Blog Post Written By: Adrie Rose
Things we know: Financial inequality targets people of colour, single-parents, the homeless and housing insecure, drug users, and the poor. Things we also know: all of these demographic categories are represented overwhelmingly in the “underground commercial sex economy” or sex trade as named in an Urban Institute Report. In this report, 52.7% of respondents were non-white, where 30.6% declined to identify a race or ethnic group. 77.8% of respondents identified as female and 19.4% identified as Male to Female (MTF) transgender. 72% of respondents admitted to using crack cocaine at some point, 67% had traded sex for drugs, 25% had clients that paid for sex with a combination of drugs and money, and 25 – 28% had dealt drugs at least once (Dank). The DC Trans Coalition found that 23% of Black transgender people had been assaulted by police for their perceived participation in the sex trade. A Meaningful Work report fund that nearly 40% of Black and multiracial transgender people trading sex were and are subject to continued harassment, violence, and unfounded arrest. In 2015, nearly 40% of the 30,000 prostitution related arrests were Black people, according to FBI data. In arrests of minors, nearly 60% of those arrested for prostitution were black despite being categorized as trafficking victims.
Knowing all of this, and despite the financial industry’s stated commitment to equity and equality in financial services, there is an aggressive practice of singling out and targeting sex workers, and those assumed to be sex workers. In 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that pressuring credit card companies to stop doing business with speech-protected websites like Backpage and RentBoy is a constitutional violation. In June of the same year, the FDIC explicitly stated that is a legal violation for PayPal, Chase, and Square to refuse business or close accounts based on the arbitrary assessment of “high-risk” activity. Patreon depublicises the accounts of creators that post content under the intentionally vague umbrella of “adult content” to avoid confrontation with PayPay and WePay. Asia Carrerra, a former adult performer, could not raise funds for her husband’s funeral expenses. Andre Shakti, a sex worker could not use Fundly to raise travel funds.
Cash App is especially averse to sex workers, despite sex workers being largely responsible for the app’s meteoric rise to mainstream consciousness. If a sex worker manages to keep their account open and a chargeback is requested, PayPal will honour the request and leave an account balance in the negative, even after acknowledging the request is fraudulent. If you’ve ever had a negative balance in PayPal, you know that your bank account will eventually be debited the amount owed without warning, forcing users to remove all accounts from PayPal and rendering their email address useless. Combined with PayPal’s hardline policies of using a legal name -- verified by government ID -- and refusing to allow personal accounts to have separate display names, this makes the platform a breeding ground for harassment, stalking, and flat-out theft. Venmo (owned by PayPal) and Square (owner of Cash App) are the same virtual minefields. The problem is only exacerbated if a sex worker is required to use one of the platforms to collect payment for “legitimate occupations” such as freelancing or running a small business. Given the increasingly antagonistic relationship that banks have with sex workers, only exaggerated by the policies of politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio, pay apps are the only viable means of collecting payment for sex workers and existing in an increasingly cashless society, especially now that many have begun issuing debit cards.
We’ve reached a stalemate in the technical sense of the word, but only if you consider sex workers as equipped to fight back. And we’re not. When conversations about sex work are derailed by falsified and fabricated statistics on sex trafficking – as though sex workers are complicit in, or ambivalent to the evils of trafficking, we can’t begin to address the harm visited on us. If legislation like SESTA/FOSTA is hailed as groundbreaking and all-around good, despite the unequivocal harm and violence it has brought and continues to bring to sex workers, we can’t start unravelling the policies that continue to marginalize and other us. When financial institutions are enabled and emboldened to leave us at the mercy of predatory lending and bank-adjacent companies just to make ends meet, we cannot hope to achieve financial parity.
Dank, M., Khan, B., Downey, P., Kotonias, C., Mayer, D., Owens, C., . . . Yu, L. (2014). Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute.
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