The ACLU has filed a complaint against the company with the Federal Trade Commission, urging an investigation into its discriminatory practices

“Most sex workers are about two steps away from complete financial ruin at any time,” says porn performer Vanniall in a video published earlier this week on the ACLU’s YouTube channel. She’s referring to the fact that, because payment processors view the adult industry as “high-risk,” its workers face widespread discrimination from both banks and credit card companies. Some sex workers even wake up one day to find that their accounts have been closed—even if the kind of work they do is completely legal. That’s why the ACLU is filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, urging them to open an investigation into Mastercard’s discrimination against sex workers.

It’s been a long time coming. Mastercard has had the adult industry in a stranglehold for years, having rolled out a series of policies in 2021 that—though billed as an effort to make people safer—had the opposite effect, threatening the livelihood of an already vulnerable community by limiting both their access to financial institutions and their freedom of speech. In a 46-page document, the ACLU—backed by a coalition of sex worker advocacy groups and LGBTQ+ rights organizations—details the implications of such policies, arguing that the company’s requirements for merchants in the adult industry constitute unfair business practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

Geared toward the numerous adult content websites that rely on Mastercard to process payments, these new strictures forbid the use of certain search terms, effectively dictating what kinds of pornography one can buy and sell on the internet. “These policies impact marginalized communities the most,” says Mistress Blunt, a dominatrix and researcher with Hacking//Hustling, a prominent sex worker-led organization that collaborated with the ACLU on the complaint filed earlier this week. “They crack down especially hard on any sexual activity that is not hetero-normative. As a BDSM practitioner and dominatrix, it is increasingly difficult to sell the type of content that I like to make.”

On OnlyFans, for instance, creators must navigate a series of byzantine restrictions: from the mandate that one hand be left free in bondage videos, to the banning of menstrual blood. This is because, “according to Mastercard’s terms of service, blood is automatically conflated with violence,” sex worker and journalist Jessica Stoya told Document earlier this year, describing how porn performers are forced to resort to uncomfortable tactics in order to avoid showing blood on camera—even if it’s the result of a natural bodily process. “The ban is particularly frustrating because it’s targeting something you can’t stop,” says another sex worker and OnlyFans creator named Sanguine. “You’re expected to [put a] sponge in your vagina, just to be able to work.”

“Financial discrimination is a form of structural violence, and it is directly related to increased violence against sex workers.”

As the Financial Times revealed in an investigation last year, these rules—and the way they’re enforced—are the result of a complex process of negotiation undertaken by Mastercard and MobiusPay, a financial intermediary that acts as a bridge between credit card companies and “high-risk businesses.” Mastercard lays down the law—or, rather, vague requirements about what kind of content is aligned with its values—and MobiusPay is tasked with interpreting what that might mean in practice. For instance, the company’s anti-violence stance is taken to mean that all blood is off-limits on adult platforms; ‘no rape’ means the banning of all content in which the person being penetrated is tied up. The result is that a broad swathe of perfectly legal, consensual content is censored on adult platforms, lest the companies that host it face the loss of financial services.

“Mastercard’s policies chill speech and destabilize sex workers’ lives,” says Blunt, pointing out that, on a clip website, even her name was censored. “How is this doing anything but making a sex worker’s life more difficult? Who is this protecting? Someone once threatened to rape me on a fan site, and I couldn’t type the word ‘rape’ back to them because I was told that my input contained restricted words—but the word wasn’t restricted for my ‘fan.’”

The company’s new policies also require porn performers to submit their government IDs to verify their age and identity—linking their legal name to a highly-stigmatized form of work. In an attempt to comply, many adult websites now require the use of biometric identification systems, which Mastercard financially benefits from. If you’re flagged for non-compliance, you run the risk of losing access to your account overnight.

Not only are such policies invasive, but their enforcement is notoriously scattershot: “OnlyFans is moderated by AI—so sometimes, if you use a realistic dildo, the system flags that video as having another person in it,” says Sanguine. “So you can’t send that content out, and there’s no way to repeal it. Someone tried to send a cum tribute the other day—which is a photo showing that they came on a picture of the creator—but the system wouldn’t let them send it because it detected a face in the photo.”

“When you make it more difficult for people to make money, you put them in more vulnerable situations. The only thing Mastercard’s policy does is make survival more difficult.”

In 2021, OnlyFans even announced it would be banning adult content altogether, citing pressure from its payment processors. The announcement sent a shockwave through the adult industry, and amidst the massive backlash, the company later walked back its statement—instead instating new rules around adult content, in compliance with the requirements of its payment processors.

Mastercard rolled out these new restrictions in October 2021, framing it as an effort to reduce the spread of child sexual abuse material. But while it’s true that sites like Pornhub had been guilty of turning a blind eye to user-uploaded videos, some of which featured minors, the company swiftly removed 80 percent of unverified content after news broke—leaving only videos from verified content creators: the industry professionals who sold their own porn clips on ModelHub. So when Mastercard cut ties with the platform amidst the reputational fallout, yanking their payment processing services from the verified performers on ModelHub, sex workers were the ones who suffered. No children were saved because the content featuring minors was never being bought or sold; rather, it was among the thousands of user-uploaded clips accessible for free.

At the time, Mastercard was facing massive pressure from the anti-porn lobbyists. Exodus Cry, a fringe Evangelical organization, launched the viral #traffickinghub campaign—framing these efforts as anti-trafficking activism, though its actual mission is to “abolish the commercial sex industry” altogether, as it stated on a 2020 tax return. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), formerly known as ‘Morality in Media,’ also positions itself as a defender against sexual exploitation, but in fact lobbies against all forms of sexual expression, including same-sex marriage and decriminalization of consensual sex work. In 2021, the organization awarded Mastercard a ‘Corporate Leadership Award’ for its new policies.

Though celebrated as a win for human rights, these policies do little to protect victims—rather, they just make it harder for sex workers to do business online. The same is true of FOSTA/SESTA, a pair of bills passed in 2018 that purported to stop sex trafficking, but actually made marginalized communities more vulnerable by restricting their ability to advertise services and vet clients on the internet. “When people are denied access to resources, it increases their exposure to harm,” Blunt said in an interview with Document. “Financial discrimination is a form of structural violence, and it is directly related to increased violence against sex workers. When you make it more difficult for people to make money, you put them in more vulnerable situations. The only thing Mastercard’s policy does is make survival more difficult.”