I was packing my bags, looking forward to a week trip to the Feminist Porn Awards and the Feminist Porn Conference, having finally earned enough through my Patreon patron-funded writing to travel and have a bit of a cushion when I got back. Payments would be processed at the beginning of the month, and I welcomed the assurance of my first paycheck that would pay my rent. I was finding it refreshing to be making a living (albeit barely) through getting paid to write on my experiences in the sex industry, giving me some hope that I could transition out and still survive financially. Finally I was getting paid for my writing… not in “exposure,” but in rent money!
That’s when I got an email from Patreon, saying that the payment processor PayPal had threatened to shut down all integration with their site because it contained “adult content.” The email stated:
“[A]s you can imagine, this would be detrimental to creators — hundreds of thousands of dollars were to be ‘frozen’ unless we flagged all adult content pages, made them private, and removed Paypal functionality from their individual pages… I’m so sorry that we had to do this without warning you first, but it was SUCH an emergency! We simply had to take action to avoid a situation where creators would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of legitimate pledges.”
Patreon emailed all of our patrons to warn them and suggested we also email them to ensure payments went through as usual at the beginning of April. While Patreon was open to artists creating work that was adult in nature, their hands were tied. And not in a kinky way.
This was not my first clash with PayPal or similar service WePay, of course. Most people I know who are or have been in the adult industry in some capacity have had a run-in with one of these payment processors freezing their account, returning donations in best case scenarios and just taking it in the worst cases. As the organizer of an event with burlesque, I had my account frozen for a week, losing vital time to purchase supplies, and I had to submit via email all sorts of information to “prove” I was legit (meaning, of course, not a sex worker). Of course, emailing this private information relating to my account and my identity made the possibility of having my details stolen increase drastically … but I suppose as long as the risk is mine, and not theirs, it was acceptable. And now, here I am, waiting to find out if I’ll be able to pay rent or not… simply because I’m a porn performer, and some people decided to donate money for my non-pornographic writing via PayPal instead of directly from their credit cards.
Earlier this month, the alternative/queer porn star Andre Shakti found herself in similarly hot water for raising funds to travel to the same event I am using Fundly. While her offered perks followed Fundly’s terms, WePay, the payment processor they used, shut down her account because they were “adult,” causing the Sex Workers Outreach Project to write to Fundly encouraging them to stop using WePay and be, as their tagline says, “crowdfunding for all.” Maggie Mayhem, a porn performer, tried to raise money for going to Haiti to do relief work using PayPal, and, despite the fact her fundraising had nothing to do with porn, she found her account shut down. Michelle Austin had accounts at both shut down at different times – WePay because her company was linked to an adult company and PayPal shut down her donations because there was a porn shoot on her blog. (I wonder how many Tumblrs asking for donations get shut accounts shut down for that reason?). PayPal and WePay are not required to give answers as to why they freeze or shut down accounts, but often all that’s required is the history (or even the suspicion) of sex work.
Why do these payment processors have such a strict policy on adult performers, so strict that having worked in the industry once means you could find yourself banned for life? I looked into this somewhat and found many such companies claiming that statistically, adult companies were more likely to be high risk for chargebacks (when someone buys the content, often downloading what they want and then calling the company to report fraud). However, I couldn’t actually find these supposed statistics. What I did find instead were porn site owners saying their chargeback percentages were low enough to not warrant calling them high risk, and arguments about what constituted pornography (considered a “risky” investment) versus adult content (not necessarily deemed “risky”). I also discovered other types of business often considered at risk for chargebacks (travel, computer services, sorcery!). But these businesses aren’t targeted the way adult performers are. While current indie developers have had their accounts frozen, I haven’t seen a situation yet where someone *used* to be an indie dev and therefore got their account shut down when they tried to go to SXSW.
Particularly interesting is that Paypal really got its start, not only through online auctions like eBay, but through adult websites and online gambling. Both are things they now refuse to have anything to do with, even though porn sites and online casinos helped rocket Paypal to the popularity it enjoys today. In 2003, citing high fraud rates, Paypal stopped accepting adult transactions or gambling ones, offering instead to monitor user transactions and report potentially illegal activities.
Our economy is pretty terrible right now. When jobs are difficult to come by, people are starting small businesses out of their home, selling stuff on eBay, making mobile apps, crafting things to sell on Etsy. And, of course, more and more people are trying their hand at something in the adult entertainment arena to help them get by — perhaps camming here, maybe filming a porn there, possibly stripping or selling their dirty socks. Yet we live in a culture that stigmatizes us permanently for dipping a toe into sex work while simultaneously insisting sex workers should leave the industry and do other work. With PayPal and WePay controlling most of the online payment market, having a scarlet letter banning sex workers past or present from using them can mean that any other sort of small business idea is made impossible for us. I may want to stop doing sex work and write instead, but if I can’t process online payments because of having an adult history, and companies won’t hire me because they can Google my sex work history, I’m stuck in the business whether I like it or not.
Also interesting is that being associated in any way with adult services or performers does not seem to be enforced across the board. Multiple erotica sites dealt with PayPal telling them that “morally objectionable” content wasn’t allowed … including books with BDSM content. Vicki Gallas, a former escort, was banned from using PayPal to process payments for her memoirs, because they included sex work. Seattle Erotic Art Festival had their account frozen even though they only used the service to process fine art submission fees. The SF Citadel, a BDSM community space in San Francisco, had no issues with WePay, although they’ve since stopped using it out of solidarity. SWAAY, a sex worker community project, accepts PayPal. It seems like what counts as “adult” shifts drastically and is impossible to anticipate.
Interestingly, as faith in PayPal and WePay falls, companies like Verotel are moving forward, accepting Bitcoin as a possible alternative form of online payment. Perhaps Bitcoin and other similar payment systems outside of the Visa/Mastercard monopoly is the way of the future for those on the margins when companies like PayPal or WePay can steal unfettered from marginalized populations.
But until we can use Bitcoin to pay rent and buy groceries? The only payment sex workers can count on is the anonymity of cash in hand, and as long as that’s true, that scarlet letter makes it hard to do anything differently. When payment processors can dictate morality, that’s a scary road to walk on.
Meanwhile, I’ll just wait and hope that my rent comes through.
[Image of a woman with money via Shutterstock]