Newly-released results from a survey of sex workers’ experiences shows the tangible effects payment processor discrimination can have on peoples’ lives—and who is hit the hardest.
In October 2021, Mastercard implemented new regulations for "specialty merchants,” meaning adult industry workers and platforms. These guidelines, first announced in April, included stricter rules about who could appear in content and what kind of documentation, performer consent, and identification models and platforms needed to submit be allowed online.
They also demanded that platforms review all content before it goes online, and that platforms “provide Mastercard with temporary account credentials” if the credit card company requests it, so it can get around paywalls to view content itself. The ACLU called these changes “an attack on free speech and harms sex workers,” and human rights activist groups claimed that when approached by sex worker led groups with concerns about the changes, Mastercard blew them off. A list of all the restrictions and regulations can be found here.
All of this put even heavier burdens on adult content creators—who were already submitting a ton of documentation and identification data to platforms and payment processors in order to stay within their rules. Valerie Webber, PhD in community health from Memorial University of Newfoundland, conducted a survey of sex workers online about how these changes affected their livelihoods, and found that the majority of respondents had their lives impacted in some way. Webber collected 117 survey responses between November 2021, a month after Mastercard’s policies went into effect, through January 2022.
Ninety percent of respondents reported suffering at least one detrimental impact after the regulations went into effect; detrimental impacts were defined as “having an account flagged or closed, having to collect updated ID, having to remove content for thematic or redundant documentation rules, delays when having to reupload material for review, payment interruptions, or having a merchant account closed.”
“Sex workers are at the frontlines of these policies and have been shouting for years about the consequences,” Webber, who also worked in the adult industry for decades, told me. “We're rarely listened to outside of our own circles though, because our concerns are dismissed as population-specific at best, or deserved discrimination at worst. What does continue to astound me is the resilience that sex workers demonstrate in the face of such constant discrimination and labour precarity.”
Half suffered four to six different detrimental impacts, and among those who had to remove content, 15 percent had to take down over 40 percent of their existing work from platforms, according to the survey results. “Many respondents also noted a decrease in traffic, spending, and engagement, due to a lack of customer confidence,” Webber wrote. This is in line with what sex workers reported after OnlyFans threatened to ban adult content due to banking conflicts in August 2020: creators were forced to scramble to find new places to sell content, and then lost subscribers (and revenue) even when OnlyFans walked back the ban, because customers didn’t trust the site anymore.
Following Mastercard’s regulation change, more than half of respondents reported having to remove content because the topic or theme of there work was now banned; “anything one step away from vanilla” had to go, according to one respondent, and those producing fetish, roleplay, or kink and BDSM content were almost one and a half times more likely than others to have their content removed.
"Can't pay rent on time, can't heat house AT ALL over winter, can't pay for food”
Almost half reported long delays in moderation review of their content, which some sites did retroactively, taking clips down and then reviewing them to make sure they were within the new guidelines. More than half reported payment interruptions, and 75 percent said they saw a drop in sales. Over half lost 50 percent or more of their income.
Workers with marginalized identities reported being hit hardest by the changes. Black performers, other performers of color, as well as trans and queer performers, were more likely to suffer compounding effects from the change in policies than their cisgender, white, or straight counterparts. Fat performers, such as “Big Beautiful Woman” or “Big Handsome Man”-identified models, are the most likely group to see detrimental effects (they’re also disproportionately targeted by social media algorithms that ban nudity). When these identities intersect, the effects are felt even more strongly.
Survey respondents also spoke of the mental and physical toll this discrimination takes on them. "I am currently halfway through my masters degree and am already struggling with 60-hour weeks with school and work. 60% of my 2020 salary had to go to tuition and taxes: I never had room to lose any income,” one wrote. "Can't pay rent on time, can't heat house AT ALL over winter, can't pay for food,” wrote another.
In December 2020, following allegations of child sexual abuse content on the site and a crusade against the platform by conservative religious anti-sex groups, Mastercard, Visa and Discover dropped service to Pornhub. In December, AVN Stars announced it would stop processing payment altogether, citing insurmountable difficulties with banks. On an individual level, people in the adult industry are constantly facing discrimination from banks, credit card companies, and payment processors, and have been for decades.
“Sex, especially when it’s supposedly about protecting sexually vulnerable people, is almost always a Trojan Horse used to censor sexually marginalized people,” Webber said, noting the harms that the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2020 and bills like EARN-IT, which was recently reintroduced in Congress, do to people’s lives. “These policies do little to protect the vulnerable, but do end up preserving white cisheteronormativity. That is apparent when we see which types of sex and which kinds of bodies are most targeted.”
Whenever a banking institution or credit card company changes its policies to be stricter than they already are for the adult industry, the workers feel the fallout directly.