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How Mastercard's New Policy Violates Sex Workers' Rights

Mastercard symbol on a phone.
Everyone deserves access to financial services and everyone should be able to make a living – sex workers included.
Mastercard symbol on a phone.
LaLa B Holston-Zannell,
Trans Justice Campaign Manager
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October 15, 2021

Mastercard’s new policy regulating adult content sellers goes into effect today. This is bad news for many sex workers, whose safety and livelihoods depend on access to financial services and online platforms. The policy makes it harder for sex workers to do business online and makes sex workers more vulnerable, especially those who are trans women of color.

Today, @Mastercard instituted a new policy that makes it extremely hard for sex workers to make a living online.

This policy is an attack on free speech and harms sex workers.

We’re calling on Mastercard to stop this policy and protect sex workers’ rights.
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Here’s what to know about financial discrimination against sex workers, how we’re fighting back, and what Mastercard must do now – and in the longrun – to protect sex workers’ rights.


Sex workers already face many forms of financial and tech-based discrimination.

Many banks and companies single out sex workers by forcing them to pay higher fees and interest rates because they consider them “high-risk.” Public platforms like PayPal and Venmo, which should offer their services to all users without discrimination, continue to boot sex workers and other users off their platforms with little due process. Bans on certain online content can also get adult websites shut-down and cost sex workers their livelihoods.

These practices amount to financial discrimination, which stigmatizes sex work and endangers the safety of sex workers by pushing the industry deeper into the shadows.


What does Mastercard’s adult content policy do?

Mastercard developed a new policy for adult content websites using its credit card or payment options, imposing requirements such as pre-approval of all content before publication, forbidding certain search terms, and keeping records of age and identity verification for all performers. The stated intent of the policy is to prevent child sexual abuse material and other non-consensual content. But in practice, these requirements are difficult – if not impossible – to comply with.

To take one example, a site like OnlyFans has one million content creators. If each of them uploaded one video in a given day, under Mastercard’s policy, OnlyFans would have to review each video before it’s published to determine whether it complies. Pre-publication review at that scale is almost impossible, and would likely be rife with errors considering the speed at which online platforms operate. This policy will make it much harder for platforms to host adult content, which will destabilize the websites that sex workers use to make a living. Additionally, this policy is not targeted to address Mastercard’s stated concerns. The policy applies only to a small fraction of web sites – those that host adult content – but all available evidence indicates these problems proliferate across all kinds of websites.


Financial discrimination and sex work decriminalization is a civil liberties issue.

Everyone deserves access to financial services and everyone should be able to make a living and support themselves and their families. Financial discrimination and other laws and policies that criminalize or stigmatize sex work disproportionately harm the safety and wellbeing of Black trans women, contribute to mass incarceration and racist policing, chill our right to free speech and invade our privacy.

If Mastercard is a true supporter of LGBTQ rights, as it claims on its Pride page, it should immediately reverse this discriminatory policy.


Sex work is work.

Sex workers’ livelihoods shouldn’t depend on the whims of politicians and corporations. Using financial products and services like Mastercard and PayPal, and access to websites that use these payment processors, can make or break a sex worker’s ability to work and survive in our increasingly virtual society. Economic freedom, healthcare, and other basic rights are inaccessible when politicians and corporations don’t treat sex work like they would any other job.

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Criminalizing and marginalizing sex work does not make sex workers safer.

Laws that criminalize sex work make sex workers more vulnerable to abuse by clients, law enforcement, and others who target and harass sex workers or those perceived as sex workers, such as many trans women of color. Abusers know that sex workers often will not report out of fear of arrest. Similarly, not allowing sex workers full access to web platforms and financial services makes it harder for sex workers to survive.

Sex workers became even more vulnerable to abuse from clients after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in 2018. The law had the effect of eliminating many online platforms for sex workers, including client screening services like Redbook, which allowed sex workers to share information about abusive and dangerous customers and build communities to protect themselves. The law also pushed more sex workers offline and into the streets, where they have to work in isolated areas to avoid arrest, and deal with clients without background checks.


Sex worker reform advocates are making progress.

In June, the ACLU joined 22 other civil rights groups in demanding a stop to financial platforms’ practices that harm vulnerable communities by shutting people out without due process. After facing months of pressure from sex workers’ rights activists, the online platform OnlyFans suspended a planned policy to ban pornography, which would have gone into effect on October 1. These efforts prove that activism is working.


Financial services companies must ensure that sex workers have access to services.

Mastercard must end their policy unfairly targeting the adult content industry and ensure equitable access to financial services. In addition to reversing discriminatory policies, Mastercard must sit down with stakeholders to develop solutions that create stability and reduce harm for sex workers. We must discourage companies from passing similar policies or otherwise denying services to sex workers.


Are you a sex worker/adult content professional who has been affected by financial discrimination?

Let us know. Please email me at lzannell@aclu.org.