Fighting financial discrimination of sex workers will help us all from Mashable

When most people use their debit or credit cards, they take it for granted, as if these are rights simply afforded to everyone in America. But not everyone gets to use lines of credit, send money on financial apps, or even have money deposited into a bank account. Many sex workers are barred from having bank accounts, or have had their bank accounts canceled out of nowhere. Financial apps like PayPal are no different. Credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard have policies that impede sex workers abilities to make money in the first place. 

People in the sex industry often have a very difficult time getting business loans, home loans, or lines of credit because they are deemed “high risk.” Frequently, when financial institutions are confronted about these policies — what they mean, how they categorize someone as “high risk,” and how such information is obtained — they keep this information close to the vest. Discrimination in the financial sector means people who have engaged in the sex industry are at constant risk of being “found out” and having massive financial fall out because of this. 

No adult can build wealth without access to a bank account, at the very least. Historically marginalized populations in America, like sex workers who are Black and Indigenous, are even more disproportionately impacted by such policies due to the lack of historical opportunities to build generational wealth. In order to have a safer, more just society, we must fight financial discrimination against sex workers.

Stop discrimination to stop sex trafficking

When people tell me they want to stop sex trafficking, I usually tell them to stop excluding sex workers — and sex trafficking survivors — from mainstream society; i.e. housing, employment, and financial wealth. For anyone who cares about stamping out human trafficking, I would say then you must allow sex workers and sex trafficking survivors a place in “normal” society. Putting us on the margins of society financially puts us on the margins, period. Limiting our options for financial autonomy and independence creates dependence on others. And at the margins is where those with evil intent wait to exploit and abuse. 

When I asked if they think current financial policies put them in jeopardy, sex industry professional Lyrik Allure told me, “It further fuels the fires for more discrimination from the outside world. They [banks and others] deem us ‘high risk’ and claim ‘suspicious activity’ as a reason not to release our funds, close accounts and make our lives beyond difficult.” 

Sex workers are no different than anyone else. They have rent to pay, children to feed, and bills just like everyone does. And as Allure pointed out to me, sex work is work just like any other job.

Many banks and financial institutions classify people who do sex industry work as “high risk,” thereby requiring them to pay higher fees, interest rates, and seizing funds without warning or much of an appeal process. Financial apps like PayPal, Venmo, and Cash App have been notorious in sex working communities for seizing accounts and barring individuals from the platforms, often while taking any money that a person might still have in their accounts without giving them the opportunity to have it returned. Those who try to appeal to get their money back are met with a round robin of frustrating dead-ends and emails and phone numbers that do nothing to help. If someone is lucky enough to get an answer, the response is typically: “You were categorized as high risk.” No further explanation or assistance offered. Some people have reported to me they were simply hung up on. 

Sex workers are no different than anyone else. They have rent to pay, children to feed, and bills just like everyone does.

Sex industry professional Gabrielle Monroe told Mashable she had a prepaid credit card from a local bank that was purchased by Capital One in 2013. Capital One allegedly canceled Monroe’s prepaid credit card and sent her a check for one dollar. When she was finally able to speak to Capital One, Monroe says they told her on the phone, “You were flagged as high risk.” Monroe states she never received the $1,000 that Capital One owed her. 

That same year, Monroe also claims Bank of America canceled her prepaid credit card and closed her account for being “high risk.” They did send her the money a few weeks later…by check…which she couldn’t cash since they had canceled her account. Neither Capital One nor Bank of America responded to Mashable’s request for comment. 

Sixty-three percent of people in the adult industry have had their bank accounts closed or financial apps like PayPal, Venmo, or Cash App closed, according to research done by the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), a lobby group for the adult industry. Venmo and PayPal didn’t respond to Mashable’s request for comment, while Cash App declined to comment. Fifty percent have had a loan denied as a direct result of their work; 88 percent of those who have applied for business loans, and 85 percent of those who applied for insurance have had a bank account closed or denied due to adult work. FSC reports that most people in the sex industry prefer not to even bother applying for loans or insurance, for fear the background investigations could lead to a bank account shutdown.

Visa declined to comment on this story and PayPal did not respond to our request for comment. Mastercard told Mashable that, before it introduced its adult content policy, it shared its plans with “industry experts who are certified in preventing child exploitation.” Mastercard also disclosed that they found these “certified experts” through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but would not comment on whether these “experts” had any lived experience in the sex industry, either as sex trafficking survivors or sex workers, beyond simply holding a certification. 

Financially punished for legal work

It’s important to note that financial discrimination is happening to sex workers who take part in legal and illegal aspects of the industries alike. When we talk about financial discrimination against sex workers, this includes people who do legal work like exotic dancing, adult film, web camming, OnlyFans, and so forth. The issue with these monies that these financial institutions appear to be having is a moral one, not a legal one. 

One financial institution we requested comment from told us they did not wish to comment publicly, but to provide background they wanted to let me know that they work hard to only process legal transactions. This statement is problematic because it shows ignorance of the fact that there are plenty of people engaged in legal sex work who are experiencing this discriminatory treatment, and they have no legal leg to stand on for discriminating against them. Could it really be as ridiculous as these systems not understanding, or caring to understand, the difference — according to the law — between working on OnlyFans and engaging in full service sex work (otherwise known as “prostitution”)? Are these places simply painting all monies from all forms of sex work as liabilities? Are they just labeling everyone in the sex industry as “high risk”?

Having access to financial autonomy is a human right, and as the ACLU declares in a statement, financial discrimination of sex workers is a civil liberties issue. We cannot talk about sex trafficking and what makes people vulnerable to sex trafficking without acknowledging that financial autonomy and access to financial resources are one of the key things keeping people in the sex industry safe from being exploited. 

Monroe goes on to tell Mashable about the impact of being shunned from financial institutions and not having access to them, particularly for her in 2013, “At the time, the only access to money I had was through an abusive sugar daddy. If I could have checked into a hotel I could have worked to make money without needing his financial support, or the abuse that came with it.”

Having access to financial autonomy is a human right.

As the Free Speech Coalition states in one of their reports on financial discrimination and sex work, “Financial discrimination does not happen in a vacuum, but instead is part of a system of risks faced by those working in the adult industry. Loss of banking or poor credit can impact access to other essentials.” If you can’t get a bank account, it makes it hard to save or obtain credit, get a loan, buy a house, and get out of poverty. 

Financial discrimination is only one part of a huge interconnecting puzzle of discrimination which also includes housing discrimination and mainstream employment discrimination. Like all forms of discrimination, these are systemic and intersectional. And we cannot end one without ending the others. In fact, over 50 percent of people in the adult industry have reported experiencing housing discrimination, according to FSC’s research. Almost 60 percent of people in the adult industry have experienced employment discrimination outside of adult work as well. People are more afraid of what they don’t know than anything.

Financial stability cannot be obtained without financial access, and it’s just that simple. Most people might say, “So what if a hooker or a porn star can’t get credit, why should I care?” And to that I would say, because one of the hottest issues that Americans claim to care about right now is sex trafficking. 

Ending the scourge of sex trafficking is a red herring by which many politicians use as an excuse to roll back all sorts of basic human rights for sex workers as well as the general public. Think about the bills that would instate increased social media restrictions like KOSA and EARN IT, and the potential TikTok ban

The precursor to all of this recent internet regulation? The 2018 bill SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) which rolled back Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 in the name of protecting sex trafficking victims. SESTA and its sister bill FOSTA has still not done what it promised for victims —aside from increasing internet regulation and limiting freedom for everyone. 

Sex workers and sex trafficking survivors are the test cases for revoking your human rights. Being flagged and having accounts shut down randomly, without warning or opportunity for appeal, is apparently now happening to non-sex workers too. So make no mistake when you see it happening to sex workers, you are next. 

Fighting financial discrimination together

Here is an opportunity to actually keep people in the sex industry from being exploited and going from sex workers to sex trafficking survivors. Here is an opportunity to prevent sex trafficking.

Sex workers have been fighting these policies and these companies for years, but as is the case with most marginalized communities, the likelihood is far more that these systems will listen to the dominant mainstream culture. So you have more power and influence than you might think. What you can do is sign this petition to Mastercard, whose adult content policies make it hard for people in the industry to make money, thus making exploitation far more likely. Financial agency and autonomy is a human right that should be feasible and accessible for everyone, including people who do all kinds of sex work. 

Everyone from the UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls, to the ACLU, to Amnesty International — all human rights based organizations — have come out in direct support of the decriminalization of sex work as a means to end violence, exploitation, and discrimination against people in the sex industry. Taking steps for change, whether they be community lead mass efforts such as demonstrations and grassroots activism or individual efforts like educating your great aunt Mildred about decrim, or even this article — it is all taking a stand against financial discrimination. Whether large or small, none of these acts are meaningless and all make an impact for the better. 

Because when a bank scans escort ads for faces in order to close people’s bank accounts and cut them off from their own money, is this the kind of due process we want to live in? In a world where financial institutions get to act like judge, jury, and executioner all by themselves? Where having a bank account is a privilege and not a right, or where economic autonomy is granted by the one percent instead of expected by the ninety-nine? I get that banks and financial institutions are companies first who are watching their bottom-line, because that’s what companies do in American capitalism first and foremost. But isn’t that exactly the problem? Aauthor and MIT professor Noam Chomsky might call this a fine example of “profit over people.” And sex workers deserve better. Frankly, we all deserve better. 

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