Sex discrimination: why banks shun workers in adult entertainment

Businesses and individuals have been frozen out of accounts with little explanation despite acting perfectly lawfully

Sex sells. But finding a bank willing to take the money is a little more complicated. That is the hard lesson learned by people such as Genevieve LeJeune, the founder of Skirt Club, which runs a 16,000-strong community for bisexual and bi-curious women and hosts events – including sex parties – around the world.

LeJeune says she had been a premier customer with HSBC her entire life and did not bother to shop around when she opened her business account in 2013. She said she told the bank that she ran a community for the “B” in LGBTQ+ and was not chased for any further information. “I didn’t think for one minute they would have an issue with what the business was about. And why would they be concerned, as long as I’m cashflow positive and I do all the right things, and it’s completely legal?”

All of a sudden, in 2019, her business accounts were shut and the funds frozen. She has spent more than four years battling HSBC for access to more than £20,000 trapped in those accounts. She was never offered an explanation, and only regained control of the cash this spring after complaining to the Financial Ombudsman Service. Her suspicion was that the bank did not want to be associated with her business as Skirt Club’s signature “play parties” gained more press coverage.

HSBC says it does not have a blanket ban on sex-related business customers, but considers each client on a “case by case” basis.

So LeJeune was not surprised when she heard 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 later secured an agreement allowing sex workers to continue posting photos and videos, others in the industry have not been so lucky.

Tess Herrmann, a researcher at the UK charity National Ugly Mugs (NUM), which provides support to sex workers, is investigating access to financial services across the adult industry, which covers stripping, pornography, escort and dominatrix work, and “full sexual service”, more commonly referred to as prostitution.

“We see a lot of discrimination, specifically from banks and financial institutions, where sex workers are not able to open business accounts even though their escort business is a business, but it’s not seen as such,” she says. She has also heard of both personal and business accounts being shut down, money being seized, and sex workers being refused loans and overdrafts. “The stigma surrounding sex work affects every part of a sex worker’s life, which includes their financial life, their financial decisions and their access to financial services,” Herrmann says.

Full-service sex work is legal in the UK. Banking the proceeds of sex work is not a criminal offence, 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 kerb crawling, are unlawful.

There are no specific regulators for sex workers, or for the pornography and adult entertainment industries. This means there are no officials to certify that work is being done within the rules, which in turn makes it harder for private companies such as banks to assess potential customers.

The potential risks are high: they could include exposure to child abuse images, trafficking, organised crime, modern slavery, or money laundering. Extra checks can be expensive and more difficult to justify for some lenders, forcing some banks to introduce full bans on sex workers. Even the Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates banking, does not have policies outlining how to serve the adult entertainment industry, while industry body UK Finance does not provide any guidance for its members on the issue, saying that each bank will take a view depending on their commercial and risk appetite.

But Natasha Mulvihill, a senior lecturer in criminology at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol, says that while banks might have valid concerns about the risks, handing oversight on such a contentious topic to the private sector can be problematic. “Are private sector companies the best arbiters of morality? Their judgments are always going to be based ultimately on profit.”

While high street banks may seem more risk-averse, upstart fintechs are also cautious about the industry.

Following its troubles with HSBC, Skirt Club turned to Revolut, but after only a year it issued a 30-day notice for LeJeune to collect her cash before shutting her account without explanation. Revolut declined to comment, but its policy states that it does not accept adult entertainment or pornography businesses as customers. It is not clear whether there was a mistake in the company’s processing of Skirt Club’s customer details. LeJeune now banks with Chester-based CardOneMoney, a lender that offers accounts to higher-risk customers for a fee.

Sarah Kocianski, a fintech expert and head of strategic insights at startup funder Founders Factory, says that companies like Revolut, Monzo and Starling, which have yet to turn an annual profit, may be hesitant to take on riskier clients such as sex workers – or even CBD and cannabis-related companies – that require more work and cost to monitor. “While they do want to help underserved communities, they are not in a position to,” she says. “I don’t think any of them want to accidentally step out of line.”

The challenge is where that leaves sex-related businesses, or more vulnerable independent sex workers who face further risks by not having access to banking. Aside from the constant fear about having an account shut, it can also affect their ability to collect benefits, prove income when renting a home, and even pay the right taxes. Business accounts also add an extra level of security for sex workers who don’t want to share their real name with clients, which can be quite dangerous, Herrmann says.

This year, 30-year-old escort Charlotte Edwards made headlines when she started a campaign to guarantee sex workers fair access to banking, after she was denied a Covid loan from a scheme intended for small businesses. The bank in question, Santander, changed its mind after interventions from the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking.

Edwards is now considering suing Santander for indirect discrimination. She believes banks are “discriminating against an already marginalised group who make a precarious living”.

“By making sex workers poorer with less access to resources such as banking services and business platforms, they are actually contributing to people – especially women – staying within sex work but with far less protection and putting them at risk,” she says.

Santander does not serve businesses in sectors such as the adult entertainment industry, a policy it says is meant to “protect some of the most vulnerable citizens from risk of abuse, including human trafficking”. However, that policy can be challenged. “Departures from the policy are assessed on a case-by-case basis and can be approved when the bank is comfortable that such a departure would not pose harm to a prospective customer,” a spokesperson says.

Excluding sex workers from the financial sector could also push them towards the informal economy. “If sex workers move to cryptocurrencies and other ways of being paid, like gift cards, it is not helpful for proving their income, and it could be higher risk for them,” Mulvihill says. Skirt Club is already considering turning to bitcoin to keep running. “Banks are not on my side, they’re not here to help my business,” says LeJeune. “Why would I stick with a high street bank any more?”

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