Preparing for the War on Porn

Ida Falbe Hansen

Sex workers are under attack from multiple angles. Legislators and financial institutions are pressuring adult entertainers and the recent commotion is just the beginning, voices from the industry predict.   

Luna stumbled into the sex industry when she was 20 years old. Touring the Copenhagen bar scene, the ash-blond woman with bright blue eyes ran into a job interview at a strip club and discovered what she was supposed to do for a living. “I always had a hard time finding my place in life. When I started stripping everything fell into position.’’ She says. 

But the honeymoon phase did come to an end and today, two years later, she knows one thing for sure; “They have legalized sex work but that doesn’t mean they like it.” At her first meeting with an accountant, she realized she would never be treated like any other one-man business, she explains. “He was not happy about me being an adult performer. That meant a lot of work for him. When you do financial accounting for sex workers there is always an extra eye watching you.’’

An Aspiring Coyote 

The Covid-19 lockdown made working at strip clubs challenging, so like many others, Luna increased her online work as a camgirl. She did expect some criticism from her peers for her choice in profession, but they weren’t very surprised. “At eleven years old my favorite movies were Burlesque and Coyote Ugly,” she recalls, laughing.  

Whilst she was inspired by the movies, Luna admits she wasn’t necessarily prepared for the less sexy roadblocks most sex workers encounter. “First of all, it is almost impossible to get a business account as a sex worker. Banks are allowed to decline a request with no explanation, and if you tell them that you do any kind of sex work, they’ll just hang up on you,” 

Since Danish banks aren’t required to explain why they might decline a one-man business’ application for an account there is no way to tell exactly why this is happening. But the problem is common, explains Estella, spokesperson for The Danish Sex Worker Association. “We do experience that banks are, in general, discriminating against sex workers. In my opinion, banks need to stop playing judges in these matters. If they believe something criminal is going on they are welcome to report it, but they shouldn’t stop collaborating with small business owners because they have certain assumptions or judge sex work.”

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of OnlyFans

Back in August, OnlyFans’ indecisiveness on whether or not the platform was going to ban sexually explicit content shone further light on the moral power financial institutions hold over sex workers. 

OnlyFans justified the initiated ban by declaring the platform wasn’t able to attract investments and maintain partnerships with banks and payment providers while still allowing NSFW content. This caused massive criticism, principally from sex workers who pointed out their major role in the rising popularity of OnlyFans. Being caught between a rock and a hard place, the platform withdrew the decision, announcing on Twitter that they “secured assurances necessary to support [their] diverse creator community”

The OnlyFans saga drew attention to the subject of sex work for a brief moment, but the story is, in many ways, a symptom of a greater disease. Behind the scenes an attempt by Mastercard, to fight illegal sexual content on the internet, is making regular webcam work difficult on any platform — not just OnlyFans. The payment provider has required that all content must be verified before publishing by October 1st. For those not familiar with the webcam industry, this might not seem like a problem — but it is.

Webcam models often earn their income by doing online sessions with their clients. This content is published in a live format and that makes it difficult to verify beforehand. But only time will tell exactly how the new restrictions are going to impact the webcam models. Aerie Saunders, CEO at Webcam Startup, explains in an email, “The full ramifications of the requirements won't be realized until they are implemented and a precedent is set. This will depend on how the adult performers’ preferred sites react to the new guidelines. Sites may argue that the content made by the webcam models is already approved since the models verify their work beforehand — but we won't see the rigidity of the new requirements until Mastercard takes action against a site they believe violates the rules.” 

Mastercard isn’t the only payment processor that has demonstrated how financial service businesses are able to make decisions that impact sex workers ability to work online, Aerie Saunders points out. “The Mastercard case isn't a one-off. It's the beginning of the financial war on porn. Adult performers experience discrimination by other payment processors like Cash App and PayPal as well even if the sex workers are using their services for sales not related to sex work.”

A Camgirl’s Dictionary       

Since modern-day sex workers are dependent on the internet, the war on porn makes their working conditions especially fragile. Adult performers use the internet both to process payments and to promote and publish content. On top of that, social media provides a community for sex workers who aren’t able to join traditional unions. But this has caused issues too, Luna tells us. “The platforms often shut down our groups if they discover our line of work.”

The censorship of social media might be a consequence of the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act”, commonly known as FOSTA-SESTA. The U.S. Senate and House bills were made law in 2018; they make online platforms liable for user-created content, with the purpose of preventing sex traffickers from advertising online. Subsequently, both Facebook and Instagram have been tightening their content moderation practices. 

According to research done by sex worker collective Hacking//Hustling - which works at the intersection of technology and social justice - online content creators have experienced an increase in shadowbanning after the laws came into effect in 2018. In the attempt to battle illegal trafficking online, anything related to sex work is being flagged by the algorithms. Because of this, sex workers are forced to figure out how to work around the system, Luna says. “Some women in the community have created a sex worker dictionary we use when speaking to each other online. That way we can communicate without getting caught by the algorithms.”
Adult entertainers have to get creative if they want to survive in an industry that might not be illegal but is surrounded by a system that is trying to fight criminal sex traffickers. As for Luna, this is not going to stop her. She found her place, and even though she knows her life isn’t for everyone, she wouldn’t change a thing.  “I love this. I will still go out and do a strip job once in a while even if I become a millionaire.”

artil / Preparing for the War on Porn

Ida Falbe Hansen

‘’I think most women know the feeling of holding back in conversations, doubting whether their opinions are valid, and being insecure about their intellect. I for one do. I hope we can create a space where we can get to know the things that we weren’t traditionally taught, and ultimately take the competition out being together so we can better learn from one another.’’

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