Kicked Out: Crowdsourcing Shows Its Bias

It seems like everyone has a Kickstarter campaign these days.

Whether it's my cousin's fringe-festival play, or a friend's memoir about sex parties, it seems I can't log on to Facebook to stalk an ex-girlfriend without being hustled for a donation by someone from my past. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the crowdfunding revolution. Crowdfunding campaigns have helped offbeat businesses get off the ground and even paid the hospital bills of cancer patients — it's laughing in the face of the recession and reimagining the way we engage with the online economy.

Indie rock star Amanda Palmer's Kickstarter campaign cashed out at more than $1 million to fund her latest album and tour. In a post-Napster industry, artists have turned to crowdfunding to gain direct access to fans' dollars.

So why am I not flooding the world's Facebook feed with campaigns funding Star Trek porn parodies? Because sex workers aren't invited to the crowdfunding party. Cam girls, strippers, escorts, and porn stars all face exclusion, scrutiny, and sometimes theft from crowdfunding organizations.

Earlier this year, Andre Shakti, a Bay Area sex worker, put together a crowdfunding campaign on Fundly.com, the platform that boasts it's the place to “Raise Money for Anything.” Shakti hoped to raise a modest $500 to help with the cost of her plane ticket to the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto next month. Fundly's Terms of Use do not prohibit adult content, and they enthusiastically suggest putting together campaigns to fund things like “Trips and Adventures,” so Shakti's project seemed like a perfect fit. She exceeded her fundraising goal, and hurried to buy her plane ticket before the price went up further. When the time came for Shakti to collect on the $545 she had raised, she received an error message from WePay, the credit card processor that Fundly uses. It said that her campaign violated its Terms of Service; they could not process her funds.

“I thought I had maybe filled out the form wrong or checked the wrong box,” Shakti says. But when she contacted Fundly, it confirmed that her account was most likely flagged because she is a sex worker.

Though Fundly's Terms of Use do not prohibit adult content, WePay's Terms of Service does. “Fundly cannot claim to be accessible to all while contracting with a credit card processing company that explicitly is not. This practice is opaque, unfair, and harmful to our disparaged community,” writes Kristina Dolgin, director of the Bay Area Chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project in an open letter to Fundly on March 11. WePay also prohibits a score of other activities including “Magic, enchantment, sorcery or other forms of yet-to-be-explained science.” So think again before you try to crowdfund a San Francisco chapter of Hogwarts. WePay reserves the right to seize and freeze any funds it suspects may be associated with its long list of prohibited activities. Luckily, Shakti's contributors were refunded, but Shakti was left scrambling to find a way to fund her trip.

PayPal is also notorious for shutting down the accounts of sex workers and withholding their funds.

In January 2010, San Francisco sex worker and activist Maggie Mayhem was working as the HIV Senior Specialist at Larkin Street Youth Services when she heard about the earthquake in Haiti. When she saw the damage on television, Mayhem started planning a trip to Haiti to do relief work. She accepted donations for her travel expenses via a PayPal “Donate” button on her blog. Her readers began donating.

One month into her fundraising efforts, PayPal shut down her account. Mayhem called customer service to try to rectify the situation — she wasn't doing anything illegal, she told them, she just wanted to volunteer! The person she spoke to claimed that because Mayhem's blog linked to adult content (the sites she modeled for), PayPal could not definitively prove that she was actually raising funds for relief work in Haiti. PayPal froze all the funds she had raised and to this day neither she nor her contributors have received that donated money.

In an increasingly cash-free economy, only a few conservative credit card companies dictate the types of transactions we all make. Amanda Palmer can raise a million dollars to ride around in a tour bus playing the part of rock star, but honest hard-working American sex workers can't raise $500 for a plane ticket without facing scrutiny. In the online marketplace, sex workers are treated as second-class citizens, and that just takes the fun out of crowdfunding.

Go to sfweekly.com/arts to hear Siouxsie's podcast on crowdsourcing.

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