"Most Downloaded Woman" (ft. Danni Ashe) by Faith Holland

“Most Downloaded Woman” (ft. Danni Ashe)
Art used with permission of Faith Holland*

Over the course of the past few weeks, two major US corporations—Chase Bank and Amazon—have each undertaken campaigns apparently aimed at expelling sex workers from the financial system, despite the fact that this work is completely legal and the compensation is above board.

Social media has be buzzing with reports from porn performers of vaguely worded letters from Chase stating “we recently reviewed your account and determined that we will be closing it.” At the Cybogology-sponsored Theorizing the Web conference, porn performer Stoya described her experience: “I’ve personally had issues with Chase, which is why I was giggling, because they shut down my business account but then didn’t understand why I wanted to close my personal account.” While Chase and other financial institutions (e.g., Paypal, Square, WePay, City National Bank, and J.P. Morgan) have long engaged in ad hoc discrimination against sex workers, Chase’s recent actions are unprecedented in that they appear to indicate a systematic effort to uncover and blacklist anyone involved in sex work.

Similarly, Amazon appears to have initiated a systematic purge of wish lists posted by sex workers. Wish lists allow fans to send gifts to performers (sometimes clothing or sex toys to be used in future shows/shoots and sometimes just everyday items that performers need) without performers having to divulge their home address. As with the financial services companies, Amazon has a history of ad hoc discrimination. For example, late last year, porn performer Emma Ink posted to Tumblr an email she received from Amazon, stating that

Amazon Wish Lists are intended as a shopping tool for personal use or for gifting between friends and family members. We don’t condone the usage of Wish Lists for inappropriate purposes of with inappropriate content and for this reason we’ve deleted your Wish List.

Now, many other sex workers (particularly cam performers) are reporting similar notices.

Beyond the vagueness about what is “appropriate” and who gets to set these standards is an inexplicable hypocrisy of banning users for asking for the very things that Amazon itself is choosing to sell. However, I don’t think we should be content to merely point out the hypocrisy of companies suddenly deeming inappropriate goods and services they’ve been content to cash in on for years. We need to delve deeper into the ideological stakes of these decisions.

Particularly, it’s interesting that this outright discrimination against legal sex work is coming from Wall Street and Silicon Valley—both recognized hubs of libertarian ideology. Typically, leaders from both sectors staunchly defend unfettered economic activity as fundamental to an open society. In fact, they often go so far as to equate economic activity with expressions of free speech, deserving of maximum protection and minimal interference. It is this perspective that led the US government to recognize corporations as people with the legal right to influence elections through unlimited campaign contributions. It also from this perspective that Internet content providers most often frame their case for net neutrality.

Not so long ago, in 2009, Amazon (along with most other major Silicon Valley firms) signed a letter stating:

Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.

Apparently, however, this commitment to freedom from discrimination on the Web does not hold for sex workers. What makes sex work different?

One possibility we can’t fully rule out is that sex work is so thoroughly stigmatized in contemporary American society that even those who purport to champion individual freedom and open markets above all else simply make an exception when it comes to discriminatory and exclusionary practices against sex workers. While this sort of personal prejudice is probably part of the story, I also want to offer a somewhat more complex explanation–one that stems from American libertarianism’s reliance on markets as the primary mechanism of social organization.

The kind of discrimination that libertarians fear most is government regulation that might favor one person or group over another in market-based interactions. Typically, libertarians also espouse tolerance for alternative lifestyles that diverge from mainstream norms. For example, Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos—who is frequently reported (here, here, and here) to be a libertarian—has actively supported gay marriage.

But what libertarians too often fail to acknowledge is that discrimination is frequently expressed through and encoded into markets themselves (housing being perhaps the most notoriously discriminatory market). When one’s commitment to markets takes precedence over one’s commitment to challenging discrimination, it’s almost inevitable that fair treatment for marginalized groups falls by the wayside. It seems that sex workers have found themselves victims of a contradiction within libertarian ideology: markets, though themselves supposedly conditional on freedom and fairness, create conditions of unfreedom and unfairness.

This contradiction is something that Jewish** economic historian Karl Polanyi observed way back in 1944. Making the case for socially-directed intervention in and regulation of markets, Polanyi argued that classic liberalism (the precursor to modern libertarian philosophy)

gave a false direction to our ideals…No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent. It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone. Yet this was the result of a market-view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relations with freedom. The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition. Vision was limited by the market which “fragmentated” life into the producers… [and] consumer[s]… The one derived his income “freely” from the market, the other spent it “freely” there. Society as a whole remained invisible.

Polanyi suggested that without regulatory intervention by democratic institutions committed to maximizing freedom for all, markets inevitably result in monopoly and tyranny. He argues that we shouldn’t measure the degree of freedom in society by the lack of interference in markets; instead, freedom is a function of being able to live as one was born or chooses to be without fear of marginalization, exclusion, or persecution. He explains:

personal liberty… will exist to the degree in which we will deliberately create new safeguards for its maintenance… the right to nonconformity must be institutionally protected… The individual must be free to follow his [or her] conscience without fear of the powers that happen to be entrusted with administrative tasks in some of the fields of social life… Thus will be secured the right to nonconformity as the hallmark of a free society.

Polanyi’s vision of a free society is in stark contrast to libertarian ideology in which the freedom to pursue profit trumps all other freedoms. It’s this privileging of the freedom to pursue profit over the freedom to follow one’s conscious without fear of retaliation from social institutions that I believe has economically imperiled sex workers in this case.

While Amazon and Chase haven’t been particularly open about their motives, we can make a couple of reasonable guesses as to why these companies are trying to shut sex workers out of the market: They may fear that doing business with sex workers hurts their image and/or they may be concerned that commerce associated with the sex industry has high rates of fraud, non-payment, or other problematic activity. But the truth is that it doesn’t really matter why companies like Amazon and Chase have decided that offering basic services to sex workers is bad for business. What matters is that the logic of the market has become a justification for outright discrimination against a particular class of people.

Whatever their intent or reasoning, Amazon and Chase’s actions have created further injustice for a group that is already severely marginalized. We should never allow markets to serve as an excuse for such discrimination. And, when market-based discrimination occurs, we should demand that our democratic institutions hold accountable those who control these markets. If we let mega-corporations get away with openly oppressing sex workers, who’ll be next?

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.

*Faith Holland‘s art highlights the centrality of sex and sex work to the Internet (and to the information economy associated with it), and, conversely, the manner in which digital technology is implicated in modern sexuality. She confronts the inextricability of sex and technology in her “Cyberpussy Manifesto,” saying: “Technology is restructured biology. Biology is sociotechnical structure.” She further explores these themes in “Woven Network in Lube” and “Light Petting & Heavy Petting” (nsfw).

** I mention Polanyi’s Jewish heritage only to highlight that discrimination was obviously at the forefront of his mind while writing The Great Transformation in the midst of WWII.