Adult sites aren’t taking models’ money, banks are 

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On March 3rd, International Sex Workers’ Right Day, Scott Stedman and Aaron Parnas published a hit piece on Forensic News lobbying accusations of fraud, theft, and money laundering at several adult sites. 

Sex workers say Stedman is rehashing old, baseless accusations for attention. Others, like adult site operator, findom, and Web Developer Ryan Olson say it’s the banks, not the adult sites, which are responsible for sex workers losing access to their funds.

“I work with IPSPs,” Olson said on a video posted to Twitter, where he goes by The Real Gay Redneck. “I work with two sites that do payment processing in the adult industry. From 12 years of experience processing over $1 million a year, it’s not OnlyFans. It’s your bank.” 

Sex workers certainly have their gripes with adult sites. Models have complained about platforms like OnlyFans arbitrarily deleting their accounts, offering unhelpful customer support, and keeping their earnings. 

But accusations that adult sites are particularly rife with fraud, theft, and money laundering seem to be entirely without merit. 

Besides anonymous reports from creators, the only evidence Stedman and Parnas can point to are Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs). Like reports of CSAM or sex trafficking, anyone can file a report without any proof or evidence.

Banks have claimed that certain adult sites “may be operating in areas where underage children, and other vulnerable individuals might be forced to provide services.” Yet not only did no bank report a single instance of underage activity, their only evidence was the fact that MyFreeCams serves users in “high-risk” areas such as Colombia, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Lithuania, the Philippines, and Russia. Since banks are legally required to report suspicious activity to the DOJ, and considering suspicious activity is broad enough to include doing business in Ukraine, it’s no surprise there are so many SARs. 

In fact, all evidence points to all of these “suspicious” transactions being from adult platforms to content creators abroad. 

 (I highly recommend Samantha Cole’s reporting in VICE on the topic: OnlyFans 'Suspicious Activity Reports' Mostly Show that Banks Hate Sex Work)

Besides a highly redacted SAR which claims certain adult sites “are alleged to have not paid their models for their services, employed" "underage models, among other claims” Stedman and Parnas present no other evidence any named site employs underage models, engages in money laundering, or defrauds users. 

Olson thinks these kinds of criticisms of adult sites miss the bigger picture.

Olson runs a gay fetish website with 50,000 active monthly users. He also deals with law enforcement, payment processors, banks, and IPSPs in his day job. 

Every month, Olson says he gets a new list of more than 1,000 words he can’t use or allude to without risking his Internet Payment Service Providers (IPSPs) dropping him.

(For more on banks censoring adult sites: Why you can't flash yo titties on Zoom.)

Some banned words vary based on location and payment processor. For example, banks and IPSPs based in North America won’t work with sites that feature person-to-person watersports but banks in Europe will. 

The list changes every month. For example, one adult site took down a video involving a cucumber. The previous month that had been allowed. The site didn’t want to take the video down. The payment processors forced the site’s hand by threatening to rescind access to payment processing for every model. 

“Sites aren’t being transparent,” Olson said. “IPSPs aren’t being consistent. Card companies aren’t being honest.” In the public’s eyes, the site is always to blame when anything goes wrong. “Under their terms they have to take that responsibility.”

Another interesting twist is that Olson says the problem of sites keeping payouts is restricted to the US because it’s illegal in Canada, where he resides, and in Europe. Every US platform can and does delete creator accounts without warning or recourse. But there’s no evidence adult sites are more likely to boot a creator and keep their earnings than Patreon, for example. It’s less a difference between adult and not-adult and more “the difference between capitalism and socialism,” Olson said. 

Ultimately, says Olson, the problem with adult sites isn’t the sites themselves. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s not even law enforcement. It’s the payment processors, who are at the mercy of the banks, who he says are at the mercy of public opinion. “Would you want everyone to know you process payments for Two Girls, One Cup?” Olson asked me. Banks are reasonably afraid of PR problems stirred up by competitors, conservative organizations, or other agitators. 

This PR risk may help explain why banks and payment processors disproportionately scrutinize adult sites while all evidence suggests Facebook hosts many times more underage sexual content than any legal adult site. VICE reported that the Internet Watch Foundation found 118 instances of child sexual abuse material on Pornhub in the last three years. In the same period, Facebook's own transparency report found 84 million instances of child sexual abuse material.

When it comes to money laundering, there’s no reason to focus on legal porn when fine art is a far more popular and well-established way to move large sums of money around. We also shouldn’t forget that the majority of money laundering is associated with victimless crimes and the DOJ only enforces money laundering laws against disfavored companies while letting big banks like HSBC launder billions for terrorist groups

Stedman is “a clout-chaser trying to profit off of spreading panic,” Adult Model Ashley Tea said. “It's one individual running a Patreon, selling ‘merch’ and repeating a story from August 2020.” Indeed, there’s not much to be found in the latest post that isn’t also in the earlier post

The big difference is that the national conversation has shifted against adult platforms in the wake of New York Times columnist Nikolas Kristof’s damning condemnation of Pornhub. While Kristof conceded that there’s far more problematic material on Facebook than Pornhub, he also used Evangelical, anti-porn organizations like Exodus Cry and NCOSE (formerly Morality in Media) as sources for his reporting. 

When it comes to fraud, theft, and money laundering, all evidence points to banks and payment processors being bigger offenders than adult sites. And when it comes to adult sites’ failings, it looks like a more worker-friendly regulatory environment along with less arbitrary, uncertain censorship on behalf of banks and payment processors would go a long way towards making adult sites more worker and user-friendly.