It has now been almost six months since Visa, Mastercard, and Discover terminated their business relationships with MindGeek, the parent company owning Pornhub, Redtube, and other pornographic sites. On December 10, 2020, Visa announced, “Given the allegations of illegal activity, Visa is suspending Pornhub’s acceptance privileges pending the completion of our ongoing investigation. We are instructing the financial institutions who serve MindGeek to suspend processing of payments through the Visa network.” Since then, while the companies continue investigations, Visa and Mastercard have only reinstated processing payments for a small number of performers, creating stringent rules that generally only studio-based performers can comply with.
Keep in mind that while sex workers can sometimes fly under their radar, American Express, CashApp, Chase Bank, Paypal, and Venmo already refuse to process payments for sex workers across erotic industries, including porn, which is legal in the US. These actions lead performers to feel that the decision to not process payments for business transactions between consenting adults is discriminatory and potentially part of a more significant political move, making it hard for sex workers to work. Ending all sexual commerce is the end game of anti-porn and anti-sex work activists like Lalia Mickelwait and organizations such as the National Center on Exploitation, Exodus Cry, and Trafficking Hub, the organization leading the action against Mindgeek.
The continued influence of the anti-sex work lobby on banking has severe consequences for sex workers. As the Free Speech Coalition told me, “We need to start thinking about banking access as a civil rights issue. It’s occupational discrimination. When you don’t have access to banks or credit cards, or if you’re getting accounts seized on Paypal or Venmo, you get pushed to the margins. You can’t build credit. You can’t build equity. You can’t invest. It makes it more difficult to get housing or a loan or insurance. This isn’t just about income, and it’s not just about respect — it’s about access to an entire economic system.”
In December, Visa, Mastercard, and Discover’s decision to suspend payments were based heavily on anti-porn and sex work abolitionist activism and its influence on a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof. I spoke with many performers like Emilia Song, who were feeling the immediate economic effects. Many were questioning why the major credit card companies had acted in such haste. “What I find particularly disgraceful about Kristof’s article is that several of his interview subjects stated that they did not want to eliminate porn, but rather ensure that verification requirements are met for all uploaded content, and yet Kristof’s recommendation to the credit card companies was to deprive verified performers of their income,” said Emilia.
The credit card companies’ decision to stop processing payments had deleterious effects on performers’ livelihoods and during a pandemic, no less. And this is no small number of people—over 250,000 performers are affected. Performers like Mary Moody have lost thousands per month, and according to Moody, “My biggest concerns are consensual workers who relied on income from platforms like Modelhub to survive during the pandemic. Especially those who lost their main source of income due to Covid or otherwise might be working in person with clients. They had that survival income ripped away from them by Visa, MasterCard, and Discover.”
Another performer, Shelby Paris told me, “I used to rely on Pornhub for my monthly payments to help pay for rent, my phone bill, and car payment. It has been months, and we have not seen any type of action taking place on where we stand on getting those companies back to accepting Mindgeek. What is going on? I wish that they were more open to communicating what is really going on, so we don’t have to be so annoyed, stressed, and worried. I went from making hundreds on Pornhub to barely making the minimum payout. It hurt us all extremely badly, especially during a current pandemic that is already affecting millions of people.”
I am a transgender male model who has been involved in the adult industry for over seven years. I started my Pornhub account in 2016 and, when they launched Modelhub (the monetized wing of the site) in 2018, I immediately started uploading my videos on there. I collect model releases and government-issued IDs from every co-star who appears with me, just like professionally produced studio content does, and my videos comply with all content rules. I am a consensual adult model; I choose to share my videos with adult viewers and am not coerced or abused in any way. In the four months since the credit card companies stopped servicing Pornhub/Modelhub, I have lost a significant amount of income. Even more, concerning for me is that a precedent now exists for credit card companies to unilaterally decide to suspend processing payments for legal goods between consenting adults.
Right after the credit card companies cut ties with Mindgeek, I wrote an article about the financial harms that Moody, Paris, Kiley, and Richards describe, and immediately after it was published, I received an email from a spokesperson for Visa, which read:
Following a thorough review, Visa will reinstate acceptance privileges for MindGeek sites that offer professionally produced adult studio content that is subject to requirements designed to ensure compliance with the law. Meanwhile, Visa’s suspension of acceptance privileges for Pornhub and other MindGeek content sharing platforms that host user-generated content remains in effect pending the completion of our ongoing investigation. Visa remains committed to processing all transactions that are legal. We do not tolerate the use of our network and products for illegal activity. We are vigilant in our efforts to deter illegal activity on our network, and we require our affiliate banks to review their merchants’ compliance with our standards.
Independent performers are disproportionately disadvantaged by these policies, even when they have already definitively complied with all legal standards, like collecting 2257-compliant releases and uploading their ID. As Richards explained, what he and other performers had posted and continue to create off the Pornhub platform is legal. I responded and explained how utterly disappointed I was with Visa’s response. I told them I wished the statement clarified that the only monetized content on Pornhub was already verified, so the policy’s only impact was on legal work. When Visa referenced professionally produced adult studio content, this does not include any amateur or indie producer like the people on Modelhub.
That Visa “remains committed to processing all transactions that are legal” is disingenuous because they have indeed stopped processing legal transactions. I explained these concerns to the Visa spokesperson, who told me, “I will share your email with the Visa team and revert back with any additional information.” I did not hear back, and after I followed up four months later, I got the following statement, “Visa’s suspension of acceptance privileges for Pornhub and other MindGeek content sharing platforms that host user-generated content remains in effect pending the completion of our ongoing investigation.” Given that Pornhub has continued to comply with all legal requests and recently released a transparency report outlining all of its aggressive and successful efforts to combat the small amount of illegal content on its site, it is unclear what the credit card companies are still investigating.
While they investigate, I spoke to performers whose livelihoods still hang in the balance. Song remarked, “PornHub used to pay my electric and internet bills. Now, my income from PornHub has been cut in half. I still make ad revenue from free video views, but sales and subscriptions are gone; their clip store, Modelhub, is now nothing more than a placeholder. Thankfully, they’ve given us bonuses on ad rev for the past few months to try to make up for the loss of sales and to prevent creators from abandoning the site, but that’s hardly sustainable in the long run.” While Pornhub has tried to assuage some financial harm to workers, Song and many others, were met with hollow PR statements and silence from the major credit card companies.
In addition, it is challenging to quantify losses because even performers who do not use the Modelhub program to receive direct remuneration rely on Pornhub traffic to direct consumers to their work on various other platforms. Eliza Casey specializes in BDSM and making gender-affirming porn for transgender people. She explained, “Unfortunately, BDSM has been hit particularly hard with Pornhubs sweeps, and other sites like Onlyfans have made it against the rules to upload things like bondage, spanking, or anything that deviates from vanilla heteronormative sex. Pornhub wasn’t my main or biggest source of income but having those videos taken down definitely decreased the amount of views I was getting.”
Paris also reminded me how the credit card companies’ actions were against Pornhub’s parent company, Mindgeek, which owns other content sharing platforms that models use, such as Clips4Sale. “These credit card companies not allowing them to use them as a payment option has really affected Clips4Sale. Clips4Sale took an extremely hard hit.” The aggressive actions against one site can reverberate throughout the market, and platform owners get nervous. “We all saw the payment processors take action, and many sites had to change their terms of service as well. It was like an avalanche had happened, and I thankfully can rely on Onlyfans, but that can only last for so long,” Paris said.
Performers talked about the looming fear of what is next. “It’s easy to say: Oh, it’s just one site. It’s just a couple hundred dollars per month. You can make that money on another site if you work hard enough.” But it’s never just one site. The activists and organizations that are reveling in Pornhub’s decline are now shifting their focus to OnlyFans. We already have enough trouble adapting to the normal rise and fall of websites and apps. The last thing we need is for our industry to be decimated by a thousand cuts,” said Song.
Gwen Adora, too, sounded the alarm regarding the anti-porn lobby’s influence on the credit card companies and online platforms. “This victory for anti-sex work groups is being used to build momentum to target other sites, like OnlyFans. They truly want none of us to make money off selling our porn, even if that means stripping us of our autonomy and leaving us broke. Considering online sex work is more privileged and safe than other forms, stopping our online income could potentially push workers into more precarious and dangerous situations.”
Kiley echoed Song and Adora’s concerns and spoke about what it might take to realize economic justice. “For substantial change to occur, there would have to be a turn in public opinion that sex workers’ lives are important, and we deserve to get paid for our labor. Until then, I think we’ll just keep hopping from platform to platform and showing resilience through each crisis our political enemies force upon us.”
The salient point is this: sex workers are resilient people who are used to surviving when the government, anti-sex work and anti-porn activists, and other entities like credit card companies threaten their safety, economic livelihoods, and lives. As Akynos, founder of the Black Sex Worker’s Collective, told me back in December, “So, now we have to figure out new ways in order to make money, and this is what sex workers have to do. We are constantly getting trampled on, and then we have to figure out how we can reinvent ourselves and go around and jump through these hoops just so we can make a living.”
So even if—through resiliency and fortitude—performers find ways to recoup lost wages on Pornhub on other sites such as Onlyfans, the broader economic insecurity is concerning, and as Richards pointed out, “as a trans sex worker in America, the loss of Pornhub/Modelhub has led to feelings of compounded vulnerability. Removing income only causes net harm to people who are already historically economically marginalized.”
He continued, “Sex workers are disproportionately minorities including POC, LGBT, and people with disabilities. Losing our income is incredibly distressing during the pandemic when economic options are limited and being able to work safely from home is especially critical. And increasing shame and stigma against adult work, as anti-porn activists invariably do, will only lead to a rise in violence against us.”
If Visa, Mastercard, and Discover are genuinely concerned about human rights and harm reduction, they will acknowledge that Mindgeek is complying with everything asked of them and will immediately return to payment processing on Pornhub and other Mindgeek owned sites because workers’ livelihoods hang in the balance.
Angela Jones (@drjonessoc) is a sociologist studying sexual commerce, a retired sex worker, and the author of Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry.