Pornography helped usher in the early era of digital payment processing—but not long after that grand debut, the forces of smut and commerce had something of a falling out. Visa/MasterCard declared adult content to be a high risk for fraud and chargebacks, slapped significant fees on anyone wishing to accept credit card payments for XXX sites or merchandise, and instantly transformed the online payment ecosystem, not just for pornographers, but for X-rated artists, sex toy merchants, and even sex workers trying to raise funds for their medical expenses.
In the decade plus since Visa/MasterCard's decision, things have been a little tricky for anyone hoping to make a living selling sex online. Most mainstream payment processors—think PayPal, Stripe, and WePay, to name a few—decided to avoid dealing with those pesky additional fees by creating a total ban on anything adult.
The headache doesn't end there: Payment processors' bans on adult content have the secondary effect of shutting XXX merchants out from other kinds of sites that use those payment platforms—like, for instance, the crowdfunding sites that many independent creators now turn to to support their work. Which is why a recent announcement from Patreon is such a huge deal.
Elsewhere on the web, adult content creators are stuck with the same fraught relationship with PayPal
Last week, the site—which allows artists to support their work through recurring payments from fans—sent out an email announcing a couple of changes for its more risque creators. Most notably, creators operating under the "adult content" banner on Patreon can now accept payments through PayPal (or, more accurately, its subsidiary Braintree).
There are a lot of reasons to feel excited about this. For one thing, it straight up makes things easier for Patreon's Adult Content creators. Until now, Adult Content creators could only accept payments through credit cards, while other types of creators have had PayPal as an additional option for backers. Now, there's no difference between Adult Content creators and other creators when it comes to payment processing options (though Patreon does distinguish between the two camps in other ways; Adult Content accounts aren't discoverable through the site's search function).
For a collection of creators who've felt stigmatized and discriminated against for years, this nod towards equal footing feels like support and acceptance on the part of Patreon. Photographer Ellen Stagg–who received a lifetime ban from PayPal after creating a GoDaddy shopping cart to sell erotic prints seven years ago–feels that Patreon has "been great for adult creators," many of whom don't have the resources or funds to set up their own sites. Though she still holds a grudge against PayPal, "if other people can get to my work through it, I'm pretty stoked about it;" and knowing that Patreon went to the mat for adult creators means a lot to her. (When reached for comment about the policy change, Patreon's representative informed me that "we are really excited about [the change] and the way it can benefit our creators and helps self-expression through art take all forms possible. Unfortunately, our team is not giving any further info on it other than the announcement that was sent out to all creators.")
But exciting as this shift feels, it's explicitly not a sign that PayPal's rolling back its extensive restrictions elsewhere. As Patreon's announcement makes very clear, this particular deal is solely for Patreon, and Patreon only: "[o]ur content policy, and the nature of subscription payments, means that Adult Content creators on Patreon are less risky than most creators making adult content. We also have a very diverse mix of content types, so even if our Adult Content creators are higher risk than other types of creators, Patreon as a whole is less risky." Elsewhere on the web, adult content creators are stuck with the same fraught relationship with PayPal; if you want to accept money in exchange for your smut, you'll still need to use the services of an adult-focused payment processor (who, in addition to charging those Visa/MasterCard fees, also take a considerably larger commission than standard payment processors) or get yourself a merchant account (a painful, expensive process).
The change also doesn't mean that say, FuckedHard18 is welcome on Patreon. That content policy mentioned above? Yeah, it explicitly forbids porn—although, what, precisely, Patreon considers to be "porn" is a bit hazy. The exact wording explains that "some of the world's most beautiful and historically significant art often depicts nudity and sexual expression. Because of that, we allow nudity and suggestive imagery," or, as they go on to say, content along the lines of R-rated movies. (Interestingly, at least one Patreon project is much more NC-17 than R, but apparently gets a pass because the hard cocks and penetration are arty.)
So where does this all leave indie smut creators? Only time will tell, but for now a bit of cautious optimism seems in order. Adult themed comics like Erika Moen's Oh Joy Sex Toy would seem to be completely in the clear; as are art nudes and dirty minded podcasts. But people who want to photo and video document actual people fucking? Well, that might come down to the age old question of "art" versus "porn."
Hopefully PayPal's adult content experiment through Patreon will be successful enough to get payment processors relaxed enough about sex to end the ban on hardcore content—and leave those arguments over what's art and what's porn to stoned philosophy majors and art students while the rest of us just revel in an abundance of indie smut put together by people being fairly compensated for their work.