Sex Workers Say They Face Hurdles to Banking Access

On a spring day in 2019, Ashley*, a New York-based sex worker, tried to log into her Capital One banking app, only to learn that it wouldn’t work. A week later, she received a check with her remaining balance, and her name misspelled. The bank had closed her account, without warning or explanation. 

Days before, she had placed an advertisement on an escort site. To this day, Ashley has never received an explanation from the bank as to why they shut down her account, but she strongly suspects it had to do with her payment for the ad. 

“They didn’t give me the basic respect of telling me my account was closed,” said Ashley. 

Ashley has lost six accounts since 2015. Among them are Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America, she said. Each time an account is shuttered, it upends her life, as she waits for her remaining balance to come in the mail while scrambling to find a new bank in time to pay her bills.

You’re not doing anything wrong. You don’t know what you can do differently. And you have to completely relearn how to survive every couple months,” she said. 

Ashley’s story isn’t new among sex workers, whose accounts are regularly eliminated by banks and payment processors.

Under the umbrella of sex workers, there are porn actors, escorts, creators for on-camera sites like OnlyFans, dominatrixes, strippers, in-person sex workers, and more. Some of these professions are considered legal under American federal law, while others fall into a gray area. A few are explicitly illegal, though these rules vary by state. The sale and purchase of in-person sex, for example, is illegal across the country, with the exception of ten counties in Nevada and only if it takes place in a licensed brothel. 

But most sex workers will have experienced banking discrimination, to varying degrees. A 2021 survey conducted in California by sex worker advocacy group SWOP Sacramento found that 45% of respondents had lost a bank account at some point.

Many large banks, including Bank of America, refuse to host sex-related accounts of any kind, viewing them as possible exposure to liability for money laundering-related fines, civil or criminal lawsuits and reputational risk. For many sex workers, these policies directly and deeply impact their livelihoods, forcing them into complex financial acrobatics to keep afloat.

Jessica Goedtel, a financial planner who caters to sex workers in camera-focused industries, guides her clients through filing their taxes, applying for mortgages and planning their spending. Though “camming,” the livestreaming of an erotic performance, is legal, Goedtel must still take painstaking precautions for them, researching what banks to avoid, scanning the fine print when signing up with banks or payment platforms like Stripe, and listing their occupations as “content creators” on their tax returns. 

While she might recommend a backup bank account for any small business owner, for her sex workers clients, she also recommends that they have multiple failsafe accounts with different banks. 

“I try to encourage [them] to have different systems in place so that if one does get shut down, it will reduce the amount of pain it causes,” Goedtel said. If they have twenty bills set up for automatic payment and the account gets flagged for closure, they are at risk of failing payments, she explained. So, if they don’t switch to a new bank account in time to make payments on a credit card, they could face late fees and penalties. 

“These are not issues that I deal with with my [non-sex worker] clients. We have to really get into the nitty gritty [like] nobody else,” Goedtel said. “All I can do is help them try to navigate a system that doesn’t treat them like everybody else,” Goedtel said. 

Though her clients have avoided losing a bank account so far, she said, “it is always a threat.” 

For sex workers, navigating the banking economy can feel like treading through a mine field, not knowing when a misstep might trigger the bank’s response. This fear is not limited to bank accounts, but also loan and mortgage applications. 

For Lydia Lamarr, who works in a legal brothel just outside Las Vegas, in a county where prostitution is legal, buying a house was a life goal. She prepared for the purchase for three years, saving up and diligently reporting her income. The mortgage application was approved earlier in 2022, but not before causing a lot of anxiety. 

“I [lost] a month of sleep while getting my mortgage approved, stressing about everything falling through because of my work,” she said. When the bank asked for proof of future work and details about her business assets, she had to be vague enough to conceal what she does for a living, while not committing mortgage fraud. 

Lamarr was painfully aware of how vulnerable she was to the bank’s whims. “Just the potential of having [my] application thrown out with no recourse at any time weighed really heavily on me,” she said. 

Banks are notoriously quiet about why accounts get closed or loan applications denied, and avoid responding to allegations of discrimination against sex workers, according to several sex workers who sought explanations from banks.

A visit to three local branches of Chase and Bank of America in New York showed that what major banks list in their terms and services is sometimes at odds with what is enforced. At one bank, the language of the policy posted online was vague. Listed among banned activities like Ponzi schemes, terrorism and firearms, were “pornography” and “sexual materials.” In contrast, the policy the employee cited was far more specific, excluding practically all forms of sex work like “adult theater,” adult entertainment and the sale of adult products. A customer can buy services on a site like OnlyFans, added the banker. But the sex worker providing them would not be able to get paid. 

At another bank, the employee stated simply, “[We] do not do business with adult entertainers.” Account closures can be fought, but the employee added, “Who wants to do that?” 

Another banker suggested that sex workers use payment processors like Venmo and Cashapp as an intermediary, to protect their bank accounts from getting flagged. But many of those companies discriminate against sex workers as well. In their acceptable use policies, Cashapp and Stripe bar transactions related to “adult content and services” and Paypal, which owns Venmo, prohibits “certain sexually oriented materials or services.” Unlike banks, payment processors will not always return a customer’s balance after closing their account. 

The banks’ corporate offices all declined or did not return a request for comment on how these policies are created. 

Experts, however, point to a number of factors that make banks wary of doing business with members of the adult industry, including anti-money laundering compliance, the risk of losing money through chargeback requests, and regulatory pressure from federal agencies. 

Banks are supposed to report suspicious transactions to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the federal agency tasked with combating financial crimes, including money laundering. Failing to comply can lead to fines and even criminal punishments for banks, so they choose to be especially hawkish, providing more rather than less information to the government. But filing suspicious activity reports can get expensive for banks, so sometimes, they will decide to limit their business with entire risk categories, like the adult industry. 

On top of anti-money laundering policies, banks also have to manage their reputation risk, which the Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC) defines as anything that can be “perceived as violating the law.” 

“It gets to the point where some banks just say, ‘No, this is too fraught with peril and I don’t want to come anywhere near it,’” said Julie Hill, a law professor at the University of Alabama. Hill is also a financial institution regulation expert. “That means certainly [sex workers operating in] a gray area, will have a very difficult time. But sometimes even those that are operating quite legally will have a difficult time too.”

Part of the problem for understanding what motivates banks to enforce such policies is the lack of transparency around what kinds of pressure regulatory agencies put on them. Usually, the public has no way of accessing the reports that regulatory agencies issue to banks.

There was one exception in 2013, when Congress launched its own investigation into Operation Choke Point, a program launched by Obama’s Department of Justice to crack down on fraud by online lenders. The program actively pressured banks into cutting ties with “high-risk” industries like short-term lenders, gun retailers, and the porn industry. Banks complied, closing related accounts, out of a fear of further audits or investigations. 

While the debanking of sex workers predated this program, Operation Choke Point was the first time it was codified into policy—to the public’s knowledge. 

“They could have been telling banks not to serve sex workers for the last 50 years and we probably would never know. There is no mechanism to get access to any of that information,” Hill said. 

In August of 2017, the Trump Administration announced an end to Operation Choke Point, characterizing the program as a politically-motivated attack on the gun and mining industries. 

The following year, President Donald Trump signed into law two bills, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which made it illegal for websites to “promote or facilitate prostitution.” In response to FOSTA/SESTA, a host of payment processors and platforms changed their policies to restrict sex workers. 

For Mistress Olivia Snow, a dominatrix and adjunct college professor in New York who wanted to be identified by her stage name to protect her university job, icing sex workers out of mainstream society seems to be the point. Snow has lost accounts with payment processors like Cashapp, Venmo, and Western Union, as well as food-delivery apps like Doordash and Caviar. 

“I didn’t deposit any of my sex work money for over a year. I had a box in my apartment [full of cash]. I knew I’d already been flagged at Chase and I knew that when they inevitably seized my account, at least I’d have this box,” Snow said. Snow has since moved the cash into a safety deposit box, at the urging of a friend.

At best, sex workers can, with a bit of luck and lot of financial gymnastics, successfully retain their accounts. At worst, sex workers may find themselves locked out of the modern economy, with most doors closed.

Some sex workers have turned to cryptocurrencies to receive payments, with new platforms cropping up that specifically cater to the sex trade industry. But Ashley, who previously lost a Coinbase account, said that alternative currencies are not the answer. 

The problem is that we’re not allowed to use the same tools that everyone else can use. The whole point is that people like to use tools they’re familiar with, that they understand are safe and that they already have an account with,” she argued. “Any technology we build to solve this problem will not work as long as sex work is criminalized and stigmatized. That technology itself is going to be attacked for its association with sex work.” 

Federal anti-discrimination laws protect nine classes: sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin, religion, and genetic information. Sex workers, as an unprotected group, have gone ignored. 

An OCC representative said in a statement, “The OCC’s long-standing supervisory guidance states that banks should avoid termination of broad categories of customers without assessing individual customer risk. The OCC encourages customers of national banks and federal savings associations to contact the OCC’s Customer Assistance Group for assistance with bank complaints.” 

But the agency, like other regulatory bodies including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Reserve, is more concerned with managing the risk taken on by banks than protecting customers, Hill said. 

Meanwhile, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created specifically to address this gap, has focused primarily on helping victims of financial fraud. 

“I’d be very surprised if sex workers’ access to bank accounts [even made it into] one of their top one hundred concerns,” Hill said, of these agencies.

There needs to be changes across the board, argued Spencer Watson, President of the LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research, which worked with the advocacy group SWOP Sacramento to publish the 2021 report on financial discrimination against sex workers. 

Watson said, “There needs to be a reevaluation of [how] we are using and defining financial crimes—to emphasize that we are not intending to harm vulnerable individuals.” He also argued for the need for a transparent appeals process for account closures. 

Most fundamentally, he said, “We need to treat transaction systems and banking as a critical, essential public service that everybody needs.” 

Change in the banking regulation system is urgent, he said, but such measures seem largely out of reach. Until then, sex workers will continue to be punished and the consequences are dire. 

For Ashley, she knows her options are dwindling. Losing her one remaining bank account is a constant worry. She fears that one day banks will start sharing consumer data with one another, and she and other sex workers will be blacklisted from the banking economy at large, she said.

“What happens then? Do I die?” 

* Ashley requested to be identified by her first name only.

About the author(s)

Hannah Cho is an M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School. She writes about labor, arts and culture, and displacement.