Financial Services Are Shutting Out Sex Workers

Bianca Baker loves her job. She’s proud of what she’s accomplished. She put herself through college and used her business degree to leave the service industry and start her own company. Being her own boss affords her the flexibility to spend time with the family she supports through her work. She pays taxes and enthusiastically engages with her industry’s community.

She’s the kind of American success story politicians celebrate in speeches and campaign commercials. Except for one important detail: she’s a sex worker.

Baker has been camming and making porn for over six years, regularly earning about $8,000 a month until Bank of America flagged her account and froze her funds for “suspicious activity.” It’s not clear what seemed suspicious. She’s had the same account since 2009 and used it for sex work since 2012. The bank’s management presented her with stacks of printouts and highlighted the terms of service sections stating they could reject any any payment at any time if they determined the money’s source violated their morality clauses.

“I just felt like I was being spoken to like I was a criminal and I was doing something wrong,” says Baker. “Which I know I’m not.”

Having services you depend on for your survival treat you like a class of criminal is common across the sex worker spectrum, from camming to prostitution. After the passage of Federal FOSTA law, meant to target sex trafficking, businesses are denying sex workers access, making sex work more difficult and dangerous than before.

Though sex work is a job and not an identity, for many it’s both. Being told “we don’t serve your kind” is a common experience for sex workers trying to find reliable banking and other services. Sex workers like Baker are productive business owners. They’re doing what Uncle Sam demands and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and supporting their nuclear families. And yet they’re shut out of the services that Americans use everyday.

Banks and platforms like Venmo, Airbnb and GoFundMe are kicking out sex workers en masse in the wake of FOSTA’s passage. The Fight Online Trafficking Act makes it illegal for any site to facilitate or support prostitution. That broad declaration has far-reaching consequences for sex workers trying to use basic services like banking or Twitter.

Many banks and institutions include morality clauses in their terms of service allowing them to freeze and terminate sex worker accounts at will—including legal sex work like camming and porn production. Such clauses work like the laws that allow Christian hospitals to refuse treatment based on “sincerely held religious beliefs” and the Supreme Court’s recent decision to side with the Colorado bakers who refused to make a cake for a marrying gay couple based on their religious objection to same sex marriage.

Baker’s income is high for someone in her job and industry; she was able to contact her lawyer and get her money unfrozen and transferred to local credit unions. But even small credit unions, often touted as being more accepting and progressive than big banks, aren’t always an option for sex workers.

Liara Roux, a sex worker and human rights organizer, says even at small credit unions, she’s faced discrimination. It was initially a “really nice relationship,” dealing with the same representatives she knew by name, but once the credit union received a payment that included Roux’s stage name, “everything changed.” A new representative took over, “an angry guy who asked probing questions” and demanded information like her tax returns without explaining why to Roux or their lawyer (banks don’t need that information for simple checking accounts). Roux was frozen out of her online account without warning and eventually received a check in the mail with the account balance and still no explanation. She still had to return in person because they spelled her business name wrong. Roux described the process as “incredibly humiliating.”

Roux recently “came out” as a sex worker on Vice. She describes feeling shamed and stigmatized for her work as she told those closest to her why sex work is perfect for her.

What frustrates workers like Baker and Roux the most is that they love their jobs. They view sex work as more than a means to an end. They don’t see it as hitting rock bottom.

Baker, a former pastry chef, has a husband. She supports both of them and their daughter with her sex work income. Her husband now works with her porn production studio. Her job gives her the money and freedom to spend time with her family. “I never want to set foot in a freaking bakery ever again. I love being home with my daughter. I love working with my husband.”

Retiring from food service to start your own business, raising a family, these are the goals of the American dream.

Roux, too, loves her job. Sex work gives her the freedom and money to treat her chronic disability. Equally important, Roux believes that her work is politically significant. “It’s ethical work,” she says. It’s “a means of wealth transfer from men with money to women and queer folks.” Clients get the intimacy from Roux that they would from a wife and Roux gets the freedom of being a business proprietor and not actually being their wife.

As more sex workers organize on and offline, in the wake of FOSTA, Roux has collected information on what institutions discriminate against sex workers. The list currently exists as an extensive Google Doc and it includes most major banks, credit unions, social media platforms and crowdfunding platforms. Much of it is from Roux’s own experience or culled from the experiences of fellow sex workers.

In addition to banks, credit unions and listing pages like Craigslist, sex workers have reported being kicked off services like Venmo, PayPal, and GoFundMe. This isn’t new—GoFundMe, for example, has cancelled sex worker medical fundraisers at least as far back as 2015. Now, however, more and more institutions are racing to eliminate any potential liability on their part, as they could be penalized for enabling prostitution under FOSTA.

Airbnb has reportedly kicked off sex workers and porn performers for life even if they have never used their Airbnb rentals to meet clients. Porn star Sara Jay told the Daily Beast that Airbnb banned her even though she’s never used Airbnb to film porn. It makes no sense to shut down her account because of a legal job unrelated to Airbnb — unless you view sex workers/performers as a specific and dangerous subclass of people, and not simply as people who use the tools of the free marketplace to do their business.

“The community is devastated,” says Roux. Though technology and the internet has radically transformed the sex work industry and made it safer for workers, it’s also eroded sex workers’ privacy. It’s becoming harder and harder to find safe places to do business. “Our choices are either to go to a black market or unsafe work (like street work) completely off the grid, or start educating people and fight for our basic right to do commerce and survive.”