How the Financial Sector Is Making Life Miserable for Sex Workers
The Department of Justice’s initiative Operation Choke Point looks to be putting pressure on banks like Chase to terminate the accounts of several porn performers. That would be just one part of a longstanding pattern, and sex workers would like it to...
Photo via Flickr user Vincent Desjardins
In a recent article, VICE News speculated that the Department of Justice’s initiative Operation Choke Point may be putting pressure on banks like Chase to terminate the accounts of several high profile porn performers, including Teagan Presley, Stoya, and Chanel Preston. On Twitter many other porn performers claimed that their accounts were being closed, and that they had been offered little explanation beyond being labeled “high risk.” An insider at Wells Fargo responded, “We encourage these industry workers to come to us," according to TMZ. By the time Mother Jones was pushing back with a “Chase representative” claiming that Choke Point was not singling out people in the porn industry, I was exasperated.
By and large, these articles failed to mention the fact that sex workers like myself are shut out of institutions every single day. Whorephobia, the fear and hatred of sex workers, is one of the very first things every single sex worker learns how to navigate.
Whether the work we do is criminalized or legal, all sex workers are subject to judgment. This judgment usually stems from sexist double standards, transmisogyny, and a general moral panic about sexuality. Ironically, we are often punished as we attempt to assimilate into “legitimate” society.
After clients pay us in cash, many of us declare the payment, filing taxes as freelance entertainers. Some strip clubs give us W9 forms, and some porn companies send us 1099s. If we are shut out of banks, we must go to check cashing middlemen who charge exorbitant fees. We can’t book plane tickets or sign leases, putting that money back into the economy.
Many of my friends in the sex industry have faced these issues. Lorelei Lee, a published writer, has worked in the porn industry for 15 years as a performer and producer and seen these problems first hand. “A lot people have seen these bank account closures as something remarkable or surprising,” she said. “The truth is sex workers are discriminated against everyday—fired from their jobs, passed over for jobs that they’re qualified for, turned down for apartments.”
Some sex workers experience worse problems than others. Sex worker activists have called this phenomenon the “hierarchy,” and unfortunately some of us perpetuate it to feel less stigmatized about our own work. I have heard some dominatrices say their work is “less dirty” than working as a full-service escort, and seen many porn performers consider themselves “less whorish” than strippers.
Examples of a sex worker being a person. Photo courtesy of Stoya
“Because porn performers have had the benefit of working legally, and because our work is recorded and thus has this proximity to celebrity, I think performers sometimes make the mistake of identifying as a separate class of sex worker,” Lee said. “Even though sex workers in different industries face different kinds of intersecting discriminations, our goals must ultimately be aligned. If you're going to fight for Chanel Preston, you need to fight for Monica Jones.”
These hierarchies often follow the same lines as many other power imbalances that favor white, middle-class, cisgender people over people of color, trans people, and the economically disadvantaged. Many Americans, for example, view a white woman working as a dominatrix as glamorous, whereas they consider prostitutes who work on the streets unworthy of basic human rights.
Siouxsie Q, the producer and host of Bay Area-based podcast The Whorecast, takes a patriotic stance on this issue: “In American,” she said, “the only folks who are perhaps more despised than sex workers are banks and big business. Sex workers are small business owners. Banks, who are supposed to be the people who help us go further towards the American dream, are actually standing in the way of that.”
Q observed that people who do legal sex work, such as porn performers, don’t push back when instituitions unjustly deny them resources. Often it’s not worth sex workers’ expense or time to go to small claims court over several hundred dollars, even if that money could represent a month’s worth of groceries. In April, on her SF Weekly column The Whore Next Door, Q also noted a pattern of “exclusion, scrutiny, and sometimes theft from crowdfunding organizations.”
Activist and writer Maggie Mayhem had one such experience with Paypal.
Back in 2010, she had used a Paypal button on her personal blog, collecting donations to fund a flight to Haiti for post-earthquake relief community service. After a month of successful fundraising, Paypal closed her account and froze the money.
“It was the worst customer service call ever,” Mayhem recounted. “They were distinctly rude to me. I was ready to break down in tears. They were a breath away from calling me a slut on the phone. It was very clear; ‘We don’t care about your business or your content.’”
On her blog, Mayhem had written about her experiences performing in porn, but her volunteer work had nothing to do with her occupation. According to Mayhem, Paypal’s terms of service led them to conclude that the fact that she had done sex work was sufficient cause to deny her the money she had raised. Neither Mayhem nor her donors have been refunded.
Kate D’Adamo, a Community Organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project NYC, and Sex Workers Action New York, is concerned about Paypal’s actions. She said, “Paypal has for several years made the decision that if they assume someone is involved in the sex trade, they will shut down that account, and in every case that I’ve heard, keep the money.”
Shakti, a porn performer based out of the Bay Area, was also recently denied her crowdfunded money by a credit card processor. In April, Shakti attempted to raise $500 to finance a trip from California to Toronto to present at the Feminist Porn Conference. She publicly expressed her outraged when she was unable to collect her donations, which were hosted by the crowdfunding platform Fundly. It turns out that WePay, the credit card processor that Fundly used, was the one with a policy against Shakti’s line of work. She was refunded, but not without a considerable amount of grief.
“Sex workers are coming out left and right as multi-faceted individuals who are also in law school, in college, writing books, speaking at schools. I think this is a last ditch effort by the powers that be to try to shut us down,” she suggested.
It wasn’t long before WePay was in the news again, coming under more serious scrutiny. In May, several friends of the porn performer Eden Alexander launched a campaign to raise money for her emergency medical expenses. Alexander had a bad reaction to a commonly prescribed prescription drug, which triggered a slew of symptoms including a skin infection, staph infection, and hypothyroidism.
They choose GiveForward, another WePay platform, because it is specifically designed to crowdfund for medical expenses. The initial GiveForward page was carefully worded to support Eden the individual, not Eden the pornographic persona (cache from May 17th is here). Of course, Eden is a porn performer, so it made sense to appeal to her fans and colleagues through her professional social networks. It also made sense for her to retweet messages from supporters, including tweets written by some adult production companies who were offering perks to donors.
WePay considered these retweets a violation of their terms of service, and those of their processor Vantiv, since the original tweeters were “offering adult material in exchange for donations.” They flagged and shut down Alexander’s account. This was more than an inconvenience for Alexander—this could very well have been a matter of life or death.
Perhaps because of the grave nature of her situation, Eden Alexander has become a poster child for whorephobia victimhood. After sex worker activists stoked a huge war on Twitter, WePay backtracked, offering to reopen Alexander’s campaign.
At that point, Eden’s support network had moved her campaign to Crowdtilt, another fundraising company. Crowdtilt has stated directly that simply being a sex worker does not violate their terms of service, nor those of their processor, Balanced Inc.
Porn stars aren’t the only ones losing access to economic resources. On May 5, NY Toy Collective, a legally registered “adult novelty” company, tweeted, “We generally aren't haters but Chase/quickbooks/intuit is closing our account because of (sic) we sell adult toys.” The following day, they offered a 25 percent discount code called CHASEDISCRIMINATES to anyone who wanted to purchase their products.
Without a merchant account, companies like NYCT are not ableto accept credit cards from individual customers or large retailers, making it nearly impossible to keep business afloat. There is a demand for erotic entertainment and services in this country. The fact that sex workers choose to produce that entertainment and supply those services should have no bearing on sex workers and adult entertainment companies’ access to resources or fair treatment as working citizens.
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