Sex workers are increasingly documenting financial discrimination when accessing banks, payment processors and financial providers. As hustle economy workers, barriers to digital financial infrastructure impact sex workers’ abilities to maintain their livelihoods, resulting in structural marginalization and vulnerability to violence. Internationally, peer-led sex worker organizations have documented payment processors that discriminate, collating public policies and user experiences. They report refusals of merchant services, being unable to open accounts, being denied loans, finance or insurance, higher premiums, and having money frozen, withheld or forfeited.
In this article, we examine the policies of banks and payment providers who refuse service to sex workers, sex industry businesses and other sexual purposes. Drawing from sex worker media from two different regulatory environments, the United States and Australia, we show how sex workers are identified via multiple means, including through algorithmic detection, malicious flagging, unique business names, service descriptions, external links, use of pseudonyms, linking of personal and professional identities, and sex work activism. We argue that the ‘sexual proxies’ that identify sex workers are founded on problematic assumptions of sex as high risk and operate to capture a wide variety of uses, including access to sex education, abortion services and mutual aid funds.
We position financial discrimination against sex workers as a multi-layered problem, stemming from classist, racist, transphobic, and whorephobic laws and policies, accelerated by automated risk assessments and privatization of financial infrastructure. Financial discrimination is enabled by the criminalization of sex work, and, due to the exportation of U.S. policy, continues even in jurisdictions where sex work is decriminalized, buoyed by anti-trafficking policies that conflate sex work with exploitation and identity verification policies driven by anti-terrorism and anti-fraud legislation. As a result, financial discrimination disproportionately impacts sex workers who are undocumented, marginalized or most at risk of violence. The current challenge facing sex workers is how to survive in this system, including by holding payment processors accountable. We outline a series of potential accountability measures, including an overhaul of law and policy frameworks.
The authors would like to thank our colleagues and peers who provided feedback, research, funding, and other forms of support that made it possible to write this Article, including Kendra Albert, Samreeta Amrute, Elizabeth Brundige, Veronica Cinibulk, Emma Horne, Wenyi Hua, Naomi Lauren, Jacob Lipton, Beth Lyon, Jaylanee Maple, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Benjamin D. Powell, Natalie Sheard, Nicolas Suzor, Kavitha Suthanthiraraj, Lana Swartz, Irene Xu, Gemma Zhang, Monika Zalnieriute, Justice Catalyst, and the participants in Data & Society’s event The Hustle Economy: Race, Gender, and Digital Entrepreneurship, where this Article was first workshopped. We would also like to thank CUNY Law Review and the student editors whose unpaid labor enabled this publication. As a collaboration between authors who work across academic institutions, community organizations, and volunteer collectives, we acknowledge that sex work facilitated some of the authors to devote unpaid time and labor to writing this Article. Any mistakes contained herein are our own, while any wisdom is built out of community processes of knowledge production, both formal and informal. As such this paper could not have been written without our many years of membership in and love for our sex work communities, communities of color, disability communities, abolitionist communities, and organizing and activist circles. We hope that all of our work honors our overlapping communities, and the knowledge we have frequently been forced to build out of necessity and survival. Many of our community members however, co-producers of the knowledge and analysis this paper contains, have not survived. We work always with that grief, the desire to honor those losses, and with the urgency of hoping to contribute to the structural change necessary so that we might not lose one more community member.
Zahra Stardust, Danielle Blunt, Gabriella Garcia, Lorelei Lee, Kate D'Adamo & Rachel Kuo, High Risk Hustling: Payment Processors, Sexual Proxies, and Discrimination by Design, 26 CUNY L. Rev. 57 (2023).