Sex workers are planning to demonstrate outside of several major banks in New York City on Wednesday. They say Bank of New York Mellon and others are discriminating against them by refusing to process payments for companies like OnlyFans.
OnlyFans is the social media subscription site made popular by sex workers that recently said it was going to ban adult content, then backed off amid criticism.
Jed Kim speaks with his Marketplace colleague Kimberly Adams, who has been reporting on the topic. She said payment processors push decisions on what can happen online. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kimberly Adams: Many sex workers say that that is very unfair to them and that they’re not doing anything illegal, so they shouldn’t be punished for it. But what it’s also done is it’s pushed many of these websites to promote the use of cryptocurrencies. The fans of crypto will say, “Well, this is exactly what it’s for, to go around the sort of control of these big payment processors that are making maybe moral judgments.” But on the other hand, some sex worker advocates complain it adds an additional tech-savvy barrier.
Jed Kim: It seems like a lot for sex workers to have to navigate. I mean, especially with a relatively new way of doing business.
Adams: The activists and advocates that I’ve talked to about this say that that has really changed the power dynamic in sex work, with creators having more power in terms of how they want to work, when they want to work and the type of work that they want to do. At the same time, this does mean that sex workers are now effectively tech workers trying to navigate all these new platforms. They have to become experts at reading and unpacking terms of service and all of the changes to the regulatory framework of where they can work and exactly how. And many of them feel like here is yet another technology that sex workers helped elevate into the public consciousness, and now they’re being potentially blocked from it.
Kim: To be clear, what you’ve been focusing on in your reporting is legal sex work.
Adams: Right. I think when people hear the term “sex work,” it can often encompass a lot of different things. It is a spectrum from the legal things like fancams and legal porn that you find online, and then at the other end of the spectrum, you have prostitution, which is legal in a few places, but not very many in the United States. All of that is very separate from things that are illegal everywhere, like human trafficking and child prostitution or abuse. And Jed, it’s worth noting here that when people are talking about being concerned about platforms where this type of abuse is higher-risk, according to the most recent Federal Human Trafficking Report, which looked at 2020, 59% of online victim-recruitment and sex-trafficking cases happened on Facebook, followed by sites like Instagram, WeChat and Snapchat. And when it comes to trafficking of children for sex crimes, it’s even higher.
Kim: Since we are talking about legal work when we’re talking about OnlyFans, why did the payment processors, why do they care?
Adams: They care because there’s a lot of social pressure. There are many lobbying groups, activist groups that really believe that online pornography is a danger to society, and they have been very active in pressuring the payment processors and other platforms to make this type of content inaccessible. But if there’s one thing you can say about the sex work industry over the centuries and millennia, it’s pretty resilient.
Related links: More insight from Marketplace’s Jed Kim
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been objecting to the outsize power Visa and Mastercard have over adult content. Last December, after the credit card companies cut ties with Pornhub, the EFF posted an article to its site warning that society hasn’t granted such power to those companies. And censorship is often used against the powerless. Also, a more recent article in Protocol updates the context of the payment-processor free-speech debate.
Kimberly mentioned that Facebook and other major social media platforms comprise the most frequently used online recruitment tools for sex trafficking. CBS News covered the latest Federal Human Trafficking Report. Facebook calls trafficking and child exploitation abhorrent and says it has policies and technology meant to prevent it. Still, a huge number of child-trafficking victims were recruited through Facebook last year.
Finally, so much of OnlyFans is dedicated to the sexually explicit that many people wondered what would be left if all that stuff was banned. Bustle has a list of 17 accounts that have nothing to do with nudity and therefore, arguably, stood to gain from a less crowded field. Although, arguably, Cardi B would’ve done just fine regardless. It could be a handy list for some of you, in case someone discovers your credit card statement and has questions.
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