In the United States, if you’re a critically ill sex worker, society will leave you to die, as adult performer Eden Alexander has learned over the last few days. After starting a fundraiser to help cover her growing medical bills, Alexander was abruptly kicked off a crowdfunding site for violating the terms of service — which include bans on adult content. Her case is yet another in a long list of discriminatory decisions made by crowdfunding organisations and it highlights the larger stigma against sex work in the US.
It started when Alexander had a bad reaction to an antibiotic, which led to a rare skin infection known as Steven Johnson’s Syndrome. Had she not been in sex work, her doctor probably would have readily identified the problem and provided rapid treatment. Instead, she was shamed and disrespected, and her medical team assumed the condition was related to her profession or to drug use. Consequently, Alexander contracted a MRSA infection, which in turn triggered an underlying hypothyroid condition, causing complications that almost killed her. By then, the medications she needed to treat the infection were too harsh for her compromised health, and she sustained neurological impairments and organ damage.
Eden’s friends started a campaign on crowdfunding site GiveForward, which uses WePay as a processor, requesting assistance with medical bills and other basic needs including a home care nurse and assistants to help out with tasks around the house. In addition, she asked for funds to help support her while she was unemployed, echoing a concern that many freelancers and independent contractors live with every day. None of the funds were to be used for adult entertainment-related purposes, nor did her campaign include explicit images and language. Alexander was just another person in the US trapped between the rock of a terrible health care system and the hard place of unreliable contract work that, in her case, depended specifically on the ability to use her body.
Within days, WePay yanked their support, freezing her funds and returning them to donors. Why? The processor claimed she was using their services in connection with ‘pornographic items .’ Here’s where ‘sex work Twitter,’ as journalist Melissa Gira Grant calls it, swung into action, promptly demanding a response from the payments processor and getting going on a fundraiser at a different crowdfunding site.
Sex workers past and present rapidly rallied on Twitter, having faced similar situations before from discriminatory payments processors. They called for action and a response from WePay to explain why they’d frozen a campaign that didn’t appear to violate the site’s terms of service in any way. After almost 24 hours, WePay finally responded, claiming that because Alexander had Retweeted a supportive Tweet from someone else offering pornographic images to donors, she had violated the terms of service by soliciting funds for porn.
Notably, WePay started as a way to fund a bachelor party, a situation at which alcohol, among other items banned in the site’s terms of service, would be present. Evidently what’s acceptable for the dudebros of the tech industry is not acceptable for women working in the sex industry, and it’s fine to use WePay to pay for strippers and bottle service at a club, but not for medical bills that are totally unrelated to your profession as a sex worker. The clear sexism and misogyny in this hypocrisy is most certainly not a coincidence, nor is the fact that WePay attempted to hide behind vague ‘regulations’ and ‘rules’ set by banks when it defended its decision to defund Alexander.
Evidently, a Retweet constitutes an endorsement. And, as Grant discovered when she pressed WePay further on the issue, the company actually monitors those conducting crowdfunding campaigns to determine whether they’re violating the terms of service. In this troubling modern surveillance culture, WePay’s approach is perhaps unsurprising, involving both machine and manual surveillance of social networks and other resources; Big Brother is watching you if you want to collect funds through this payments processor, which has, to say the least, chilling implications.
The fact that WePay conducts surveillance on fundraising recipients and, potentially, donors, isn’t disclosed in the site’s terms of service or discussed when people prepare to make donations. In a society where surveillance has become commonplace, citizens are presumed to have offered consent even when they’re utterly unaware, and opt-out opportunities aren’t even provided. Would Alexander have been more careful about her Twitter feed and encouraged others to do the same if she’d known? More importantly, should WePay have been conducting surveillance of this nature in the first place?
The internet is supposed to be free, open, and accessible, but it contains the same kinds of restrictions and stigmas as the rest of society. While people speak of a dark economy online where it’s possible to purchase anything at any pricepoint, it’s telling that sex workers looking for basic support to help them recover from medical bills, funeral expenses, and other major life events can’t depend on any payments processor to defend their right to accept donations from supporters and fans. Indeed, sometimes entire banks refuse to do business with sex workers, as illustrated by Chase in recent weeks.
The only reason to have bans on sexually explicit content and sex work-related activities in the first place is if a payments processor fears and hates sex workers. A very specific set of morals apparently plays a key role in banking and payments processor policies, no matter how much they might claim otherwise. In the US, where notions of ‘Christian values’ dominate politics, it’s intriguing that banks and payments processors should refuse to do business with sex workers while charging usurious interest and processing rates and participating in exploitative investments.
One might argue that Christ and Mary Magdalene were able to get along just fine, so banks ought to be able to respect sex workers just like any other businesspeople who need places to bank and conduct business. Their money is just as green as everyone else’s, and their work just as legitimate. And there’s something decidedly unChristian about leaving a woman to suffer in order to enforce your own views of morality upon her.
Who’s afraid of the big, bad sex worker? US payments processors, evidently, who further stigmatise sex work and drive it deeper underground, making it not just harder for sex workers to conduct business, but also harder for them to be safe.
Photo by Tax Credits