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The Unending Necessity of Crypto Payments for Sex Workers

Sex workers have always used Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as a safe, secure and private payment method. But can it keep them afloat in today's dangerous climate?

In 2014, 27-year-old Allie Eve Knox was a Texas cam performer selling used socks online. Though her main source of income came from a job in academia, sex work really helped out; at the time, she was using it to make a dent in her grad school debt.

Then PayPal found out she was a sex worker. Like many platforms, they’d updated their regulations to ban the buying and selling of “adult content” (see: anything sex-related). Sex toys, sexual services and, apparently, lightly used socks were on the no-fly list, and Knox, who’d received a sock payment large enough to tip them off, appeared to be in violation. As is now customary on most fiat payment platforms (those that use government-backed currencies like dollars), they kicked her off and kept her hard-earned cash.

Soon thereafter, Venmo closed her account for similar violations after a client tried to scam her. Then, a friend’s stalker reported her Cash App and Square information to those platforms to get her and a handful of other sex workers booted from the sites. Banned from most financial platforms for sex work-related transactions, she was forced to run her payments through her cam and clip sites, which took a whopping 40 to 50 percent bite out of her earnings. For a long time, she felt confused, defeated and exhausted, unsure of how to survive in sex work without access to digital banking.

But everything changed when a colleague showed her how to use Bitcoin. Though she’d heard about cryptocurrencies previously, she was surprised to learn that sex workers were using them for payments (they had been, in fact, since at least 2013). As she learned more about them, it started to make sense why: Not only are crypto transactions anonymous or pseudo-anonymous, they have no chargebacks, come with low fees and allow sex workers to accept international payments without exorbitant transfer charges.

For people like BitcoinStripper, an anonymous sex worker, this can be the difference between living in a safe environment or a dangerous one. “Imagine if a monthly or bimonthly $40 international remittance fee could be eliminated in a place where a decent apartment costs a few hundred dollars per month,” she says. “Cutting that unnecessary transaction overhead could allow a family to live in a better, safer neighborhood rather than giving it to Western Union. To me, that’s what progress looks like.”

The fact that crypto can appreciate significantly over time is another major plus. In Bitcoin’s earlier years, Knox used to get two BTC for an hour-long Skype session. With Bitcoin where it’s at today — roughly $52,000 per coin and a market value of over $1 trillion — that amount now equates to over $100,000 an hour.

This can have huge implications for sex workers, many of whom have been robbed of stable and secure income in a climate that’s become increasingly hostile to their trade. Almost all major fiat platforms, credit card companies and banks now ban sex workers and sex-related transactions, and most of these make new account applicants sign a document explicitly stating that none of their funds come from sex work. Additionally, the recent spate of right-wing and Christian-fundedanti-trafficking” legislation — which intentionally conflates consensual sex work with human trafficking — has made it all but impossible to advertise their services.

Pushed further underground by increasingly draconian bills like FOSTA/SESTA, it’s become difficult for many sex workers to find new clients, keep up with old ones and stay afloat (this is especially true for sex workers without massive social media followings or who can’t access the technology to grow them). Thus, having an income system that’s not only anonymous but growable has become necessary for some sex workers to survive — provided, of course, they’re trading the right coins.

For sex workers who live in places where their profession is decriminalized, these are convenient and flexible benefits that give them greater control over their finances and future. But for the many who live in places where sex work is heavily criminalized, crypto isn’t just convenience — it’s a lifeline. “Our lives depend on it,” says BitcoinStripper, explaining that the ability to make anonymous transactions can be a matter of life or death for many people in her line of work. Without crypto, sex workers have to risk it on fiat platforms which, in addition banning sex work, often have security holes that can be easily exploited to put sex workers in vulnerable positions.

“Fiat platforms are deadly security risks for sex workers, who can’t risk revealing their legal identity or other personally identifying information such as address to clients paying with the platform apps,” she explains. “People will kill sex workers for their money, [and] standard banking apps can get you killed with the metadata from a chargeback and a little social engineering. If a technology allows a bad actor to see all of your financial transactions, it can be deadly.”

As a result, many sex workers have had to get good at crypto. Like, really good. According to Leigh Cuen, a reporter who studies the intersection of sex work and crypto, few other groups are as savvy and literate when it comes to trading coin. “We operate differently because they have forced us to. This has put us ahead in crypto,” BitcoinStripper explains. “Sex workers don’t care about hype on coins. We want what works safely, quickly and with the least price fluctuation during transaction time. We want to be safe and preserve as much of our income as possible in an industry where everyone wants a cut. If Doge is moving wildly, it’s a risk to accept it. If the Bitcoin mempool is full and transactions are slow, we won’t use it because we need funds up front quickly before we perform our services. That’s how we choose a crypto — not because of media hype or trends.”

Likewise, BitcoinStripper says many sex workers opt for “shielded” anonymous transactions with Zcash or Monero. These allow traders to conceal all transaction details except their wallet address, making them truly anonymous and significantly more safe. Meanwhile, most other coins like Bitcoin, Ethereum and Doge are “transparent,” meaning that anyone can see a trader’s transactions, where they went and how much they were for. For many sex workers, knowing the difference between the two can be the difference between a safe, private transaction and one that could put them at significant risk.

But while some sex workers have ridden the recent wave of crypto to soaring heights, not all of them benefit from crypto in the same way. In order to play, you need a smartphone or a computer, and a small amount of money you’re okay losing if the trade doesn’t go your way. As is the case with the stock market, the value of any given coin might depreciate rapidly, making it an unreliable source of income. Thus, BitcoinStripper says the sex workers who usually benefit from crypto either work online or are in-person providers who have savings, their own phones and are able to make their own financial decisions; none of which are possible in countries that restrict women’s financial power or ban crypto altogether.

That said, BitcoinStripper says there’s not always an association between the strength of crypto markets, client volume and how much money sex workers can make. There are too many outside factors that impact a client’s decision to pay — the general economy; COVID unemployment; what season it is — to make sweeping generalizations about trends. Besides, even when markets are popping, there can be such a steep learning curve to crypto that it’s hard to get new adopters to sign on. Even though it’s getting easier for newbies to pick up every year, Knox says she only has a handful of high-paying crypto clients, and so far, she’s only been able to convince one fiat payer to make the switch. “Most of my members find it confusing and hard to use, and they avoid it,” she says. “The client base is pretty fucking small.” Because of this, she says she’d “never use crypto if she didn’t have to.”

The fact that many (though not all) clients are inebriated or debilitatingly horny (or both) at the point of purchase doesn’t help. “You can’t teach a drunk or high man to use a crypto app,” says BitcoinStripper. “If they already have crypto in a wallet, you’ll be lucky if they can use the app they already know correctly. This goes for regular banking apps, too. Drunk men can barely handle entering your email or account name, let alone learn a new financial skill when their upper brain is mostly turned off at the point of payment.”

In other words, thriving crypto markets don’t necessarily equal more crypto-savvy sex work clients. Per Cuen, it’s just that sex workers who do receive crypto payments might make more money in the long term as their coins appreciate. As Knox clarifies, the higher price of coins simply helps clients justify parting with some in exchange for a little fun.

Of course, sex workers also might make less money, too, which can be especially unnerving for those who need it to survive. Like the stock market, crypto fluctuates — sometimes wildly — which makes it a somewhat inconsistent form of income (this is also the reason why many sex workers who accept crypto also accept fiat). “You could be paid $100, and then in 10 minutes when you go to withdraw, it’s worth less,” says Knox. “Could be worth more, but that’s just the game you play.”

But while sex workers have always been a part the crypto community and have, in some cases, directly affected markets, they’re not always well-received by other traders, especially male ones on platforms like Reddit. In Knox’s experience, certain crypto spaces have been “filled with misogyny” and SWERF-like sentiments, with legions of trollish Bitcoin thousandaires ready to pounce on anyone who outs themselves as a sex worker.

This came to a head in 2018 when incels and men’s rights activists teamed up to block sex workers from making or spending money on platforms like PayPal, Venmo and CirclePay. Calling their combined troll-force the “ThotAudit,” they specifically targeted women, reporting their activity to the platforms and the IRS under the baseless accusation of “tax evasion.” Many sex workers like porn performer Lily Adams lost a considerable amount of cash because of it (which in the case of porn performers and digital sex workers, was legally earned), and many more were doxxed and harassed simply for being female sex workers using fiat currency.

Yet when sex workers made the switch to crypto, many discovered that the climate wasn’t much better. “The space is full of loud-mouth anarchists who pride themselves on existing,” Knox says. “I mean, it’s a bunch of dudes who have made some pretty quick, painless money. They have now gotten some power. They’d rather die than actually pay for sex because they now think they’re deserving. The concept of women, specifically the whores, having their own money and freedom? That doesn’t sit well with incels.” (That hasn’t been everyone’s experience, though; BitcoinStripper says the crypto community has been very welcoming, especially on Twitter).

But nevermind the potential for crypto-community weirdness — as always, sex workers are forging their own technologies to adapt and overcome. SpankPay, a crypto payment app specific to sex workers and the adult industry, allows people to send and receive payments for almost everything sex-related, and while it’s not anonymous, the risk of being deplatformed is, at least, very close to zilch. Several porn sites like Pornhub also take forms of crypto as well. “If the crypto community wants to grow and prosper, they’re going to have to allow everyone to play,” says Knox.

Not that you’d necessarily know if that happened. Because only alphabet agencies and extraordinarily dedicated and sophisticated hackers can see the data contained in pseudo-anonymous transactions, most of us will never really now how big of an impact sex workers have on the market. “That’s the beauty of crypto,” BitcoinStripper says. “This is how it should be.”