POLITICS
05/28/2018 05:45 am ET Updated May 29, 2018

First Congress Took Sex Workers’ Websites. Now It's Coming For Their Bank Accounts.

Lawmakers' latest attempt to fight human trafficking could end up hurting voluntary sex workers.

A new law that shuttered websites used by voluntary sex workers to screen clients has already forced some to risk their lives by returning to the streets to find business.

But the broad bipartisan alliance that passed that legislation last month isn’t done. Now, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who both voted for the first bill, are pushing a proposal in the Senate that would impose similar restrictions on sex workers’ bank accounts — a move that sex workers say could further endanger their income, safety and lives.

Just like last month’s Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, Warren and Rubio’s End Banking for Human Traffickers Act is intended to crack down on human trafficking. The bill, which passed the House in overwhelming fashion last month, would increase pressure on banks to shut down the accounts of anyone suspected of engaging in trafficking. Besides Warren, five other Senate Democrats are co-sponsoring the bill; a Senate vote is not yet scheduled.

Human trafficking generates $150 billion a year in illegal profits,” a representative for Warren told HuffPost. “Our bill would connect federal regulators, law enforcement, and the banking industry to help strengthen existing anti-money-laundering efforts that combat traffickers — Congress should pass it.”

The bill doesn’t put the same restrictions on the banking industry that last month’s bill applied to websites. But by increasing the federal government’s focus on sex trafficking ― including by adding the Secretary of the Treasury to an existing task force on the subject ― it could, some sex workers fear, cause already jittery financial institutions to crack down harder on a vulnerable population’s access to financial services.

Given the frequency with which sex trafficking and voluntary, consensual sex work are conflated, sex workers including webcam performers, adult film actors and business owners, strippers and escorts fear these efforts will hit them too.

“What a lot of organizers are worried about is how these broad anti-trafficking initiatives are often applied in a targeted manner that hurts more vulnerable people rather than helps them,” Liara Roux, a sex worker and producer of independent adult media, told HuffPost. “If this bill is passed in a climate where sex work is so stigmatized that no distinction is made between a trafficked individual and someone who is just trying to survive, you’re just as likely to see vulnerable people’s bank accounts closed as actual traffickers caught.”

One sex worker told HuffPost that Bank of America closed her account for "suspicious activity" — specifically her line
HECTOR RETAMAL via Getty Images
One sex worker told HuffPost that Bank of America closed her account for "suspicious activity" — specifically her line of work.

Sex workers already have trouble finding financial institutions that will accept their money. Banks are often reluctant to discuss their decisions to close accounts and aren’t legally required to explain them. In 2014, JPMorgan Chase closed the bank accounts of several adult film actors without telling them why. And between 2013 and 2017, some sex workers also got caught up in Operation Choke Point — a 2013 initiative by President Barack Obama to discourage banks from working with payday lenders and gun retailers. As part of the initiative, which the Trump administration scrapped last August, industries like pornography and dating services were listed as “high risk” — a designation that pushed banks to shut down accounts tied to those industries.

Roux said her bank stonewalled her just a couple years ago, despite her good standing. “It just doesn’t matter how well-behaved you are to a banking institution when they consider your account a risk,” she said.

But Warren and Rubio’s bill will cause banks to shut down voluntary sex workers’ accounts more frequently and indiscriminately, sex workers worry. The new banking bill could help push voluntary sex work further underground, warned Lola Davina, a former sex worker who is now a writer and activist.

“A criminal enterprise hardened enough to traffic sex will have no compunction driving their business practices even further underground, moving money and advertising to the dark web, while leaving voluntary workers with no legal protections to conduct their affairs,” she said.

A representative for Warren declined to comment when asked directly about the effects the banking proposal would have on voluntary sex workers. Rubio did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s hard to see the benefit of updating labor and trafficking-related policy without consulting with the affected members of those industries and communities, said Victoria Bateman, professor of economics at Cambridge University.

“If the regulation of any other sector of the economy was under the lens in an effort to improve the lives of those involved, wouldn’t workers be the first to be consulted?” Bateman said by email. “And, if we were trying to tackle human trafficking in any other sector of the economy (e.g. in agriculture or home help), would we really enact measures that threatened the lives of those who voluntarily work in agriculture or as cleaners in other people’s homes — and without speaking to them first?”

Despite potentially drastic consequences, the banking bill has inspired far less public opposition than did last month’s bill on online platforms.

That’s partly because the legislation that affected Craigslist and Backpage drew opposition from sex workers and internet freedom activists alike. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation ran several campaigns opposing it. Given that this new legislation isn’t related to online free speech, it’s less alarming for people outside of the sex work community.

This time around, sex workers are using Twitter to warn each other about which banks they should avoid.

Even without the bill becoming law, some banks continue to make it hard for sex workers to access their money. One sex worker, Bianca Baker, told HuffPost that her account with Bank of America was shut down earlier this month. When she tried to use her debit card for a purchase, it was declined despite the thousands of dollars she had in her account. After several phone calls and in-person visits to her bank, she was told that her account was shut down for “suspicious activity” and, eventually, that it was because she was a sex worker.

“I had 13,000 dollars frozen for 48 hours,” Baker, who’s married and has a child, told HuffPost via chat. “It was so stressful. I love my job; I work so hard to provide for my family and this is what I get.”

Bank of America declined to comment.

“This should not have happened to me,” Baker added. With the help of a sex worker-friendly lawyer, she was eventually able to recover her money. She even found a sex worker-friendly bank. But if Rubio and Warren’s bill passes, she worries, she might have to take her money out of the banking system entirely.

“Do not be afraid to get a lawyer and ask for legal advice,” she warns her colleagues. “I encourage all sex workers to stay safe. It’s very scary right now.”

This article has been updated to highlight that the bill wouldn’t put the same restrictions on the banking industry that FOSTA applied to online platforms. However, sex workers have expressed fear that it may pressure financial institutions to limit access for them.

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