself naked to start the conversation.
In one instance, this "shared interest" caused a politician to seek more than a summer intern to carry their bags through Europe.
In 2010, anti-gay Southern-Baptist Minister and Psychiatrist George Alan Rekers was caught with a young man whom he had hired from Rentboy to allegedly "carry his luggage" while on vacation in Europe. The fiasco would go on to turn the phrase into a synonym for hiring a male escort. And as for Rekers, he claimed he did not know the young man was an escort until halfway through Europe. Though, it would be hard to miss since one had to create an account to contact an escort, and even the wording in the young mans ad was suggestive. He allegedly had a "smooth, sweet, tight ass" and "perfectly built 8 inch cock" along with his photos.
Prior to this scandal, Rekers had helped to incorporate the Family Research Council as a non-profit organization. Currently the FRC, which is a lobbying group, has been officially listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. However, despite the FRC's claims that gay men are trying to remove all age of consent laws to allow for the glorification of pedophilia, there was clearly at least one person within their own organization who was allegedly engaging in his own homosexual endeavors.
However, Rekers is not the only notorious person to be caught using the site. In 2011 then New Jersey Mayor, Chris Myers, stepped in to the spotlight when an escort from Rentoboy made a website with photos of the mayor in his underwear. Of course the site has since been blocked, and the mayor claimed he was unsure of how someone got the photos. He even went so far as to suggest they had been photoshopped.
But these are just a few cases of men looking to have sex with other men who use Rentboy. In general, it was also a place to find a companion that would not care or judge you. Esperanza said that to him, Rentboy was an escape that some men needed to fulfill a side they kept hidden. "I get 'straight' men all the time, it's not a big deal to me. Some have wives and families, girlfriends and some are just single dude who won't admit they like fucking other dudes." He added that although there are sites like the personals section of Craigslist and adam4adam, Rentboy allowed men to choose what they needed and wanted.
"It was kind of like a candy store, you know? Go in, find the biggest, prettiest lollipop and take it home for a good lick. Or you sit on it for all I care, I get paid by the hour."
Keith Hunter, 34, was a Rentboy in Washington D.C. in the early 2000s and has a similar sentiment on the men who use the site. "After college I moved to D.C. I ended up teaching myself art and design with this guy who happened to be a fashion design instructor before that, and in addition he was also working as an escort." Hunter said that the men he lived with, who was also his boyfriend at the time, taught him the ropes and also showed him how to work in design. When Hunter first move to D.C. he was working with an escort agency but later switched to Rentboy for clients. "I think I put an ad [on rentboy] when I first moved to Washington D.C. maybe slightly before. It would have been around 2001 or 2002...I was really actively serving clients in the early 2000s. My memory was that it was very friendly and professional, it was a pretty...they would definitely cater to us."
But what exactly did Hunter offer? An organic connection between two men. "I think that sort of the sex industry in general and Rentboy in particular both really do serve a valuable function. I think the idea that it is mostly very lonely people that are hiring escorts. That is often the case, it's not even so much that they want sexual relief but that they are lonely, they are shy, they don't know how to approach the idea of asking someone for sex. There were a lot of my clients that had never had sex with a man before some had never even admitted to anyone that they were gay themselves. I felt like it was a big responsibility in a way to somebody through that. I felt privilege and part of what I wanted to do was to give real love to somebody, someone who needs love enough that they are willing to go out and pay
Both Hunter and Esparanza agree that shutting down Rentboy is devastating to men who seek discretion when looking to "connect" with another man. "I think it serves a very necessary function to society, the whole industry. Especially something like Rentboy, it is a very safe place, and it does give a lot of power to both sides. The alternative to having sites like that or agencies -- agencies are exploitative and trying to get money, and I have not had very positive working with agencies, so against something like Rentboy did offer a degree of safety and a degree of empowerment. It kind of made the whole thing seem less sketchy. I thought it was a great website."
According to Rodriguez, the take down is also the loss of something bigger, and it may be only a matter of time before the public witnesses even more government interference towards organizations like Rentboy. "It's more the idea of this loss of an institution, and then going forward always having to wonder: Is rentmen next? Is adam4adam next? Is back page next, you know what I mean? Or is it even safe to be in this online climate? People are rethinking that, which can be dangerous because if people stop the online trade then people who do genuinely have to make survival money are going to be forced to go back into street based work if they do not feel like online advertising is any safer."
So are the escorts on Rentboy safe now that the Feds have siezed the site and filed a complaint against it's owner?
One major concern for the escorts, Rodriguez tells me, is the possibility of being taken into custody on a similar charge as the sites owners. But because there were more than 400,000 men advertising on Rentboy, Rodriguiez said it is unlikely many will face any serious danger.
"Of course, I would say a great majority of the guys on Rentboy will probably not face any immediate danger." Rodriguez added that although there is uncertainty whether or not government, state or other local agencies will prosecute individuals, a bulk of the concern remains for those actually names in the complaint. "There were like five or six different escort profiles that were named and a few of them still are active escorts. So most of the concern lies on the uncertainty whether or not the government or any of the state or local agencies will go after them for advertising."
Despite these concerns, some escorts like Esperanza said they are not afraid of the consequences and do not believe they will be taken in to custody. "You know I'm not afraid of any of that. I know I am safe, I was in the legal with how I phrased that but some of the other guys, they were raunchy," Said Esperanza. "The more explicit or risqué profiles are going to be attacked before they come after the tame ones."
But what separates the "tame" ads from the "risque" ones? "The risky things are me telling somebody my personal preferences or things about myself not in relation to any specific act that was going to be paid for," said Rodriguez. "It's one of those -- and I understand the whole thinly veiled prostitution ring kind of thing -- in that it's 'hey I'm really in to kink' or 'hey really in to bottoming,' 'I'm really in to topping I have this really great cock, if you are someone who is interested in that kind of person you can hire me for this much per hour.' It's not directly 'I am going to fuck you for $200 it's 'these are my tastes, these are my interests and I sell my time at this rate.'"
And that thinly veiled wording is what prosecutors are using to fuel their attack. According to the complaint, some of the primary interests on the ads included things like spanking and role playing. According to NYDailyNews, acting Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie said "Rentboy.com attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution." However, because advertisers chose to be on the site and maintained their independence, some have argued that it is a legitimate business.
"Most of the people that went on that site were independent workers who didn't have any kind of relationship that would be considered a pimp relationship. They were just that: independent people trying to gain financial security," said Rodriguez. He went on to say that it is also key to note that the charges were not that of trafficking nor what one would normally see when an actual brothel is raided.
"So we have seen this shift with Rentboy that we haven't seen in other sites, other sites it was anti-trafficking federal agencies going in and saying, like for instance MyRedBook in San Francisco; they went in and said we think or we 'know' that there are a lot of women and children being trafficked via MyRedBook when in actuality that wasn't the case."
So what is the underlying reason for the raid? For one, it is a continued attack on the sex work industry, which has also brought the case for legal prostitution back into the spotlight. In an article published by the Wall Street Journal, "Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said he shared protesters' criticism of the case, adding that it highlighted broader policy concerns about prosecuting sex work.
'There is a clear effort to crack down on different online platforms where people advertise various services related to sex,' Mr. Strangio said. 'We actually know [the platforms] create safer spaces for people to negotiate in bargaining and other safety needs.'" In addition, the article also sites Strangio as saying, "criminalizing sex work itself is something we should
Rodriguez said that he believes that criminalizing sex work is a labor issue. "Everyone makes their own way of making a living of having a job. Some people choose to work at Walmart some people choose to...work for waste management being a trash collector or recycle collectors. Nobody ever tries to save in anyway people that do that or criminalize them even though most of society thinks 'oh man it would really suck to be a trash-man' or 'it really sucks to work at Walmart' nobody is criminalizing those things." He added that in the case of Rentboy it is people taking control of their own bodies but being told they are in fact victims of the sex trade.
"So we have this industry where guys are taking or I should say people because women are also in the adult industry are taking agency over their own body in order to make financial security but they are being criminalized in the process and told that they can't do that because they are actually victims of the sex trade and it's illegal."
That mentality is also shared by Hunter, who wonders why if people were are offering sex through the site are being prosecuted, why are porn stars and porn studios not facing the same kind of consequences for dealing with sex work.
"I've even heard of guys who will like hire, who will advertise on craigslist or whatever for girls to like be filmed because that makes it legal. You can hire someone suck your dick while you film it that's legal, but it's not legal if you're not filming it," said Hunter. "It's kind of bizarre, the whole thing is bizarre to me. I do think both should be legal, I am definitely pro porn. I don't really see any reason for that distinction but I guess it's for [I am not sure why] -- I think both should be legal."
For Rodriguez, the concept of prosecuting sex workers who do not film their encounter is strange. "With porn it's interesting because for somebody to get paid when there is a camera involved for a sex act, that is pretty legal in most of the 50 states right? Taking out the camera but still paying the person for a sex act is illegal, so there is this weird divid between porn and escorting where the only thing different is a camera being involved and recording [the sex act]."
Sitting at Starbucks with Esparnaza, our conversation has become something more akin to game of cat and mouse. He has begun to answer my questions vaguely and is continuously looking at his phone, so I ask if something is the matter. "I just want to make sure we're not going to go much longer, I have a client to meet in a little." I assure him we are almost done, and ask how men are still contacting him if Rentboy is down. "There are other ways, men will always find a way to have sex, and escorts will find a way to sell it -- I mean sell companionship."
If what Esparanza had said was true, then perhaps these men who are looking for escorts should have nothing to worry about in finding a companion. Rodriguez said it is a little more complicated than that.
"Rentboy was probably the most recognized. They have been around forever, they are reputable. People know what -- for the most part -- people know what they're getting. However guys who hire, the hobbyists who hire, generally have other ways of looking for guys. Even right now there is a forum that was part of a website that was named in part of the complaint and on the forum they have started talking about 'where do we find guys now?' 'How do you go about screening or contacting a guy on rentmen and making sure he is legit,' 'how do you go about contacting someone on adam4adam and know he's legit,' 'what new sites or what different sites can we use.'" Rodriguez added that the "hobbyists" also have to be concerned about the take down. "[Hobbyists are asking] 'how do we make sure when we're calling people we are protecting ourselves as well' because in a lot of cases, the people who hire have just as much to lose as the guys who they are hiring."
And of course since there is an escorting site, there is also a place hobbyists can go to review the advertisers. One such site is Daddysreviews.com, which also is a news site for the gay sex industry. On the site, users can review escorts, sites and locations best for sex work and those seeking companionship. This site, Rodriguez said, can be beneficial to escorts looking to move up in the industry.
"There's this interesting dynamic with having something like daddy's review forum where people can review escorts or even just talk about them in a space online where if you charge $200 an hour and you are on Rentboy you can probably get away with that," said Rodriguez. "Some people go lower when they are starting out just so they can generate interest. If you try to go higher and you're not a well known person -- meaning you are not in porn also or going city to city all the time because you're hot and everybody knows you. Those are the kind of guys that can get away with charging $300-$400 and hour. Most, I would say 80 percent of guys on Rentboy, are in the $200 range."
Esparanza tells me that he has never heard of Daddysreviews, but after an hour and half long interview, he decides to call it quits. "I really need to go man, I have a lot of stuff to take care of today," he says as he begins to collect his small belongings. After a few minutes he heads outside to meet his Uber that will take him to
It's a hot day in Los Angeles and people continue to filter in and out of the cool coffee shop while I go over my notes. There are some gaps in Espaanza's story that need to be filled, so I text and ask if he would be free later to clarify some things, or if he would do it by email. I get a text from him later in the evening after I have returned home.
"Time is money, and if you want more of mine, you'll need to pay. Sorry, a boy's gotta eat."
Part one in a series about sex work. Next month: Porn.