For centuries, sex workers toiled in the shadows, paid off the books for services and exploited by bosses with access to customers.
Then came the Internet.
An explosion of new platforms opened doors for entrepreneurial escorts, dominatrices, and people who post racy pictures to ply their trade and get paid above board for doing so. It enabled otherwise vulnerable workers to save for the future, buy a house, build a life.
But lately, crackdowns on far darker activities such as online sex trafficking have chipped away at the power of these modern-day economic tools for people operating well within the bounds of the law, say researchers and sex workers themselves. Online payment platforms such as PayPal and Venmo are shutting out adult businesses at a higher rate. And sex industry entrepreneurs find themselves frequently booted from GoFundMe or Cash App.
Now they warn of what lies ahead: a field of digital landmines and real-world consequences for the industry, and for those concerned about the freedom to do business on the Internet in an age where everything is online.
A nationwide survey in May of around 400 sex workers found that more than 40 percent have lost access to a “financial service account” in the past 12 months. Up to a third encountered issues with credit card payments and processing. And a recent paper co-authored by Zahra Stardust, an affiliate researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, found workers are struggling with “refusals of merchant services, being unable to open accounts, being denied loans, finance or insurance, higher premiums, and having money frozen, withheld or forfeited” more and more.
Customers outside the sex trade have complained about frozen digital payment accounts as early as 2017, and organizers in New York City sued Venmo in 2020 for allegedly targeting payments associated with Islam or Arab nationalities, news reports show.
But the effects are most pronounced on the sex industry.
For example, Savannah Sly, a longtime dominatrix who shuttles between Vermont and Seattle, remembers a frightful instance 20 years ago, when payment platforms were in their infancy. One froze the funds in her account days before the rent was due, forcing Sly to pursue in-person clients with less screening to make ends meet.
She now fears more workers will be subjected to the same fate.
“Merely being affiliated with sex work is the type of scarlet letter that can follow you, especially now,” Sly said. “I understand the pressure on online platforms and banks to ‘do something’ about sex trafficking, but it pushes sex workers out of these institutional platforms. It drives the sex trade further into the shadows.”
There’s an effort to address this in a few New England states, said Mike Stabile, director of public affairs at the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the sex industry. And it’s coming from unexpected allies: Republican lawmakers aiming to preserve access to financial services for gun shops and conservative businesses. Bills in Maine and New Hampshire would make it illegal for banks to deny financial services to people arbitrarily; the federal Fair Access to Banking Act would achieve the same on a national scale.
Of course, that has yet to pan out.
The lot of digital payment processors policed users less a decade or so ago, when they were less widely used than today. But sex workers have known for a while that they would eventually run into issues there. Technological advances often welcome the sex trade at first, then forbid it when it’s convenient, workers said — a phenomenon that the sex work collective Hacking//Hustling calls “the gentrification of the Internet.”
Jessica Goedtel, a Pennsylvania-based financial planner for tech and sex workers, said several clients of her own predicted the payment platform debacle.
“It’s a threat that becomes more and more real every day,” she added. “We’ve seen the writing on the wall. We’ve seen this coming.”
Then in 2018, it came. Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), making it tougher for legal sex workers to use online platforms to advertise, screen clients, and schedule appointments. Three years later, Mastercard began requiring documented consent to process payments for people and websites that sell adult content. In 2020, a child pornography victim filed a federal lawsuit again MindGeek — which owns multiple porn websites — and Visa, spurring questions of how much the credit card giant will involve itself in the adult industry going forward.
It has all cascaded down into the enforcement policies of digital payment platforms.
“It used to be that maybe your local bank would ban you, and you would go somewhere else and hope to fly under the radar,” Stabile said. “Now there is more communication between banks and payment platforms [and] more surveillance of ‘suspicious’ flags that can get your accounts frozen or suspended. Every economic mechanism is connected, and we are systematically excluding these people from the financial system more than ever before.”
Take the Rhode Island-based sex worker collective Ocean State Advocacy, for example. In the early months of the pandemic, when lockdowns and health concerns crippled the industry, the group started a GoFundMe to collect mutual aid for its members, and nearly $17,000 poured in. At least, until the account disappeared in November 2020.
The “powers that be” at GoFundMe repeatedly deactivated the page, said Serena, an organizer who declined to share her last name to protect her identity. (GoFundMe prohibits “sexual content,” but a spokesperson said the page was removed “after the organizer failed to provide the required proof of the distribution of funds” — not because they violated the terms of service.)
Whatever the reason, “it was all very opaque,” Serena said. “They did not give us a good reason. Eventually, we decided to go with another platform.”
For a time, some sought a solution in cryptocurrency.
Sex workers began to seek out the payment system a few years ago, entertaining it as a viable alternative where adult performers would not deal with the same obstacles as with a traditional bank. But crypto, too, has stumbled.
There’s still WetSpace, an adult crypto platform created by Allie Rae. The ex-ICU nurse quit her position at a Boston hospital in 2021 after the higher-ups discovered her booming account on OnlyFans — a content subscription platform that allows sex work — and chastised her for it.
Rae founded WetSpace after her growing online fame limited her financial options. CPAs refused to work with her; real estate agents turned her down.
“I thought WetSpace could be a stable method for creators,” she said.
But the sudden collapse of famed crypto firm FTX has fueled a growing skepticism of the technology, and investors have lost millions amid market gyrations this year. Payment processors are wary, too. Spankchain, a blockchain platform founded for sex workers in 2017, was subject to a targeted shutdown in March because its own service provider decided not to work with adult businesses.
Jessica Van Meir, a PhD student in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, hopes the service she cofounded, MintStars, will be different. Having debuted in February, it’s branded as an inclusive and sex-positive company that would siphon off less money from creators than its mainstream competitor, OnlyFans. MintStars raised $600,000 in funding this month from blockchain leader Polygon Labs and SpankChain.
But the future of the systems that control sex workers’ income remain hazy.
“When it comes to financial technology, sex workers have always led the charge,” Van Meir said. “Companies will build solutions around the industry, and once they reach mainstream adoption, they abandon them. This is a cycle where sex workers are constantly being dropped and then having to find the next solution. In the end, we’re right back where we started.”