Sex Workers Deserve Health Care, Too

When porn actress Eden Alexander got dangerously ill, her loved ones started an online campaign to help with her medical bills. Then the company took her page down. Why?

Albert L. Ortega/Getty

In a perfect world, sick people’s lives wouldn’t be worsened by administrative and financial nonsense. Yet, as anyone who’s been sick knows, medicine is almost never cheap, never easy. If ever there was a reason to be healthy, it’s to avoid horrible legal and insurance costs. But all this is nothing compared to what happens to sick people who are members of a group deemed immoral, disgusting, or bad. A recent example of this is the case of Eden Alexander.

Alexander consulted doctors for a strange reaction she had to a commonly prescribed drug. However, the doctors dismissed her peeling, burning skin, pain, and other horrible symptoms as the result of drug use—apparently because Alexander is a porn performer. Because, you see, that’s the only condition it could possibly be and, by the way, all sex workers are narcotic (ab)users.

Since her condition wasn’t treated, she developed a full-blown staph infection.

She recovered somewhat after, but still suffered greatly. Her situation prompted her friends to set up a GiveForward page to help her pay medical bills.

The—now cached—Medical Care Fundraiser page on GiveForward continues: “The infections combined triggered an existing thyroid condition, (which she didn't know she had) and… the additional stress triggered her into something called Myxedema Coma, the most severe form of hypothyroidism, and she almost died.”

What you should be wondering is why this GiveForward page—started to raise funds to help a very sick person—is no longer live. That would be due to WePay, through which payments are processed on GiveForward. Are they having server issues? Is their website having technical issues?

No: WePay thinks sex work is gross and, if you’ve done sex work, you should find some other way to raise money so you can, you know, live.

It seems, to WePay, that all the funding is for sex activities—not her medical bills which is the main focus and function of GiveForward. Medical bills translate into continued living, but this doesn’t initially seem to concern them because they don’t want to fund any porn-related activities.

Indeed, it’s not even that Alexander offered to exchange sex related activities for donating. WePay’s official statement reads: “Upon reviewing payments starting May 15, 2014 WePay discovered tweets from others retweeted by Eden Alexander offering adult material in exchange for donations.”

This means supporters’ activities—not Alexander’s—are “violating” WePay’s terms of service (ToS). You could say, “But she retweeted the tweets”—but the point is she herself was not violating the terms. Why wouldn’t you be doing what you can to raise awareness of your campaign? Again, the campaign itself is not about sex work. The money was paying for medical bills, not any sex-related activities.

If people compensated others in some way, that was their business—not Alexander’s. (Indeed, one can only violate the terms if you “register for WePay as a Merchant.” to quote from the ToS.) Does that mean you can never retweet, like, highlight, or share anyone who is trying to raise awareness of your campaign until you’ve vetted them against WePay’s ToS? Does campaigning for others who are actual merchants have to itself meet their criteria? How will they monitor? In this particular case, it was two porn studios offering “perks”—whatever that means.

But an aspect that is particularly troubling is that such a clause exists at all.

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“By registering for WePay as a Merchant, you also confirm that you will not accept payments or use the Service in connection with the following activities, items or services:

- Adult or adult-related services, including escort services, adult massage, or other adult-entertainment services

- Adult or adult-related content, including performers or ‘cam girls’”

But why? Why are sex workers being denied the service at all?

You could argue that sex work is mostly illegal in the U.S. But then on that same list of “prohibited activities,” WePay lists “alcohol,” “infomercial merchants,” “gambling,” and other non-criminal activities. WePay has a summary of its hodgepodge list of arbitrary distaste and animosity: “You can't use WePay for anything illegal, inappropriate, or risky. Just be honest and responsible, and we'll get along just fine.”

No one has any trouble defining what “inappropriate” and “risky” is, right? We all have the exact same definitions. Many adult-related activities are not illegal, even in the U.S., so clearly that is not the basis of their outright ban.

“Risky” is a strange, amorphous term: if they mean things that are harmful and dangerous, a case can be made—but they need to show what’s “risky” about, say, performing for a client in the safety of your home in front of a webcam. And what about “inappropriate”? That vague term only makes sense if we understand context: your clown costume at a circus isn’t inappropriate, but might be at a loved one’s funeral. Much like offence, things don’t just emit a quality of “inappropriate”—context matters and it’s only inappropriate to someone. And, even then, why should that make it a sufficient reason to oppose the offensive material?

For example, along with Alexander’s friend Kitty Stryker, I find preaching that focuses on “revealing the evils of the homosexual agenda” to be “inappropriate,” if I heard it on a radio show. But this GoFundMe campaign, processed by WePay, is still there. As is this equally “inappropriate”—at a time when many of us want women to have autonomy of their bodies—anti-abortion campaign. Yes, it’s also processed by WePay.

We all know what those terms mean: it’s everything WePay has deemed bad. Anti-abortion and preaching the evil of gays is fine, but sex workers being healthy? No. We can’t have that.

WePay, however, aren’t some Saturday morning cartoon villain. PJ Rey explains further:

“Though they have responded to all the negative publicity by transferring the original donations to Eden’s bank [and] by offering to help Eden restart her campaign (help which was, understandably, declined by Eden’s friends and supporters), WePay deflected blame for the incident to “back-end processors.” So who are these mysterious back-end boogiemen who force WePay to so aggressively discriminate against sex workers? [WePay’s CEO Bill] Clerico explained that these “processors” are card associations such as Visa and Mastercard.”

Indeed, these are powerful masters, as their statement on the situation reads:

“WePay is extremely empathetic to what Eden Alexander is facing and her hardship is unfathomable. We are truly sorry that the rules around payment processing are limiting and force us to make tough decisions.”

The rules were handed down on iPads from the gods of finance, it seems. Nothing is changeable. No exceptions possible. Indeed, what we can’t ignore is that we’re not talking about an exception for a violation, since Alexander didn’t want the money in exchange for sex work, but her medical bills.

As we noted before, stigma isn’t some unfathomable attitude that twirls around the minds of bigots and reactionaries. It has tangible effects when left dormant or as default. The idea that sex work is deemed anything other than work should and is striking, at a time when personal autonomy is a concept so many want promoted and defended.

Many will say sex work is wrong because sex should not be exchanged for money. This attitude views sex as some magical thing—usually filling in the blanks between the equally questionable notions of monogamy and marriage. Fine if you want these views, but why assume sex, marriage, and relationships should be only your way—and why should alternatives be wrong, as opposed to optional?

Some will say sex work is dangerous. You’d firstly have to define sex work because I’m struggling to see how performing in front of a camera for someone on the other side of the country or world is more dangerous than, say, skydiving. If you mean actual intercourse, then you’d have to, for example, make one night stands illegal, too. Indeed, that many brothels and sex workers demand cleanliness, hygiene, inspections, and so on actually means a lot of sex work is less dangerous than drunken sex with a stranger at a bar (not to mention sex work’s insistence on contraceptives).

Many will equate sex work with sex slavery, but as any one of the many sex workers—of all genders—can tell you, that’s insulting and demeaning. First, it undermines the very real issue of sex slavery and trafficking. By mudding the waters with consensual adult services, the issue itself is not being dealt with. As Brooke Magnanti, a forensic scientist and author of The Sex Myth points out:

“No one would ever argue about whether or not forced sex work is right, or whether it occurs. It’s very wrong, and it does happen. The point is that the closer we look at the truth about trafficking, the more we find not women and children being saved from terrible fates, but people actually being harmed by well-intentioned policy.”

Well, where have we heard that?

There’s a discussion perhaps to be had about supply-and-demand, whether legalized sex work increases demand and therefore brings about sex trafficking. Yet, that still doesn’t make consensual sex work between two adults wrong—it is not harm, it is business and work, but somehow it mutates into immediate immorality because sex is involved.

Second, it denies sex workers the agency of being business people, of being ordinary innocent persons trying to make a living—and harming no one (in fact, doing the exact opposite). Sex workers frequently defend their profession as a profession, as work. Talk of “selling their bodies” makes little sense to the idea of them selling various services, like anyone else. Do we say a pop star is “selling her body”? If so, we don’t ask her to be considered a criminal. Why does sex magically make a person into a slave or a criminal of some kind?

Again: this doesn’t deny the very real problem of sex trafficking. But this kind of attitude adds to the stigma demonstrated by WePay’s crass dismissal because of their finance gods. Indeed, it highlights that such a restriction should not exist at all.

Importantly, this attitude adds to the idea that criminalization is “saving” sex workers—whereas it often does more harm. (Prison, after all, is such a good place to show how much you care about someone’s safety!) This attitude is what led doctors to think Alexander must be taking drugs; it’s what makes it OK to livetweet “prostitution stings.” The attitude is one bound up in helping, but is more poisoner than saviour—and yet, no matter how often sex workers demonstrate their autonomy, consent, and adulthood, this doesn’t seem to matter.

Thankfully, this story right now has a somewhat better outlook, with the new campaign for Alexander doing well—though the toll on her right now is unclear and worrying.

It should be disturbing to all of us that conservative views of sex, of women, can be policy for powerful businesses that directly affect the lives of innocent people. While I congratulate WePay for doing what they can now, I’d only hope they and similar companies would change a position on an issue long in need of rethinking: adults should be able to have consensual sexual interactions with whoever they want, and it is no one else’s business in most instances.

Care should always be taken, but that doesn’t negate such activities from taking place. Stigmatizing it and criminalizing it means only greater harm to those it supposedly is protecting. Muddied waters blind us all and could see us hurting those, like Alexander, who don’t deserve it.