Can Sex Workers Transition To A Cashless Economy?
When he decided to embark on a mission to spend two months without touching cash, Slate writer Seth Stevenson discovered that one of his biggest challenges involved strippers. Without dollar bills, how was he going to tip them? While the rest of the world knew strip clubs take plastic, the Dance Dollars at Flashdancers—a way to pay for lapdances with a credit card—were news to him, as was the use of Square by a few escorts he met while traveling.
Today, cash is no longer a necessity for obtaining goods or services. It’s possible to pay for everything from groceries to plane tickets with a credit card, a smartphone terminal like Square, or an app that transfers payment when you wave your phone at a register. But for sex workers, adapting to the new payment methods isn’t easy.
Strip clubs have been at the forefront of the cashless movement. Accepting credit cards is a huge part of how they operate and nearly all accept cards for drink tabs, cover charges, and lapdances. Even some individual dancers use apps like Square.
For independent sex workers, it’s a bit trickier than just downloading an app onto their smartphones. They face numerous challenges when accepting cashless payments: Making sure their account won’t be closed for violating the processor’s terms of service, protecting their privacy and avoiding chargebacks. A brick-and-mortar business like a strip club provides this infrastructure, so usually it’s not something strippers have to concern themselves with—and, after all, they at least have the advantage of a legal occupation.
Independent escorts don’t have that or the infrastructure of a club as a backup, and while each independent escort is essentially his or her own business, opening a business account could leave personal information easily accessible to customers. Leah, a traveling escort who needs to accept deposits for travel engagements, experimented with everything from Western Union transfers (the dispatchers would reveal her real name) to having a customer open a corporation for her (he closed it down when she didn’t fall in love with him). Only one non-cash option has worked to her satisfaction. “I have one patron who does give me pre-paid Visa cards since it’s easier for him to hide the transaction from his wife that way,” Leah said.
She is sticking with cash for the most part. “Just last week I had to explain to a new patron that I can’t just give him an account number so he can make a transfer from overseas,” she said. “I regularly receive envelopes with anywhere from $750-$5000 in cash inside. It’s actually not allowed by either FedEx or UPS, and possibly illegal for all I know. Until my work is decriminalized, I’m forced to go to these inconvenient lengths in order to accept deposits and pre-payments.”
While making fetish videos, performing on webcam, or being a phone sex operator are legal jobs, they aren’t the types of businesses to which most banks will grant merchant accounts. High incidences of customer chargebacks—whether they stem from buyer’s remorse, deliberately obtuse recurring billing agreements, or actual fraud—mean that all adult services accounts carry a “high risk” designation, so they either pay a premium for processing or don’t get serviced at all. Providers are left with the option of violating a service’s TOS and hoping they don’t get caught, or using a third-party processor or clearinghouse site.
GcupBitch, an online financial dominatrix, says there are not a lot of options if a customer wants to pay her directly. “Getting paid for my time presents a minor challenge every time I’m approached by a new customer, and sometimes even with returning customers. They want to maintain their privacy; I want to maintain mine,” she says. Customers would be hesitant to use a direct billing service even if she offered it. “Most customers don’t want me to see their personal info, and by using a merchant account, I would have access to all their billing details. There is also the issue of giving customers access to my company info via merchant account transactions, and I’m not exactly comfortable with that either.”
So for most of her transactions she works through marketplace sites like NiteFlirt and MyPhoneSite which attract a high volume of traffic, connect customers with her, handle per-minute billing, and take around 30% of her sales for doing so. That cut is close to what a stripper would pay out to a club, and in a similar manner, she’s paying for the infrastructure.
“Even if we were all marketing geniuses and didn’t need the traffic from marketplace sites, we would all still have to pay something for payment processing, and because online adult carries such a high risk for chargebacks, we have to eat that cost somehow,” she said.
For Tonya Jone Miller, a phone sex operator who runs the Bay City Blues phone site, that cost is the 20% she pays to her third-party payment processor. She had trouble keeping an adult services merchant account because of the language on her site. Ironically, the problem wasn’t with what her site said her operators would talk about during calls. When her site was reviewed, she received a strongly worded letter from the bank telling her to remove language referring to what operators wouldn’t talk about. “The only thing that we had to completely remove from the site were the girls’ limits. I wasn’t allowed to put that on the page, because most limits are going to be the most taboo things, rape or snuff or scat, you know?” Miller said. She could also lose her account for seemingly innocuous asides on her personal blog. “I couldn’t say ‘I am exhausted. Now I’m going to crawl into bed and go to sleep,’” she said, “because [since] a sleeping person can’t consent, I’m talking about rape.”
Miller frames it partly as a matter of free speech, insofar as being told what words she can and can’t use hampers her ability to make a living. If spending money is free speech, like the Supreme court said it is, surely the ability to make it saying what you like is, too? “I don’t have a business if I can’t take credit cards. And if you tell me I can’t take credit cards, you are telling me that I can’t say these things. You tie my hands. What am I supposed to do, you know?”
So while being able to take credit cards as an individual becomes easier and easier, it remains difficult for the one industry that usually takes the lead with new technologies. “If I want the system that I want, I have to build it myself,” Miller said. “It’s very difficult because all the technology is there it all looks good and everybody can use it except for adult.” The traditional early adopters find themselves, for now, still looking for a way to transition to a cashless economy.