No, The Adult Industry Doesn’t Happily Accept Financial Discrimination

CreditcardsIf you’re interested in feminist, alternative porn you’ve no doubt heard of Cindy Gallop’s site The site sells videos of everyday people having sex – what the adult industry would call “amateur porn” because the performers aren’t LA porn stars. The videos are user-submitted and performers have a chance to profit share with the site, a setup that is rare in the porn world.

Make Love Not Porn has a huge public profile thanks to Cindy’s ongoing promotional efforts. She previously worked in advertising and has a knack for getting interviews and articles in major media outlets. In almost all of these, Cindy discusses the various financial difficulties she encountered in setting up the site, including being ignored by venture capitalists and then not being able to get billing from Paypal and Amazon due to the various rules against adult content. For those of us who’ve been in porn a while, these financial obstacles aren’t news but for many outsiders it can come as a shock to realize just how hard it can be to do business when you make porn. This outrage has become part of Cindy’s promotional fuel for her site.

Today filmmaker and blogger Lynsey G has published an extended interview with Cindy about this issue. It was part of her wider article looking at the financial discrimination the porn industry faces. I read the post and nodded along until I got to this paragraph:

“When, along this path, one of very many people said to me, ‘Cindy, you’re having all these problems. Why don’t you just change your name of your company? Call it something different? Take the word ‘porn’ out of it? Innocuous holding company name, doing business as, it would make life so much easier.’ I said, ‘I refuse to do that, and there are practical reasons why, but the principle reason is: when you concept and design a venture around existing societal biases and prejudices, all you do is reinforce them.’ I refuse to bow to this because I want to change it. But everyone else in the adult industry is accepting it, and saying, ‘Yes, this is dirty and shameful, so we will cover it up and we will hide it.’ And so I’m really saying to people, ‘Take this out of the shadows. Take this out of the mindset that, before you even started you condemned yourself to not be on the front foot, because you tell yourself that society won’t like it.’

So then I started writing a comment under the post. And it kind of snowballed into an essay. And now the site has an error and the comment isn’t coming up so I’m going to publish it on my blog instead. Because I think I want to discuss this issue. So here’s what I wrote:


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Cindy, I admire what you are trying to do and I admire your constant battle for a better deal from the finance world. But I have to challenge this statement:

“But everyone else in the adult industry is accepting it, and saying, ‘Yes, this is dirty and shameful, so we will cover it up and we will hide it.’ And so I’m really saying to people, ‘Take this out of the shadows. Take this out of the mindset that, before you even started you condemned yourself to not be on the front foot, because you tell yourself that society won’t like it.’”

I think you’re misrepresenting people in the industry.

Let me give you my perspective. I am running a one-woman adult business from Australia, where the laws surrounding making and hosting porn are restrictive. I have had to jump through numerous hoops and pay a lot of money just to get traditional subscription billing for my site, simply because I am Australian. Over the last 14 years I have been ripped off by billing companies, hosting companies, designers and coders. Right now, I’m flat out filming, editing, writing, promoting and generally running my site from my home office in a small town with slow internet speeds. I am totally self-funded.

I am in this to make money but I’m also doing it because I too want to disrupt porn. Like you, I am offering my own version of sex positive sexual media, one that encourages a wider conversation about sex. But I don’t have venture capital and I wouldn’t even know where to get started in that area. I don’t come from an American media or advertising background, I don’t have a huge network of media contacts and I don’t have a large staff to keep the site running while I try and improve my finances. I can’t even accept Bitcoin because I need a US bank account.

I would love to be able to join you in the good fight against the various oppressive/dismissive practices of the finance industry but to be honest I can’t afford to. Because even if they did listen to me (a minnow) I can’t risk losing my billing which would mean losing my income and my vision for better porn.

And pretty much all the other disruptive, feminist porn filmmakers are in the same place. We’re small, indie operations, running on the smell of an oily rag. The world of venture capital is totally alien and beyond reach. It’s for people who are already in an existing network, for people who are clued in to that world. And every single one of us is struggling under the existing banking/billing/financial conditions that are imposed on us simply for being pornographers.

But we don’t just happily accept it. I’ve had plenty of conversations with other porn people and we all absolutely LOATHE the ridiculous rules and censorship and bullshit fees that we have to put up with. It pisses us off. Good porn sites have had to close because of the increasing fees and tightening rules (Jiz Lee’s charity site Karma Pervs being an example).

For most of us there’s no choice. We just have to grit our teeth and pay the higher CC percentages and the “high risk” fees. We have to put up with Vimeo deleting our videos, with Paypal shutting accounts and keeping our cash, with banks refusing service. This is the cost of doing business and when the alternative is not doing business at all, you shut up, lay down and take the beating because at least that way you’re still in the game.

So I have to challenge the idea that other people in the porn industry are thinking “Yes, this is dirty and shameful, so we will cover it up and we will hide it” because that is absolutely not true. We aren’t worried that society won’t accept us (hey, we’re pornographers). The truth is that most people in the alternative porn industry just don’t have the power, the time, the citizenship or the money to challenge the status quo.

You do, Cindy. You have a lot of money and media influence behind you and you can afford to go out on a limb. I’m cheering you on every time you step up and call bullshit about the financial discrimination against porn. And everyone else is as well. We’re behind you. But it’s an uneven playing field and not everyone can wave the flag like you can.

I’m desperately keen for something – anything – to break this deadlock. I want to see a porn-friendly Vimeo VOD, a porn-friendly Paypal without the Visa/Mastercard fees, a porn-friendly app store. In theory I should be stepping into the breach, coming up with my own disruptive startup. But I don’t have the coding knowledge, the pre-existing network, the funding… I’m still back here worrying about whether the police will finally knock on my door because the fundamentalist Christians across the road found out what I do.

I don’t know what the solution is. The Goliath we fight is huge. It would be great if we could band together somehow but it’s long been said that organizing pornographers is like herding cats. And this is a competitive industry after all.

Keep fighting the good fight Cindy. And if you do create a crack in the anti-porn wall, there will be a lot of small, indie, less privileged producers who will be grateful to you for using your existing power to change things.

So yeah.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been watching the Make Love Not Porn juggernaut with a mixture of perplexed interest, admiration and envy. Cindy is from such a different world. Most of the people I know in the porn industry are either nerds working from their home offices, sex workers forging their own career paths or DIY filmmakers with big dreams and no cash. Of course, I’m part of a certain niche, the online/alternative arena and I’ve never had much to do with the mainstream LA-based porn industry. But that’s it’s own separate bubble. So Cindy has come in from a non-porn, advertising, corporate background and she’s applying this to the adult industry. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s shocked to discover the discrimination that we’re all just used to and put up with because we’ve got not choice. And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this. But she forges on and is doing her best, though she’s taking a route that is largely unexplored.

The very idea of finding corporate venture capital to fund a porn site seems so… weird to me. I got started in porn in 2000 and all I needed was a modem, Microsoft Front Page (hey, don’t laugh) and a $200 CD full of naked men photos. I guess I’m a bit behind the times but I’m also from a very DIY background. To have someone else come in and hand me half a million dollars to set up my dream site sounds a bit like a fairy tale. It would be nice… but then I wouldn’t own my own site. And there’s a lot to be said about being your own boss, beholden only to yourself, not tied to the need to offer a set return to investors.

(Although, here’s something I just remembered: about 8 years ago now an investor contacted us out of the blue and showed interest in funding We signed a confidentiality agreement, he looked at our site and our business… and then we never heard another word from him. Not a single email. Hooray venture capital! FTG remained a two-woman cottage business, as it has always been.)

And, as I’ve said, I’ve been ripped off a fair bit and paid my fair share of exorbitant “high risk” fees. I’ve seen some of the dodgy business practices and behaviour that comes with the territory. I’ve come to accept that if you want to do anything, you’ve just got to do it yourself. And yes, I’ve just gritted my teeth and worked with the business landscape that anti-porn business rules have created. Because the only other option is giving up.

You play the hand you’ve been dealt but that doesn’t mean you wish you had a full house. I’d love it if I didn’t have to deal with so many repressive laws and anti-porn rules. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons I only have two paysites; I’ve been forced to stay small because of the limitations I face, especially living where I do. I could have had a studio or stable of sites by now if the playing field had been level. So yes, I very much want to see changes to how porn is treated by the financial industry. But I’m pessimistic.

The root of the problem is the two credit card companies, Visa and Mastercard. All financial difficulties flow from them. They classify porn companies as “high risk” and require higher percentages of turnover and extra yearly fees, supposedly to make up for more chargebacks (people denying they made a charge, the bank then eats that cost) and fraud scrubbing. It doesn’t matter if I’m a good merchant who doesn’t rip people off and I have minimal chargebacks, I’m lumped in with the dodgy fraudsters simply because I’m in adult. All of the Paypal, Amazon, Vimeo VOD, Kickstarter, WePay crap flows from there. As does the various censorship bullshit of Facebook, Tumblr, Google and the rest.

Credit card transactions remain the core of online business and as long as Visa and Mastercard rule over that, nothing is going to change. They are the choke point that will stop any open-minded  startup in its tracks. And they aren’t going to listen to two-bit amateur pornographers like me. And, so far, they haven’t listened to Cindy Gallop either, though I hope that may change.

Is Bitcoin the answer? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not financially stable or backed by banks. I can’t accept it because I need a US bank account to convert it to real money. And even if I could do that… would it be worth the risk? I’ve already had a couple of billing companies sail off to the Caymans with my funds so it’s fair to say I’m a little risk-averse.

Am I being too doom-and-gloomy in this post? Am I actually proving Cindy’s point about accepting the status quo? I don’t think so. I don’t accept the situation happily. And I don’t believe I’m a lowlife who deserves to be treated this way. I simply put up with it because there’s no other option. I’m pragmatic about it.

So I think I just want to put the facts out there, the reality of how hard it can be to make porn, especially when you’re an indie producer. It doesn’t matter how high-minded your intentions are, the minute you create something sexual, you start to wear the scarlet letter. And it’s such a shame that even in 2014, that’s how it is.

Image credit: Credit Cards by LotusHead via Wikimedia Commons.