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Sex, power, and money: how a porn star took on web payments and won

Sex, power, and money: how a porn star took on web payments and won

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The trouble started with an infection. An actress named Eden Alexander had a bad drug reaction, which triggered a rare skin infection, building into a swarm of secondary illnesses. She needed to raise money for treatment. It should have been a simple thing — she has plenty of fans, plenty of would-be donors — but Alexander is a porn actress, and when you’re moving on the web, that makes things complicated. Instead of a quick fundraiser, she ended up tangling with a payments company, rallying a following, and finally leading a flamewar that cut to the core of the way money moves on the internet.

Payments "in connection with pornographic items" are prohibited

Alexander’s friends had set up the fundraiser on GiveForward, a crowdfunding platform devoted entirely to healthcare costs. The goal was $4,000, enough to fund in-home care and physical therapy until she was strong enough to care for herself, but on Friday, it was suddenly shut down. WePay, the company that handles GiveForward’s payments, had flagged the account. The company cited a tweet that seemed to offer porn in exchange for donations, retweeted from Alexander's account. WePay's terms of service prohibits using the service "in connection with pornographic items"; the tweet apparently qualified. After weeks of dealing with the terrifying illness and hospital bureaucracy, Alexander had been stopped cold by an online payments company.

"Unforgivable and appalling"

The reaction was both faster and more intense than anyone expected. Supporters like Molly Crabapple and journalist Melissa Gira Grant raised the alarm on Twitter, and by Sunday, WePay's mentions column was a river of flame. One tweet called the company's actions "unforgivable and appalling." Another said, "your anti-sexwork bigotry is lethal." Much of the anger was directed at WePay specifically, above and beyond Alexander. "While I want to see any help possible go to Eden," one message read, "I'd be delighted to see this destroy your platform as a public lesson." The CEO responded meekly, "we're trying our best to be constructive and help." WePay offered an official apology and attempted to reset the campaign, but by then the damage was done. Eden's campaign moved onto Crowdtilt, where payments sped through without a problem. Crowdtilt's CEO even pitched into her campaign, as a kind of victory lap.

The reaction seemed sudden to outsiders, but for sex workers, this kind of soft discrimination is painfully familiar. Both PayPal and WePay regularly hold up payments from porn sites, creating enormous payroll problems. Last month, Chase Bank abruptly closed checking accounts belonging to hundreds of porn stars, challenging the simple mechanics of paying the rent. There's nothing illegal about what any of these women were doing — porn is a legal and widely regulated industry — but they still face widespread discrimination when it comes to spending and receiving money.

WePay says its hands are tied

As WePay and others describe it, that discrimination comes straight from the federal government. The FDIC officially considers pornography a "high-risk activity," alongside firearm sales, drug paraphernalia, and Ponzi schemes. That means anyone handling payments is cleared to use extra caution, or refuse their business entirely. In this case, WePay says it wasn't even its choice. In the apology, the company passed the buck to its back-end processor, which it says refuses to handle pornography-related transactions. Just like GiveForward, WePay says its hands are tied.

"Giving is a political act."

If the situation holds, it could have implications far beyond pornography and firearms. The FDIC guidelines are meant to set industry guidelines, but they've become a de facto ban on paying for certain kinds of legal goods on the internet. Sarah Jeong, a legal scholar who's written on the topic before, sees it as a fundamental issue of free speech. "Giving is a political act, especially in a society where sex work is still stigmatized," says Jeong. "Not being able to give to a cause or a person we believe in is a serious curtailment of political activities. And when only a handful of payment processors exist out there, their decisions to not process certain kinds of payments can have huge effects on the range of political expression." That same point was made even more forcefully in 2010, when PayPal decided to cut off donations to WikiLeaks, spurring massive blowback and a sustained Anonymous campaign.

One answer is simply stronger pushback from companies like WePay. There's no legal compulsion against porn-related transactions, and if a company wants to force its partners to honor them, there's a good chance it will be able to. In the case of Crowdtilt, that's exactly what happened. But as payments on the web become more centralized, many see stories like Alexander's as a reason to remake the payment system entirely. In Jeong's case, the answer looks a lot like bitcoin, a decentralized network with no FDIC to say which payments are acceptable and which aren't. That also opens the door to lots of other risky transactions, from Silk Road to Mt. Gox, but for people like Alexander, it could be the only option left. And if WePay’s bad weekend spreads, Alexander may have company.