Sex sells. But finding a bank ready to take the money is a little more complicated. That’s the hard lesson learned by people like Geneviève LeJeune, the founder of Skirt Club, which runs a community of 16,000 bisexual and bi-curious women and hosts events – including sex parties – around the world.
LeJeune says she has been a top customer at HSBC her entire life and didn’t bother to shop when she opened her business account in 2013. She said she told the bank she ran a community for the “B” in LGBTQ + and sought out any further information. “I didn’t think for a single minute that they would have a problem with the raison d’être of the company. And why would they be worried, as long as my cash flow is positive and I’m doing whatever it takes, and it’s completely legal? “
Suddenly, in 2019, his professional accounts were closed and the funds frozen. She has spent over four years fighting HSBC for access to over £ 20,000 trapped in those accounts. She was never given an explanation and only regained control of the money this spring after complaining to the Financial Ombudsman Service. His suspicion was that the bank did not want to be associated with his business, as the iconic Skirt Club “game games” were getting more media coverage.
HSBC says there is no blanket ban on sex-related business customers, but considers each customer on a case-by-case basis.
So LeJeune was not surprised to learn that OnlyFans, the online subscription platform known for hosting adult content, blamed banks for its decision to ban pornography from its site last month. While OnlyFans subsequently secured a deal allowing sex workers to continue posting photos and videos, others in the industry were not so lucky.
Tess Herrmann, a researcher at the UK charity National Ugly Mugs (NUM), which provides support to sex workers, studies access to financial services in the adult industry, which covers striptease, pornography, escort and dominatrix work; and “full sex service”, more commonly known as prostitution.
“We see a lot of discrimination, especially from banks and financial institutions, where sex workers are not able to open professional accounts even though their company escorts is a business, but it’s not seen as such, ”she says. She has also heard of the closing of personal and work accounts, seizures of money and denial of loans and overdrafts to sex workers. “The stigma surrounding sex work affects every aspect of a sex worker’s life, which includes her financial life, her financial decisions and her access to financial services,” says Herrmann.
Full service sex work is legal in the UK. Banking the proceeds of sex work is not a criminal offense and does not constitute money laundering under UK law. However, the parameters are narrow, given that many related activities, such as soliciting in a public place, operating brothels, pimping and paving the way, are illegal.
There are no specific regulators for sex workers, or for the pornography and adult entertainment industries. This means that there are no officials to certify that the work is being done within the rules, making it more difficult for private companies such as banks to assess potential clients.
The potential risks are high: they could include exposure to images of child abuse, trafficking, organized crime, modern slavery or money laundering. The additional checks can be costly and more difficult to justify for some lenders, forcing some banks to ban sex workers altogether. Even the Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates banking operations, does not have a policy outlining how to serve the adult entertainment industry, while industry body UK Finance does not provide guidance to its members on the matter, claiming that each bank will take a position according to their commercial and risk appetite.
But Natasha Mulvihill, senior lecturer in criminology at the Center for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol, says that while banks may have valid concerns about risk, turning oversight of such a controversial subject over to the private sector may be problematic. “Are private sector companies the best arbiters of morality? Their judgments will always be ultimately based on profit. ”
While the big banks may seem more risk averse, emerging fintechs are also cautious of the industry.
Following his problems with HSBC, Skirt Club turned to Revolut, but after only a year he issued a 30-day notice for LeJeune to get his money back before closing his account without explanation. Revolut declined to comment, but its policy says it does not accept adult entertainment or pornography companies as customers. It is not clear whether there was an error in the company’s handling of Skirt Club customer details. LeJeune now does his banking with Chester-based CardOneMoney, a lender that offers accounts to high-risk clients for a fee.
Sarah Kocianski, FinTech expert and head of strategic information at Founders Factory, founder of the startup, says companies like Revolut, Monzo and Starling, which have yet to make annual profits, may be reluctant to commit to riskier clients such as sex workers – or even CBD and cannabis related businesses – who require more labor and costs to watch out for. “Although they want to help underserved communities, they are unable to do so,” she said. “I don’t think any of them accidentally want to break the line.”
The challenge is where does this leave more vulnerable sex-related businesses or freelance sex workers who face additional risks by not having access to banking services. Besides the constant fear of closing an account, it can also affect their ability to collect benefits, prove income when renting a house, and even pay the right taxes. Business accounts also add an extra layer of security for sex workers who don’t want to share their real names with clients, which can be quite dangerous, Herrmann says.
This year, Charlotte Edwards, a 30-year-old escort, made headlines when she launched a campaign to guarantee sex workers fair access to banking services, after being denied a Covid loan under a program for small businesses. The bank in question, Santander, changed its mind after interventions by the all-party parliamentary group on fair commercial banking.
Edwards is now considering suing Santander for indirect discrimination. She thinks the banks “discriminate against an already marginalized group that makes a precarious living.”
“By impoverishing sex workers with less access to resources such as banking services and trading platforms, they actually help people – especially women – stay in sex work but with much less money. protection and endanger them, ”she said.
Santander does not serve companies in sectors such as the adult entertainment industry, a policy which it says aims to “protect some of the most vulnerable citizens from the risks of abuse, including human trafficking. “. However, this policy can be challenged. “Deviations from the policy are assessed on a case-by-case basis and can be approved when the bank is satisfied that such a deviation would not cause harm to a potential customer,” said a spokesperson.
Excluding sex workers from the financial sector could also push them into the informal economy. “If sex workers switch to cryptocurrencies and other means of getting paid, like gift cards, it is not useful to prove their income, and it could be riskier for them,” says Mulvihill. The Skirt Club is already considering turning to bitcoin to continue operating. “The banks are not on my side, they are not there to help my business,” says LeJeune. “Why would I still stay in a bank on the main street?” “