This weekend, a Twitterstorm erupted when payment processor WePay shut down a medical fundraiser for porn performer Eden Alexander. Alexander found herself in an unforgiving position after the complications she experienced from an allergic reaction to a prescription drug were misdiagnosed when a doctor assumed that since she was in the sex industry, her symptoms were those of drug use. The delay of proper care meant her condition worsened, and she couldn’t work. Like other self-employed Americans, Alexander doesn’t have sick days, and friends who were helping care for her set up a fundraising page on GiveForward to raise money for her.
GiveForward is a WePay-powered site where people can set up medical fundraisers. WePay came across tweets from Alexander’s friends offering adult materials in exchange for donations to Alexander’s fundraiser (yes, a payment processor was monitoring a user’s social media). They decided that this qualified as accepting payments for prohibited pornographic materials and shut down the fundraiser. Kitty Stryker, one of Alexander’s friends who set up the initial fundraiser, wrote about it here.
And then they experienced the wrath of Sex Worker Twitter and that of some allies with large follower bases. Coverage of the incident showed up on Gawker and The Rumpus, in blog posts by feminists and sociologists. Thanks to Molly Crabapple’s strong influence across Geek Twitter, Patton Oswalt tweeted about it. By Saturday afternoon, WePay had issued an official statement about the Alexander fundraiser, giving as their reason the offering of adult materials as rewards, and offering to help her restart her campaign. They did not mention if they would shut it down again if, say, a friend of Alexander’s, maybe another adult performer, offered a video or a photograph to someone who donated. This is something out of the control of a person who starts a fundraiser, although the founder of WePay said just the fact that Alexander retweeted those unasked-for incentives implicated her in a hypothetical exchange of funds for porn.
WePay is acting in their own best corporate interests. Credit card companies do everything they can to minimize risk, and they are likely well within rights to be concerned that even appearing to allow the exchange of porn for money could do some damage to their business. While they didn’t handle this that well, they didn’t do anything different from what PayPal or Amazon or Square would do. They just happened to really strike a nerve because they targeted a fundraising campaign (that was obviously not an attempt to sell pornography) for a sex worker who has a far reach on Twitter (As Melissa Gira Grant tweeted, “Public outcry supporting sex workers is rare.”) But they’re just trying not to get punished, themselves, by the institutions that hold their merchant accounts.
Alexander’s friends started another fundraiser on Crowdtilt, and one of its founders donated to the campaign and stated his support. Stryker told us that Crowdtilt reached out to her to start the new fundraiser. “The CEOs of both Crowdtilt and Balanced Payments spoke in support of this fundraiser and also donated,” she said. She also mentioned that GiveForward made a donation to the new fundraiser in the amount of the fees they’d collected before that campaign was cancelled. “We live in a capitalist society, as much as we might push against that,” Stryker said. “We’re the market forces. I’m delighted at how we’ve been able to help Eden, but also at the statement to payment companies and banks—sex workers are humans, and other people give a fuck about us.”
But there still remains no decent payment processing or fundraising solution available for sex workers as businesses or as individuals. This is a problem WePay or Crowdtilt can’t fix; it’s banks like Chase, credit card companies like Visa—that’s the level where what is a “high risk” account is determined. WePay is the company that had to deal with public outcry, but the source of their conservative actions is a fear of these much larger, much more powerful institutions. They can’t do business without them, and sex workers know firsthand what an obstacle it is when you can’t get paid.