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How PayPal discriminates against sex workers

The payment processing giant refuses to process "certain sexually oriented materials"—even if they have little or nothing to do with sex.


EJ Dickson


Posted on Apr 8, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 12:36 pm CDT

Despite the Internet’s reputation as a bastion of rational thought, equitable gender relations, and sex positivity (lolz!), it’s slightly less than welcoming to sex workers, who continuously find themselves booted from pretty much every online community they try to join. The latest online service to discriminate against sex workers is payment processing giant PayPal, which one sex worker claims strong-armed the crowdfunding website Patreon into blocking all adult content.

According to a post on her blog (NSFW), writer and sex worker Kitty Stryker was packing her bags to the Feminist Porn Conference in Toronto, which she had funded through her Patreon profile, when she received an email from the funding website saying that PayPal had threatened to freeze all creator pages unless Patreon flagged adult content and blocked it from being funded via PayPal.

Stryker reprinted the apologetic email from Patreon on her blog:

I just wanted to let you know that we had to change your custom URL and set your Patreon page to “private.” The only difference with private pages is that users must have a specific link to view your page, as it no longer appears in our search results.

We got a notice from Paypal this morning that they were shutting down their entire integration with Patreon because of “adult content” on our site! As you can imagine, this would be detrimental to creators—hundreds of thousands of dollars were to be “frozen” unless we flagged all adult content pages, made them private, and removed Paypal functionality from their individual pages. Paypal was extremely helpful in resolving this entire issue within a few hours.

Patreon also wrote Stryker that they had informed her patrons to switch from PayPal to credit cards. “I’m so sorry that we had to do this without warning you first, but it was SUCH an emergency,” they wrote. “We simply had to take action to avoid a situation where creators would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of legitimate pledges.”

Stryker’s Patreon page was not intended to directly fund her sex work; it was intended to fund her trip to Toronto, as well as her non-pornographic writing career. Either way, however, Patreon does not have a policy against funding artwork that contains nudity or other types of sexual content (though it does prohibit “pornography,” which it defines as “material with the sole intention of eliciting sexual arousal”).

But thanks to PayPal’s last-minute threat to Patreon, Stryker found herself “waiting to find out if I’ll be able to pay rent or not… simply because I’m a porn performer, and some people decided to donate money for my non-pornographic writing via PayPal instead of directly from their credit cards,” she later wrote in a piece about the incident for the Frisky. With Patreon’s help, she did manage to get her patrons over to other payment methods in time for her trip.

This is not the first time PayPal, whose acceptable use policy prohibits “transactions involving… certain sexually oriented materials and services” (though it does allow the sale of adult DVDs and magazines), has refused to process any payments from individuals related to the adult entertainment industry, even when the payments had nothing to do with adult work itself.

In 2006, former adult performer Asia Carrera claimed PayPal had shut down her account when she tried to solicit funds from her fans after her husband died in a car accident. Andre Shakti, a Bay Area sex worker, was also turned away from the payment processor WePay after raising $500 for a trip to the Feminist Porn Awards on the crowd-funding site Fundly. Their argument was that Shakti’s campaign had violated their terms of service.

To a certain extent, PayPal’s policy against processing adult-oriented transactions makes sense: For instance, some credit card companies have charged adult merchants additional fees or refused to process adult-oriented transactions altogether, arguing that transactions on adult websites have a higher risk for “chargebacks” than mainstream merchants.

But in all three of the above cases, the payments were either tangentially related to adult work, or had nothing to do with them at all. In Stryker’s case, PayPal threatening to freeze a crowd-funding start-up’s creator pages if they continued to allow adult content producers to use their platform seems not only sex-negative and vindictive, but totally unnecessary. After all, she wasn’t funding “certain sexually oriented materials and services,” but a trip to Toronto (and with the exception of Degrassi superfans making pilgrimage, who the hell actually wants to go to Toronto away?).

Although the incident obviously left a bad taste in Stryker’s mouth, in an e-mail to the Daily Dot she says she will continue to use Patreon, lauding the crowdsourcing platform for their “communication, their customer service, their championing of my work, and their willingness to bend over backwards to find ways to make it easy for me to continue to work with them when PayPal refused to pay me.

“That sort of advocacy is incredibly valuable and sadly all too rare,” she wrote. “It’s sad that I won’t be able to be featured on their site, or be searchable, but it’s their employees that makes it the choice for me.” In the future, she hopes mainstream crowdsourcing platforms work to create an NSFW tag to make it easier for adult content creators like herself to use their sites.

We’ve reached out to PayPal, and will update if we hear back from them. But for now, it’s hard to disagree with Stryker’s assessment of the incident in her Frisky piece.

“We live in a culture that stigmatizes us permanently for dipping a toe into sex work while simultaneously insisting sex workers should leave the industry and do other work,” she writes. “With PayPal and WePay controlling most of the online payment market, having a scarlet letter banning sex workers past or present from using them can mean that any other sort of small business idea is made impossible for us… when payment processors dictate morality, that is a scary road to walk on.”

Update: Tyler Palmer, the Vice President of Operations at Patreon, responded with the following statement to the Daily Dot:

Basically, Patreon is a bit stuck between a rock and a hard place here. We want to maintain a great relationship with Paypal and adhere to their rules, as our creators receive half of their pledge support through Paypal and a broken relationship there would be catastrophic for our creators. It’s also equally as important to us that as many creators as possible (mature art included) are able to receive support on Patreon and make a living creating what they love.


H/T Kitty Stryker, the Frisky | Photo via Julia O Test Photography


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*First Published: Apr 8, 2014, 10:00 am CDT