The web­site Rent​boy​.com is accused of con­nect­ing male sex work­ers with clients, enabling pros­ti­tu­tion, which is unlaw­ful vir­tu­al­ly every­where in the coun­try. It oper­at­ed fair­ly trans­par­ent­ly, giv­ing annu­al par­ties, announc­ing a schol­ar­ship con­test for escorts and pro­mot­ing the mot­to “Mon­ey can’t buy you love … but the rest is nego­tiable.”

It’s some­what baf­fling, though, that tak­ing down a web­site that oper­at­ed in plain sight for near­ly two decades sud­den­ly became an inves­tiga­tive pri­or­i­ty for the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty and fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors in Brook­lyn. This week, the website’s founder and six employ­ees were charged with vio­lat­ing fed­er­al law by facil­i­tat­ing paid sex­u­al encoun­ters.

Kel­ly Cur­rie, the act­ing Unit­ed States attor­ney for the East­ern Dis­trict of New York, trum­pet­ed the case against Rent​boy​.com, call­ing it an “Inter­net broth­el” that “made mil­lions of dol­lars from the pro­mo­tion of ille­gal pros­ti­tu­tion.” The web­site pulled in $10 mil­lion over the past five years, charg­ing escorts for pub­lish­ing their pro­files, accord­ing to pros­e­cu­tors. That’s less rev­enue than an aver­age McDonald’s fran­chise gen­er­ates.

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.

Based on my inves­ti­ga­tion,” Susan Ruiz, a Home­land Secu­ri­ty spe­cial agent, wrote in the com­plaint, “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.”

Pros­e­cu­tors can cred­i­bly argue that the site’s oper­a­tors were break­ing the law. But they have pro­vid­ed no rea­son­able jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for devot­ing sig­nif­i­cant resources, par­tic­u­lar­ly from an agency charged with pro­tect­ing Amer­i­ca from ter­ror­ists, to shut down a com­pa­ny that pro­vid­ed sex work­ers with a safer alter­na­tive to street walk­ing or rely­ing on pimps. The defen­dants have not been accused of exploit­ing sex work­ers, fea­tur­ing minors on the web­site, finan­cial crimes or oth­er seri­ous offens­es that would war­rant a fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tion.

Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al announced this month that it would be push­ing for the decrim­i­nal­iza­tion of con­sen­su­al sex work world­wide. After a lengthy and at times fraught debate, the organization’s experts con­clud­ed that sex work­ers were less like­ly to be harmed and exploit­ed in places where the trade is law­ful. Sev­er­al gay and trans­gen­der rights orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Lamb­da Legal and the Gay & Les­bian Advo­cates & Defend­ers, issued a joint state­ment sup­port­ing Amnesty International’s posi­tion.

Gay men in the Unit­ed States turn to sex work for a vari­ety of rea­sons. In New York, where home­less shel­ters for gay and trans­gen­der youths have lengthy wait­ing lists, sex work can mean the dif­fer­ence between sleep­ing on a bed and sleep­ing on the street. For oth­ers, it is a way to afford a degree.

The Rent​boy​.com bust may spook clients and sex work­ers for a while, but it would be naïve to think it will do much more. Fed­er­al author­i­ties should con­sid­er whether con­tin­u­ing to spend time and mon­ey turn­ing the website’s oper­a­tors into felons is worth­while, while far more seri­ous crimes, includ­ing human traf­fick­ing and sex­u­al exploita­tion, go unpun­ished.