Filthy wages: Why crypto’s promise as a means of dancing around banking system crashed

Filthy wages: Why crypto’s promise as a means of dancing around banking system crashed


The idea that crypto might be used to address financial pariah status in banking industry was intuitive to sex workers from early on. Provided they could navigate the technical frictions associated with receiving crypto payments and managing a crypto wallet, they could transact with clients directly, bypassing both the hostile banking system and the fees levied by large platforms.

The irreversible nature of crypto transactions, meanwhile, protected against another common problem: chargebacks, a process whereby a payment is rescinded after a dispute is raised by a client with their card provider, often without cause and after material has already been received.

Knox began to accept crypto in 2014, only five years after bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, was created. Whenever she was performing in a live cam room, Knox took to holding up a QR code through which people could tip her in crypto.

Liara Roux, who began working as an escort roughly a decade ago, before later moving into pornography, began to accept crypto payments in 2015 at the request of clients. Initially, she would cash out into dollars immediately, but when SESTA and FOSTA came into effect – after which many adult-friendly advertising sites could no longer accept regular money – she began to pay for ads with crypto too. “By and large, crypto is useful for people that aren’t being taken care of properly by the government,” says Roux. “For sex workers, who aren’t well-served by banks, it becomes a useful option.”

Others were pushed toward crypto by external events. For Rae, it was OnlyFans’ flirtation with a ban on adult content. For some, it was a block imposed by Mastercard and Visa on Pornhub, one of the world’s largest porn websites, in 2020, following a New York Times investigation that found it to be “infested with rape videos.” Data collected by Sex Work CEO, an online portal featuring resources for sex workers, suggests at least a third of sex workers now accept crypto payments.

But for all crypto’s promise as a means of dancing around the banking system, sex workers are finding the limits of its utility: Although sending and receiving crypto payments is relatively simple, converting it into dollars is sometimes not.

The typical method is to transfer crypto to an exchange, where earnings are converted into regular money, which is then withdrawn to a bank account (assuming it hasn’t been closed). But sex workers are sometimes banned from crypto exchanges too, albeit less frequently, leaving them stranded with a form of money they cannot use to pay rent or buy goods.

“You get on an exchange for as long as you can, until they shut your ass down,” says Knox. “You quickly [run out of exchanges], so you sit on a lot of useless money. The whole ‘crypto is permissionless and censorship-resistant’ thing is a bunch of bullshit.” (Knox suspects she has ended up on a blacklist at Plaid, a provider of technology plumbing to large crypto exchanges like Gemini, Kraken and Robinhood, leading to the repeated bans. Freya Petersen, spokesperson for Plaid, says no such list exists, but that all firms that wish to use its services are subject to a standard risk assessment process, factoring in the industry in which they operate.)

Meanwhile, banks’ increasing unwillingness to work with crypto-related businesses is causing problems for firms trying to make it easier for sex workers to interface with the crypto world.

In February, SpankChain (a company to which Knox is an advisor) was forced to close its SpankPay service, which made it easy for creators to convert crypto into regular money, after payment processing firm Wyre terminated a partnership. The justification was that SpankChain had violated the terms of another company with which Wyre partnered,, which has tried to distance itself from the porn business.

WetSpace, a crypto-centric alternative to OnlyFans established by Rae, searched for months to find a bank willing to provide a business account, but was repeatedly rejected because of its ties to both the adult and crypto industries. “It was a double whammy,” says Rae. “We spoke to every dang bank there is.” Eventually, after appealing directly to the board of one bank, WetSpace managed to secure an account, but months later received a notice suggesting that support may soon be rescinded. The company is “riding on borrowed time,” explains Rae.

Without a banking partner, crypto firms cannot accept dollar deposits in return for services, or manage the conversion of crypto to dollars for clients, or pay their employees and vendors – they cannot function. The viability of the plan to develop a parallel financial system free of intermediaries is dependent, therefore, on a rapidly disintegrating truce with those same intermediaries: the banks and payments firms.

For sex workers, as long as crypto cannot be used to pay for goods and services, its usefulness will remain limited, because it can be thwarted at the junction with conventional finance.

The efforts of sex work advocates are better invested, says Stabile, in campaigning for new laws that would make it illegal for banks to discriminate against sex workers on the basis of their profession, than in developing an alternative financial system. “The first step is banking stability,” he says.

There is broad sympathy for businesses facing banking access issues on both sides of the aisle, explains Stabile, who spent time in May meeting with members of the US Congress. The political right is concerned with the de-banking of gun manufacturers and oil companies, and the left with the treatment of cannabis businesses and marginalized workers. Lobbying groups like the FSC hope to capitalize on this accord, a rarity on Capitol Hill, to the benefit of the adult industry, even if legislation specific to the plight of sex workers is “too great a political hill right now.”

The biggest hurdle, explains Stabile, is the “snail’s pace” at which Congress moves. In April, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the SAFE Banking Act, which calls for mandatory provision of banking services to legal cannabis businesses. In July, the Fair Access to Banking Act was tabled by Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, with the aim of penalising banks that refuse to do business with law-abiding citizens. Neither bill has progressed beyond the point of initial introduction.

In the absence of real legislative progress, the adult industry will continue to exist “like a weed,” says Stabile, growing in “the cracks and hostile conditions that other businesses would never survive in, because it has to.” In crypto, sex workers found a temporary means of survival, but one whose billing as a permanent remedy proved to be inaccurate.

“Some sex workers might see crypto as a form of financial liberation,” says Van Meir. “But the majority probably just see it as a necessary evil – one among the few options they have left.”

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