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.
Sxy Links: 10 Interesting Reads for Saturday, May 10, 2014 (6PM Edition) | SxySrvy — May 10, 2014
[…] Work and the Limits of American Libertarianism » Cyborgology by PJ Rey (1463 Words) http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2014/05/10/sex-work-and-the-limits-of-american-libertarianism… Over the course of the past few weeks, two major US corporations—Chase Bank and Amazon—have […]
iamcuriousblue — May 10, 2014
Your article raises some very good points, and a weak point of free market libertarianism is that it ignores the fact that things like discrimination and other violations of rights can come from private but powerful entities.
I take issue with a couple of specifics, however -
"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.
This is true enough, but I think you ignore the governmental role that factors into this as well. It's been noted that Operation Choke Point, a behind-the-scene DOJ policing initiative toward the financial industry, has guidelines that specifically list things like "escort agencies" and "pornography" business activity on the part of account holders as things that should raise red flags. (I'll note that Mother Jones is very dismissive of concerns about OCP - I'm not so convinced of its wholly benign nature.) Combine this with the recent history of overzealous "antitrafficking" initiatives coming straight from the federal government, and you've really got state/private sector partnership fueling this kind of discrimination. Which would hardly be the first time we've seen something like this - one need only look at unjust drug laws and drug testing in the workplace for a well established example.
It is this perspective that led the US government to recognize corporations as people
There seems to be much panic over the idea of "corporate personhood" on the Left, without much understanding of what it actually means. Basically, it acknowledges the right of a collective entity in the form of a legal corporation (for-profit or nonprofit) to have the same constitutional protections, particularly in regard to the First Amendment, as an individual person. If one agrees with the idea that the ACLU, the New York Times, or Lions Gate Entertainment can publish what they want without state censorship, then one is supporting some degree of "corporate personhood" when it comes to free speech rights. In fact, one of the key US Supreme Court decisions against film censorship, Burstyn v. Wilson, was based in part on the concept of corporate personhood and overturned an earlier decision that gave the government the right to censor films on the basis of their being corporate product. This decision was the beginning of the end for the Hayes Code, as well as the end of various state and local censorship boards. (An anachronism that Canada, which never had such a decision, retains on a provincial level, for example, the notorious Ontario Film Review Board.)
The problem with Citizens United was not that it was a novel recognition of corporate personhood, but that it quite radically advanced the notion that money, practically without limit, was equivalent to speech in the political process. That creates problems of wealth influencing the political process whether you're talking about a corporate entity or an individual billionaire.
PJ Patella-Rey — May 10, 2014
Yes, I think it's very important to acknowledge that the state, and particularly law enforcement, have a long history of discrimination and downright abuse of sex workers. No disagreement there. Government also needs to be held accountable for discrimination.
In this particular case, though, I think market-based discrimination is the salient issue.
Maxine Doogan — May 11, 2014
I've long asked the legal sector of the sex industry to lobby for anti discrimination legislation in the child custody, housing, employment, education and financial institutions areas as the abuses are frequent, notorious and disastrous. I'm talking about specifically getting anti discrimination legislation to cover adult film performer, webcam, exotic dancers, pro-doms & subs. But there seems to be an attitude of 'we're legal' therefore we don't need anything prevails. Long timers like the porn producers/distributors as well as owners of strip clubs have figured out how to maneuver but the high turn over in the talent suffers the most in terms of negative sigma and discrimination. I wish the 'establishment' in the legal 'adult' industry would get off their ass and take up this issue as it seriously low hanging fruit.
PJ Patella-Rey — May 11, 2014
There was a conversation here that was becoming unproductive and potentially alienating to other readers. I removed it.
Just a reminder of our comment moderation policy:
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Anonymous — June 12, 2014
>Operation Choke Point is an ongoing initiative of the United States Department of Justice that was announced in 2013 , which is investigating banks in the United States and the business they do with...companies believed to be at higher risk for fraud
>Some merchant categories that the FDIC has listed as being associated with high-risk activity include, but are not limited to:
The DOJ is essentially telling banks that these various industries have fallen into the state's disfavor. Then the banks start closing accounts, because they know that a bank that falls into the state's disfavor will not last long.
In a free society, there would be a great multitude of functional banks to choose from. Senselessly discriminatory banks would yield less profit than more open banks, and are unlikely to last long for that reason.
'Wall street' is hardly libertarian; they favor intensive regulation, because they own the vast legal and political teams capable of coping with regulatory burden, while potential competiters could never afford such overhead. Bankers were among Obama's (and Romney's) top campaign contributors. As things are now, its near impossible for someone to legally establish a bank and start transacting money.
>When one’s commitment to markets takes precedence over one’s commitment to challenging discrimination
A 'libertarian' is one emphasizing to liberty, not markets. Markets are an emergent feature of liberty, but certaintly not the only emergent social ordering. There are many ways to challenge discrimination in a liberty-loving society.
>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
Libertarians support this sentiment.. The freedom for people to be how they wish to be must be protected..
>No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent.
I've been apart of many (small) societies in which noone wielded power or compulsion over me. I'd say people deliberately seek such situations, prefering free situations to ones which they're compelled.
>Society as a whole remained invisible.
Society is composed of individuals. Happy individuals are a happy society. How can people be happy when their will's are being 'powered' over; their bodies 'compelled' in a direction they wish not to go? Power and compulsion may be common, but they make people feel weak and miserable.
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