Sex workers in the UK say the financial institutions are waging a war against them

By Abby Amoakuh

Published May 26, 2024 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

It’s been affirmed multiple times now that sex work is a legitimate form of work and that categorising it any other way leaves professionals increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. However, as it continues to be stigmatised and invisibilised, many sex workers find themselves excluded from financial institutions and cut off from essential monetary resources. Indeed, without any prior warning, many have reported their bank accounts being frozen—actions industry professionals are now describing as the financial industry “waging war” against them.

Although soliciting sex work and brothel-keeping are both illegal in England and Wales, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) recognises that the exchange of sexual services between consenting adults is legal.

Yet, Decrim Now, a campaign that works towards the decriminalisation of sex work in the UK, reported that more than 80 per cent of Sex Workers Union members have experienced some form of financial discrimination. A survey about Financial Discrimination and the Adult Industry further revealed that 63 per cent of sex workers have lost a bank or financial tool due to their work.

With the explosion of the adult industry in recent years through platforms like OnlyFans, this discrimination has become more widespread than ever.

This includes being barred from having business accounts because financial service institutions deem adult entertainment and sex work as high-risk, even if it is legal, a New York Times investigation revealed.

Sex workers have also reported difficulties in obtaining business loans, home loans or mortgages, and having to wait extended periods for their paychecks to clear.

In today’s mostly cashless society, building wealth without a bank account is almost impossible. Thus, it represents an essential lifeline and pillar to financial autonomy. Without this independence to manage their banking, those at the margins can be subjected to exploitation by those with evil intent. In short, their work will be more high-risk and their private lives more difficult to maintain.

SCREENSHOT spoke to Audrey from Decrim Now, a grassroots campaign group led by sex workers, trade unionists and feminists, to try and get a better understanding of the extent to which financial discrimination impacts sex workers.

“Sex workers face a number of hurdles when trying to use financial services. Payments from adult service websites like OnlyFans or adult work are often blocked, meaning sex workers are unable to get paid for their work or have to rely on third parties, who often take a cut of their profits,” Audrey explained.

Our own research also revealed that financial apps such as PayPal, Venmo, Cash App, and credit card companies are known to have policies that prevent sex workers from accessing their services.

Audrey continued: “More regularly, sex workers’ accounts are frozen or closed without warning and without recourse. When this happens, [they] are unable to access their own money until the bank has concluded their investigation. A number of sex workers we spoke to from the Sex Workers Union reported being unable to pay bills or rent, and one was even evicted as they were unable to access their account to transfer money to their landlord.”

This frequently forces sex workers to rely on cash, making them incredibly vulnerable to theft. “It is, without exaggeration, disastrous for sex workers—particularly migrant or houseless sex workers who may already struggle to open bank accounts,” Audrey relayed, emphasising just how important it is that these issues are addressed.

When I asked Audrey about her organisation’s stance towards sex work being deemed as ‘high-risk’ by banks, she replied: “The passing of FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking)/ SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers) [acts] and the increasing campaigning of Visa/Mastercard from far-right evangelical groups in the states have forced a hostile environment for sex workers.”

“Visa and Mastercard, in particular, have threatened to remove their services from adult service websites and enforce sex worker discriminatory practices. Even going so far as to dictate what content is or is not appropriate for sex workers to upload onto sites. As they hold a monopoly over payment processing services, it’s extremely difficult for sex workers to avoid using them,” the expert continued.

As a consequence, many sex workers are forced to lie about their professions to circumvent these obstacles, living in constant fear of being found out and having their financial access revoked from one day to the next.

Audrey concluded: “Sex workers are often forced to use third parties to get paid from adult websites, and these third parties often take a cut of their profits. The financial discrimination against sex workers creates conditions where exploitation and violence thrive, as sex workers can no longer independently manage their money. We not only need financial institutions to revise their existing policies on sex workers, but we also need the government to implement the full decriminalisation of sex work, not only so sex workers can work safely and access workers’ rights, but to mitigate the apparent ‘risk’ for financial services.”

Sex workers are currently facing the removal of rights many of us are taking for granted, starting with the right to a credit card and ending with the ability to make rent payments on time. By standing with sex workers and advocating for their rights, we are making sure that they don’t become the test cases for removing personal autonomy from others.

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