Allie Eve Knox creates adult content.
She makes sexually provocative videos, sells subscription services on platforms like OnlyFans, performs live via webcam, and works as a findomme – short for financial dominatrix, a fetish involving dominance-submission dynamics and cash.
The Texas native is also a major advocate of cryptocurrency.
Knox describes herself as “one of the most outspoken sex workers, particularly for crypto.” Her interest kicked off in 2014, which is when she says several vendors, including PayPal, Square Cash, and Venmo, shut down her accounts because of red flags related to sex work.
So Knox started accepting cryptocurrencies instead. Her first exchange of bitcoin for content was pretty casual.
It started on a Skype call with a client. “I had a Coinbase account at the time, and he said, ‘Hold your QR code right to this camera here,’ and he sent it through the camera. And I got it,” she explained.
It took 15 minutes, and there were no chargebacks, no website commission fees, and no bank intermediaries to turn down the transaction – all major pluses in her industry. But the biggest attraction was having total and irreversible ownership over the money she had earned.
“I could cash it out. I could hold it. I could watch it go up and down,” said Knox.
“It was mine.”
Knox is one of many adult workers who say that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin give them a sense of security and independence as banks, credit card companies, and payment processors tighten regulations around adult content. With crypto, there is no middleman making a judgment call on which transactions are acceptable.
Sex work is an umbrella term that includes anyone who engages in some form of erotic labor, whether virtual or in person.
“The majority of sex work in the U.S. is legal. It’s not dealt with fairly, but it’s still legal,” explained Kristen DiAngelo, an activist and Sacramento-based sex worker who has spent over four decades in the industry. “Stripping is legal…massage is legal…escorting is legal. The only thing that’s really illegal in the U.S. is the honest exchange of sexual activity for remuneration, for money.”
Some escorts – who charge anywhere from $1,700 an hour to $11,000 for a full 24 hours – now explicitly say in their ads that they prefer to be paid in bitcoin or ethereum.
The sex work industry also includes performers on the popular subscription video site OnlyFans, many of whom work exclusively online and have never seen their subscribers or fans in person.
Allie Rae is a 37-year-old mother of three boys who says she went from making about $84,000 a year as an ICU nurse in Boston to $1.3 million, thanks to her work on OnlyFans, which has more than 130 million users.
Last August, Rae didn’t know a lot about cryptocurrency, nor did she accept it for her work, but she was convinced that bitcoin and other altcoins were “100% the future,” because they seemed like a far more secure method of payment.
At the time, OnlyFans was navigating a publicity nightmare. After banks started flagging and rejecting transactions on the site, OnlyFans announced plans to ban sexually explicit content, its core product. The decision was met with such blowback that OnlyFans reversed course within days.
The whole episode gave whiplash to OnlyFans performers, some of whom realized that they were just one company policy change away from financial ruin.
Rae, a star of the OnlyFans ecosystem, was spooked, telling CNBC that she felt “kicked to the curb,” and never wanted to be put in that position again.
So she took action.
She started with the basics, teaching herself the fundamentals of crypto, then decided to put real skin in the game by assembling a team of developers to build WetSpace, a cryptocurrency-powered adult entertainment platform, into which she has vowed to invest $1 million of her own money. As Rae describes it, WetSpace will be a place where creators don’t have to worry about “big banking restrictions and payouts.”
By December, Rae had gone from bitcoin novice and OnlyFans ingénue to an adult content entrepreneur speaking fluent crypto, with terms like “smart contracts” and “ERC-20 tokens” rolling right off her tongue.
Adult content creators have also jumped on the non-fungible token, or NFT, bandwagon. Knox tells CNBC she’s sold photos of herself as NFTs on OpenSea and through SpankChain’s custom NFT marketplace. Thus far, the most she’s gotten from a single sale is $1,200 worth of ethereum.
DiAngelo tells CNBC she will never forget the first time her bank account was closed without warning.
It happened when she was on a trip to Washington, D.C. over a decade ago.
“I had just gone into the bank, made a deposit, and I went to buy lunch in Dupont Circle,” said DiAngelo. “I gave him my card, and it was declined. I gave him my card, and it was declined again. And I gave my card again, and it was declined again. And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, that can’t be right. There’s something wrong.'”
DiAngelo called Citibank and learned that her account had been frozen and she should tear up her credit card. DiAngelo says the customer service rep told her that they weren’t “at liberty” to tell her why it had happened, and she would have to write a formal letter to request additional details.
They did, however, say that she was still responsible for any money owed.
“That put fear in my heart, like I thought my world was collapsing. My bank account was frozen. I couldn’t access my money,” she said. (Citibank did not respond to a request for comment.)
There was particular irony in her situation, as DiAngelo did a stint as a stockbroker at Citibank in the 1980’s, always pays her taxes, and has a credit score over 800.
Allie Eve Knox
Allie Eve Knox
So DiAngelo did what other sex workers do: She “platform hopped,” meaning that she brought her money to another bank. When they also flagged and closed her account, she moved on to the next. After being shut out of a third bank, DiAngelo says she turned exclusively to bitcoin for her online banking needs.
Nearly every sex worker interviewed for this story mentioned platform hopping. The government has a set of anti-trafficking guidelines drawn up by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, and the banks and big payment apps keep an eye out for activity deemed suspicious by those guidelines. Those red flags include making cash deposits frequently – a hallmark of the sex work profession.
“We will change, we will pivot, we’ll go to other platforms,” Knox said. “This is just a constant like jumping through hoops cycle.”
In 2014, for example, PayPal booted her because of a payment for her used socks that was large enough to get red-flagged. Knox says neither she nor the buyer were refunded. (PayPal tells CNBC that her account was “closed due to policy violations.”)
Later, in 2016, Coinbase closed her account and blocked her from making others. (Coinbase acknowledged to CNBC that its terms of service prohibit the use of its “commerce or retail services connected to adult content.”)
“We’re the ones being punished – not the traffickers, not those that are actually abusing workers,” said Alana Evans, who has been an adult performer since the late 90’s. Evans is currently president of the Adult Performance Artists Guild, or APAG, a federally recognized union within the adult industry that represents all workers from adult film set actors, to content creators.
“They’ve attacked our banking; our ability to operate like the rest of the world,” explained DiAngelo. “You don’t exist if you can’t use the banking system.”
Evans says that once you’ve been in the industry and labeled as an adult performer, it is virtually impossible to get a job outside the industry – even at a fast food restaurant.
“We are stigmatized. We are discriminated against,” said Evans, who is actively looking to foment change in her role as the head of APAG. She says she has met directly with Mastercard and other companies to address the issue, and she is advocating with members of Congress to add occupation to the list of protected title practices, which currently includes race, age, and religion.
Mastercard confirmed the meeting with Evans, saying that the company “welcomes dialogue and different perspectives” about its policies and programs.
For many sex workers, bitcoin is more than a way to reclaim financial independence — it’s an industry standard.
In 2018, the U.S. passed a federal law designed to eliminate online sex trafficking. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or FOSTA-SESTA, meant that owners of web sites could face criminal charges for content that promoted trafficking.
“It meant any site online, or any venue that does business online, that could possibly receive profits for prostitution in any way could be indicted and do 25 years in prison,” explained DiAngelo, who is currently a researcher and lecturer at the University of California, Davis.
FOSTA-SESTA spelled an end for Backpage – once the bastion of online advertisements for sex workers — and persuaded Craigslist to discontinue its personal ads.
But critics say the net effect of this law was to drive the trade further underground. Workers lost the ability to pre-screen clients, and many in the industry tell CNBC it led to a spike in street work and violence.
It also turned bitcoin into a necessity for many escorts. Advertising is essential to attract new business, and workers using popular escort directories like Slixa and Eros tell CNBC that these platforms encourage payment in cryptocurrencies within the U.S. One industry vet says typical ads cost $480 worth of bitcoin for two weeks.
Eros did not respond to a request for comment, while Slixa…