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Sex Workers Took Refuge in Crypto. Now It’s Failing Them

Aug 8, 2023 6:00 AM

Sex Workers Took Refuge in Crypto. Now It’s Failing Them

Banks and payments companies have long penalized sex workers. Many thought crypto would be a solution, but now exchanges are dumping them too.

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Illustration: dinachi/Getty Images

“I just want to sell titty pictures,” says Allie Eve Knox, a professional dominatrix and fetish performer, exhausted. “I never wanted to be an expert in financial discrimination.”

After starting out in sex work in 2014, Knox, like others in the field, has become something of a financial pariah. The first to ban her were the payment apps—PayPal, Venmo, and CashApp—which prohibit the sale of adult content as policy. But then Knox lost her bank account too. It took a week to recover her money.

Nine years on and 30-plus bans later, Knox is jaded: “I don’t want to have to know how to run money to different places. I don’t want to deal with any of this bullshit.”

An ICU nurse by training, Allie Rae, another US-based sex worker, began posting on OnlyFans when her husband was furloughed. Before long, she was earning far more selling adult content online—close to $500,000 per month—than she was in her regular job. But like Knox, she quickly ran into trouble.

When word of her side hustle spread through the ward, Rae lost her job. But she also found that realtors wouldn’t deal with her, lenders refused her a mortgage, and accountants snubbed her. Rae set up a company through which to manage her income, but no major bank would give her a business account. “Left and right, it’s been a struggle,” she says. “I was very naive—I didn’t understand the magnitude of the discrimination.”

The experience of Knox and Rae is typical of sex workers across the globe, but particularly in the US, where banks and payment processors shy away from the adult industry. The reason is almost never made clear, but sex workers suspect that financial institutions fear reputational damage and liability for the facilitation of money laundering or sex trafficking. Data published in May by the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), a US trade association for the adult industry, suggests two-thirds of sex workers have lost access to either a bank account or financial service, while 40 percent have had an account closed within the past year.

Faced with this predicament, sex workers have gone in search of an alternative means of both storing wealth and accepting payment. In cryptocurrency, for a time, it appeared they had found one: Not only did crypto allow clients to pay discreetly, without supplying personal information, but it gave sex workers a way to bypass the banking system entirely, by taking payments directly to their crypto wallets.

But as regulatory scrutiny of cryptocurrency ratchets up in response to the fallout of the collapse of crypto exchange FTX, sex workers are bumping up against its limitations. They are finding that, in a few important ways, crypto is no more detached from the banking system than the dollar it was built to some day replace.

In the US, full-service sex work (also known as prostitution) is illegal in every state but Nevada, but pornography and online sex work are legal under the First Amendment. Irrespective of this distinction, banking access has been a problem for the entire sex work community since at least the 1960s, says Mike Stabile, director of public affairs at the FSC, and has only become more acute.

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The issue was exacerbated a decade ago by a program launched by the Obama administration, under which banks were warned that a collection of industries posed an “elevated risk” of fraud, including pornography. Now known as Operation Chokepoint, the initiative was found by investigators not to have constituted a deliberate attempt to disrupt disfavored businesses, but is nonetheless said to have led banks to sever ties with the adult sector.

In 2018, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) followed. The bills were supposed to make it easier to hold to account platforms that allegedly facilitate trafficking, like Backpage.com, which was seized by the FBI. But the online classifieds site—and others, since voluntarily closed—were also popular venues for advertising legal sex services, as well as sharing information about new clients for safety purposes. The bills had the triple effect, then, of clipping sex workers’ income, increasing risk, and making the banks even more squeamish, members of the industry say.

Because the adult industry has historically been fairly small—and the Christian anti-porn lobby has been dogged—its advocates have made little imprint in Washington, DC. But the arrival of platforms like OnlyFans, which grew substantially during the pandemic, has shone a new light on the banking issue. The industry “went from 2,000 people shooting adult content in San Fernando Valley to millions of people,” says Stabile. “Suddenly, there was a far larger number experiencing [the closure of bank accounts and other financial services].”

When banks close the accounts of sex workers, they rarely give a clear justification. In one letter delivered by Wells Fargo to porn actor Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performance Artists Guild (APAG), the bank wrote that the account, opened in the mid-1990s, would be closed as part of “ongoing reviews” related to its responsibility to “manage risks.” The decision, the letter said, was final. Wells Fargo declined to comment.

The personal and social consequences of a lack of access to banking and payments services for sex workers range from the mundane—an inability to use Venmo to split the bill at a restaurant—to the potentially existential: the failure to meet medical fees or rent, say.

It also means they are beholden from a commercial perspective to platforms like OnlyFans and Fansly, which handle payouts but take a sizable chunk of earnings. Because of the deterioration of their own relationships with the banks, these platforms are sometimes unreliable too. (In 2021, OnlyFans announced a ban on sexually explicit content, under pressure from banking partners to clean up, before reversing course five days later.)

In the worst possible cases, though, a lack of access to financial services creates dangerous power dynamics, whereby sex workers must rely on a friend or spouse to act as the custodian of their wealth, exposing them to risk of abuse.

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“One of the ways traffickers control victims is by controlling their finances,” says Jessica Van Meir, founder of MintStars, an adult-friendly NFT subscription platform, and a PhD candidate at Harvard specializing in women's informal labor. “The irony is that banks exclude sex workers largely for fear of liability for sex trafficking, but by discriminating against sex workers, they put them at higher risk of sex trafficking.”

Even if the friend or spouse is well-meaning, says Stabile, “you’re handing someone else control of your financial life—and that’s tremendously dangerous.”

The idea that crypto might be used to address these issues was intuitive to sex workers from early on. Provided they could navigate the technical frictions associated with receiving crypto payments and managing a crypto wallet, they could transact with clients directly, bypassing both the hostile banking system and the fees levied by large platforms. The irreversible nature of crypto transactions, meanwhile, protected against another common problem: chargebacks, a process whereby a payment is rescinded after a dispute is raised by a client with their card provider, often without cause and after material has already been received.

Knox began to accept crypto in 2014, only five years after bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, was created. Whenever she was performing in a live cam room, Knox took to holding up a QR code through which people could tip her in crypto.

Liara Roux, who began working as an escort roughly a decade ago, before later moving into pornography, began to accept crypto payments in 2015 at the request of clients. Initially, she would cash out into dollars immediately, but when SESTA and FOSTA came into effect—after which many adult-friendly advertising sites could no longer accept regular money—she began to pay for ads with crypto too. “By and large, crypto is useful for people that aren’t being taken care of properly by the government,” says Roux. “For sex workers, who aren’t well-served by banks, it becomes a useful option.”

Others were pushed toward crypto by external events. For Rae, it was OnlyFans’ flirtation with a ban on adult content. For some, it was a block imposed by Mastercard and Visa on Pornhub, one of the world’s largest porn websites, in 2020, following a New York Times investigation that found it to be “infested with rape videos.” Data collected by Sex Work CEO, an online portal featuring resources for sex workers, suggests at least a third of sex workers now accept crypto payments.

But for all crypto’s promise as a means of dancing around the banking system, sex workers are finding the limits of its utility: Although sending and receiving crypto payments is relatively simple, converting it into dollars is sometimes not.

The typical method is to transfer crypto to an exchange, where earnings are converted into regular money, which is then withdrawn to a bank account (assuming it hasn’t been closed). But sex workers are sometimes banned from crypto exchanges too, albeit less frequently, leaving them stranded with a form of money they cannot use to pay rent or buy goods.

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“You get on an exchange for as long as you can, until they shut your ass down,” says Knox. “You quickly [run out of exchanges], so you sit on a lot of useless money. The whole ‘crypto is permissionless and censorship-resistant’ thing is a bunch of bullshit.” (Knox suspects she has ended up on a blacklist at Plaid, a provider of technology plumbing to large crypto exchanges like Gemini, Kraken, and Robinhood, leading to the repeated bans. Freya Petersen, spokesperson for Plaid, says no such list exists, but that all firms that wish to use its services are subject to a standard risk assessment process, factoring in the industry in which they operate.)

Meanwhile, banks’ increasing unwillingness to work with crypto-related businesses is causing problems for firms trying to make it easier for sex workers to interface with the crypto world.

In February, SpankChain (a company to which Knox is an advisor) was forced to close its SpankPay service, which made it easy for creators to convert crypto into regular money, after payment processing firm Wyre terminated a partnership. The justification was that SpankChain had violated the terms of another company with which Wyre partnered, Checkout.com, which has tried to distance itself from the porn business.

WetSpace, a crypto-centric alternative to OnlyFans established by Rae, searched for months to find a bank willing to provide a business account, but was repeatedly rejected because of its ties to both the adult and crypto industries. “It was a double whammy,” says Rae. “We spoke to every dang bank there is.” Eventually, after appealing directly to the board of one bank, WetSpace managed to secure an account, but months later received a notice suggesting that support may soon be rescinded. The company is “riding on borrowed time,” explains Rae.

Without a banking partner, crypto firms cannot accept dollar deposits in return for services, or manage the conversion of crypto to dollars for clients, or pay their employees and vendors—they cannot function. The viability of the plan to develop a parallel financial system free of intermediaries is dependent, therefore, on a rapidly disintegrating truce with those same intermediaries: the banks and payments firms. For sex workers, as long as crypto cannot be used to pay for goods and services, its usefulness will remain limited, because it can be thwarted at the junction with conventional finance.

The efforts of sex work advocates are better invested, says Stabile, in campaigning for new laws that would make it illegal for banks to discriminate against sex workers on the basis of their profession, than in developing an alternative financial system. “The first step is banking stability,” he says.

There is broad sympathy for businesses facing banking access issues on both sides of the aisle, explains Stabile, who spent time in May meeting with members of the US Congress. The political right is concerned with the de-banking of gun manufacturers and oil companies, and the left with the treatment of cannabis businesses and marginalized workers. Lobbying groups like the FSC hope to capitalize on this accord, a rarity on Capitol Hill, to the benefit of the adult industry, even if legislation specific to the plight of sex workers is “too great a political hill right now.”

The biggest hurdle, explains Stabile, is the “snail’s pace” at which Congress moves. In April, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the SAFE Banking Act, which calls for mandatory provision of banking services to legal cannabis businesses. In July, the Fair Access to Banking Act was tabled by Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, with the aim of penalizing banks that refuse to do business with law-abiding citizens. Neither bill has progressed beyond the point of initial introduction.

In the absence of real legislative progress, the adult industry will continue to exist “like a weed,” says Stabile, growing in “the cracks and hostile conditions that other businesses would never survive in, because it has to.” In crypto, sex workers found a temporary means of survival, but one whose billing as a permanent remedy proved to be inaccurate.

“Some sex workers might see crypto as a form of financial liberation,” says Van Meir. “But the majority probably just see it as a necessary evil—one among the few options they have left.”

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Joel Khalili is a reporter for WIRED, covering crypto, Web3, and fintech. He was previously an editor at TechRadar, where he wrote about the business of technology, among other things. Before turning his hand to journalism, he studied English literature at University College London.
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