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Sex Workers Took Refuge in Crypto. Now It’s Failing Them | WIRED

“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, Checkout.com, 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one bank, WetSpace managed to secure an account, but months later received a notice suggesting that support may soon be rescinded.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 penalizing 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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