Brooklyn federal prosecutors on Tuesday brought promotion of prostitution charges against the CEO and six employees of Rentboy.com, identified as the world's largest online male escort advertising site.
The government said the site grossed more than $10 million since 2010, allowing male escorts to post nude pictures, advertise their physical characteristics and the sex acts and fetishes they were willing to engage in, and list pay schedules ranging up to $3,000 for a weekend.
But lawyers for some of the seven complained that the criminal charges intruded on First Amendment rights to associate and advertise, and site chief executive Jeffrey Hurant said as he left federal court in Brooklyn that he was surprised to be charged after running the site for 20 years.
"I don't think we do anything to promote prostitution," he told reporters. "I think we do good things for good people and bring good people together."
Hurant, 50, and his six associates, all from New York City, face up to 5 years in prison on conspiracy charges. One was arrested in South Dakota. The others were let go on bonds from $50,000 to $350,000, co-signed by suretors including a Yale professor and a Mount Sinai surgical resident.
In the criminal complaint prosecutors said the site hosted "thousands" of ads for escorts, and was designed to offer sex services despite disclaimers the ads offered only companionship.
It said members paid $59.95 a month, and ads cost up to "several hundred dollars."
"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," acting U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie said.
The complaint said Rentboy was founded in 1997, and claimed 500,000 unique visitors a day, 70 percent in the United States. It is based in a Manhattan office, and the associates charged included an accountant, sales and marketing managers and a social media coordinator.
Rentboy is a British slang term for male prostitutes, the government said, and Hurant has told interviewers that he picked up the term while attending Oxford.
It said he hosts an annual award show for escorts called the "Hookies," giving awards in categories such as best dominant and submissive partner, and at the 2015 show gave an undercover agent a business card with an email address using the word "cyberpimp."
The complaint also quoted him defending the legality of the website in one interview by saying, "There is no place on this website where somebody says I'll have sex for money."
Prosecutors said they were moving to seize the website.