Your consumption of porn might be all arched backs and contorted cowgirls, but spare a thought for the performers who not only have to navigate their profession being one of the most contested, but also face huge financial complications. Despite sex work being being legal in the UK and U.S. to varying degrees, adult performers are at the mercy of large corporations who decide how — and even if — they can get paid. The effect is not only a loss of income, but the destruction of livelihoods. The consequences mean some performers turn to potentially more harmful ways to garner an income.
Two years ago, Mastercard announced it wouldn’t allow its cards to be used on Pornhub (Visa swiftly followed). Then, last year, it followed up with more limitations on sex workers, asking adult content to be reviewed by hosting sites prior to publishing, and enforcing that sellers present “documented age and identity verification for all people depicted and those uploading the content.”
But how can live streaming, which many performers use, be pre-vetted? Mastercard’s policies are intended to prohibit illegal adult content — like sex trafficking — but according to real, consenting adult creators, it has only slowed down the process of their work and mystified payment procedures.
It’s not just credit cards adding to the obstacles either — it’s any online payment services that process card payments. PayPal and Venmo also have restrictions against adult creators, and Stripe doesn’t allow sex workers to use its services.
While most people will agree that sex trafficking is abhorrent, one might wonder who this kind of measure is actually aimed at. Sex work campaigners also point out that during Mastercard’s discussions to enforce such rules, they were not consulted but anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-sex work groups were. These groups include the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) who want to eliminate public forms of sexuality. And it’s not as if creators were completely unregulated in the industry. Since 1988, U.S. lawmakers have required porn producers to keep records of documentation (including legal name, date of birth, and a copy of a photo ID) for people who engaged in sexual activity on camera. While this fight for the right to work continues, sex workers continue to be disadvantaged as their earnings are halted.
“Let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a turn on scrambling for a payment method. A customer can easily get annoyed and leave.”
These are problems witnessed by online adult creator, Laura, 32, from Las Vegas, whose name has been changed for privacy. She says: “There isn’t a single sex worker that hasn’t been affected by the recent changes. Everyone has taken a hit financially and had to make adjustments. Some consumers are not willing to change sites.” Thankfully Laura was able to pivot to a SFW platform where she could earn an income. “I’m blessed as I also work at Twitch as a full-time content creator alongside being a sex worker so I was able to stay afloat.”
Another creator, who goes by Grateful Grace on adult sites SinParty, Pornhub, and OnlyFans, 21, from Georgia, U.S, says she’s also experienced these issues first-hand. “I just had my PayPal account deactivated by the PayPal team. My fans are having their payment blocked. My revenue on PornHub has also gone down little by little.”
This revenue would come to hundreds of dollars usually, but “it was $19 when I checked,” says Grace. “It was decent when I started back in 2019 and even though I have over 2 million views I have only cleared a little over $3,000 in the last few months.”
While Grace hasn’t had problems with her personal bank, her clients have. “Having my income be affected because of a banking issue is frustrating. I have so many people tell me they want to buy content but their bank won’t let them. I’ve found this problem even with regulars that I have worked with on multiple occasions.”
So what options does Grace have? She says: “Cashapp is really good but then again some people are in a country where it doesn’t work. I find myself having to market different money exchanging sites when I’m trying to sell content. Let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a turn on scrambling for a payment method. A customer can easily get annoyed and leave.”
While OnlyFans backtracked on their bizarre decision to stop pornographic content on their app, some of its performers are still struggling with being paid. Gracey Kay, from Leeds, 32, a mum who found fortune as one of the highest earners on OnlyFans, after giving up her job as a hairdresser, has had to navigate this new world. “OnlyFans is following Mastercard’s verification rules and pauses any account that isn’t following it. So while I haven’t had issues in that area, my bank, Santander, however, has been awful with me in questioning my income. They said they are checking everyone who receives income from Felix International, and keep ringing me when I receive a payment. I’ve also been refused business with other banks because I do OnlyFans.”
So why are large finance companies cracking down on the legal, consensual adult industry? It’s because of moral panic, says Angela Jones, a sex work scholar from New York. She says: “Companies like Mastercard have been unduly influenced by anti-porn and anti-sex work groups such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formally Morality in Media) and anti-prostitution activists.”
Jones says the goal of these campaigners isn’t to just stop trafficking but to abolish sex work entirely, which many depend on to survive, without offering a solution to this key issue. “It is important to realise that these activists are not actually targeting trafficking; instead, they use anti-trafficking discourse as a way of targeting all forms of commercial sex. The goal of the anti-porn movement is to deplatform all sex workers.”
So what can sex workers who find themselves in these obstacles do? Lindsey Swanson, 29, from California, who heads up sex work resource site Scoops of Vanilla and Stripper Financial Planning, says the options are limited. “Cash is generally the best and cheapest way to receive payment for in-person type of sex work. Online workers are typically subject to the existing payment structure of the site where they host their content/services — unfortunately this normally means they are paying higher fees.”
“Financial discrimination means sex workers can’t access other rights, like a credit score, buying property, or insurance.”
But creators are becoming more creative with the options. Swanson adds: “Using crypto to facilitate payments is one of the best options for online sex workers moving forward,” but not all clients are trusting of this or crypto-savvy, plus Bitcoin doesn’t allow membership, it can take a while to transfer and the user needs to initiate the transaction each time. There’s also a growing trend of creators building out their own websites and allowing for direct payment.”
Ultimately though, there’s no reason beyond moral panic for payment processors and financial institutions to be discriminating against sex workers, Swanson says: “They’re missing out on an active client base and unnecessarily road blocking individuals who are simply trying to support themselves.”
Financial giants expecting adult performers to jump through hoops doesn’t just cut them off from immediate funds, crucially, financial discrimination means sex workers can’t access other rights, like a credit score, buying property, or insurance.
Jones adds: “The public needs to begin to see this for what it is — a civil rights issue. People’s lives are at stake.” And let’s not forget, sex workers are people — people who work hard, care, and advocate for one another in their community, and empower themselves. Don’t they deserve to be compensated for it?