The fifth time that 35-year-old Hunter had their bank account closed came without warning. “It was one of those times they don’t even bother to give you a letter or ask any questions,” they say over email from New York, where they have been earning their living mostly through sex work for over ten years. “I simply couldn’t log into my account. Two weeks later I got a cheque in the mail holding my account balance, with no letter as to why it was closed.”
Hunter tried and failed to get through to the bank on the phone to understand what was going on – although, of course, they already knew. “I had used my debit card to review my ad on [escort site] RentMen,” they explain, calling it a “rookie mistake”. But it’s one that is all too easy to make in an increasingly difficult environment for sex workers – one that requires navigating an obscure set of rules set by huge financial institutions.
When I ask them what it felt like at the time, Hunter – whose name has been changed as some prostitution-related activities are illegal in their state – is philosophical. “At least banks are required to give you the money, platforms like PayPal will simply keep it.”
Every so often, the issue of sex workers’ rights pierces through the humdrum of daily news coverage and makes headlines. Most recently, this happened in August when OnlyFans announced that it would limit the sharing of sexually explicit content. The decision appeared inexplicable. It just didn’t make financial sense to effectively close such a huge part of a $400 million business – so why do it?
In an interview with the FT, owner and founder Tim Stokely said that the decision was made in response to mounting pressure from banks, naming Metro Bank UK, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon. “The change in policy, we had no choice – the short answer is banks,” he explained.
Outside of the more direct role of money within certain branches of BDSM, such as findom, you may well wonder how much financial institutions figure in our sex lives. The answer is: more than you think.
If you've ever subscribed to an OnlyFans creator, paid for a video on PornHub or bought a sex toy online, you’ll have interacted with a payment platform that facilitated that transaction. Every time you plug in your card details to make a purchase, you’ll be funnelled through a payment provider like Stripe, Visa or Mastercard.
This has put these private companies in the strange position of deciding what is and isn’t acceptable for everyday consumers. And, as Kate D'Adamo, a consultant who advocates for harm reduction for sex workers, explains, they are not immune to the moral policing around sex.
“After 9/11,” she explains, “it got worse because the Department of Justice started looking at financial institutions – it was called Operation Choke Point. They named a number of different 'high risk’ industries, and then pressured banks to stop working with those industries.”
Among the affected industries? Dating services, escorting and pornography. At the same time, high-profile religious-interest groups, such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, also began lobbying banks to tighten up their policies to protect victims of sex trafficking and child pornography. Then, in 2018, US president Donald Trump introduced FOSTA/SESTA. Ostensibly meant to stop sex traffickers, the legislation instead equated sex work with trafficking and took down escort advertising sites, specialist dating sites and entire sections of Craiglist.
Protesters at a sex workers' rights demonstration in London. Photo: Guy Corbishley/Alamy Live News
Over time, financial institutions grew increasingly wary of being caught on the wrong side of such sensitive issues. They responded with blanket rules on sex workers and the platforms they used, with the consequences felt hardest by individual workers.
D'Adamo raises the example of Mastercard and Visa terminating its services to PornHub in 2020. “The people who got really screwed over when MasterCard said we are no longer processing [these payments] were the performers,” she says, explaining that it made it much harder to tip adult content creators for their work. “If you don't have a MasterCard or a Visa, you're not gonna open up an Amex just so you can tip performers on Pornhub, are you?”
In the hyperconnected, globalised world of pornography, changes like this crippled the livelihoods of people across the world. At best, this might feel like censorship for both adult performers and the people who consume their content. Why should a bank or a credit card company get to determine what you can and can and can’t get off on? At its worst, it can also break down vital links between those with more marginalised sexualities, genders or kinks.
In 2017, BDSM social network FetLife was forced to delete a large swathe of fetishes from their database, including hundreds of online groups for members into consensual non-consent and race play. Founder John Baku said that the company had been forced into the move after a credit card company shut down one of its merchant accounts.
Brad Segari, a University of Illinois professor and co-founder of the Science of BDSM research group, points out that moves like this potentially put people in danger. “Efforts that make it more difficult for BDSM practitioners to connect with the BDSM community will not erase their interest in BDSM. It will just remove their access to the support, information, and training that could help them take part in it safely, sanely, and consensually.”
For Wilhelm, who prefers not to use his real name because of the stigma associated with porn usage, these decisions can feel limiting. He is one of the millions of Brits who watch porn – in fact, during the pandemic, half of the adult population were watching adult content. “It makes me feel angry and confused,” he says. “Why would they make it so hard to find the porn I want?”
When I explain the reasons behind these decisions – the attempts to stamp out sex trafficking and child pornography – Wilhelm is clearly unimpressed. “Why should an entire industry be made to suffer because of the actions of a few individuals?”
Ken, who goes by the name eyemblacksheep and prefers not to use his last name as he is a self-described “nameless sub”, also finds this trend worrying. His production company Domestic Femdom is based in the North East and has made female domination porn since 2019. “It's just being on tenterhooks – the idea that someone could decide a word can't be used any more and it makes otherwise legal content I'm selling more difficult to find.”
It’s not just porn sites that are affected by these sweeping changes – so have queer members’ only clubs, sex toy brands and e-commerce sites, as previously reported by VICE. MysteryVibe, an adult toy manufacturer, spent months in negotiations with Apple Pay so they could use it on their site. Other companies may lack the resources, access or time to jump through the same hoops.
“Navigating around a myriad of restrictions is very much part and parcel of building a sex tech business,” says co-founder Soumyadip Rakshit. “What we have learnt from the past seven years of building the brand is that the best – and often only – way to get past these barriers is to engage directly with the partners, understand what the exact policies are, where the restrictions apply and address them in an unambiguous way.”
In the longer term, shutting down the content and platforms that enable people to explore their sexuality – or simply experiment with new toys – could eventually reduce acceptance of marginalised sexualities, fetishes and gender identities. “It has an impact on people's interest,” says D'Adamo pensively, “and ultimately, on what we stigmatise and what we don't.”
Soon after Stokely gave his interview blaming the banks for the changes at OnlyFans, the plan to implement more restrictions on content was “suspended”. In an email to VICE, the site attributed the U-turn to “banking partners' assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators”. Only time will tell if the ‘suspension’ is temporary or indefinite.
It’s unlikely that a bank exec ever thought they’d be in the position of getting to close down a dating site for furries or a niche sex toy retailer. But financial institutions could do much more to alleviate the anxieties over their power – not to mention tackle genuinely harmful content – by engaging with content creators, platforms and audiences, rather than treating them as sexual deviants. They could also just as easily use their immense influence and resources to find ways to protect victims of non-consensual porn and trafficking without removing consumers’ freedoms or toppling the incomes of sex workers.
But until that happens, sexual desire will continue to be treated as taboo, or, at best silently tolerated.