Last week both Visa and MasterCard announced they would no longer process any transactions from Backpage, a classified advertising website. This is allegedly due to pressure from law enforcement who say Backpage is used by sex traffickers, The Daily Dot reports. The two join American Express, another major credit card who refuses to process these charges, which mean Backpage and other sex work channels may need to start relying on alternative payment methods, namely Bitcoin. This is a massive, and for many overwhelming, change for those working in the sex industry. In order to ease the transition the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) has been sharing a guide written by one sex worker, Corrine, for using Bitcoin.
While sex work is not legal in most of the U.S., it is in many other countries, leading to some questioning the legality of the ban. According to The Daily Dot, "in Australia, attorney Kathryn Adams posted a call for a class action complaint against Visa and MasterCard on her website. She invited affected workers to contact her for more information."
Many have also raised the hypocrisy and moral policing issues — refusing to work with one potentially dangerous or damaging industry, meanwhile having no problem processing transactions for others, like guns and cigarettes. They have been speaking out with the hashtag #chargeisdeclined to voice their opposition, and activists have been trying to use the hashtag to garner some media attention.
But more than legality or issues of hypocrisy, the human impact is the biggest concern. Firstly, will this actually put a dent in trafficking? Some believe it could be counterproductive, as "sex workers have long explained that sites like Backpage actually help law enforcement track sex traffickers and their victims. By sending them deeper underground and forcing them to use untraceable, anonymous cryptocurrency, law enforcement would seem to be making its own job harder to do." Secondly, many in the sex industry have said that sites like Backpage have kept them afloat, and there's a danger that they will not only not be made any safer by the change, but actually put at greater risk. SWOP has reposted an account from 2012 where one women explained how work through Backpage helped her avoid homelessness.
There are, of course, supporters of Visa and MasterCard as well. Those who, understandably, have expressed gratitude at what they perceive as a step toward making sure women and children cannot be bought and sold. And there is certainly a strong argument that there is a dangerous validation and legitimizing factor when these sorts of transactions come through on an official Visa or MasterCard statement, no mater how discreetly or misleading they're worded.
But is this the right next step? We'll have to wait and see. You just need to look at the #chargeisdeclined hashtag to see how harrowing some of the risks are. The shift to cryptocurrency will be a radical one, and we can only hope this move won't come with a hefty human cost.
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