About a 30-minute Uber ride from Wall Street, there’s a dim purple basement where women, myself included, steadily accumulate bills, one by one, in three-minute song cycles. Some are as young as 18; others, old enough to be their moms. We come from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Brazil, and Colombia. The money pours in from the southern tip of Manhattan, Dubai, London, Singapore, and Silicon Valley. We collect fives in thong straps, twenties in rubber bands around our ankles, coax hundreds out of wallets and into little Swarovski-encrusted clutches. We scoop it up, naked on all fours, in crunched-up wads and fresh sticky singles, confetti-bombed onto the stage.
The rap lyrics that pulse from the speakers describe the money as stacks, paper, rubber bands, Benjis, Gs, guap, clips, bankrolls, racks, rain, and millis to buy Bentleys and diamonds and top-shelf liquor; in real life, we pay for rent, clothes, tuition, MetroCards, a nest egg for a business venture, and, most of all, childcare. A good quarter of the staff are undocumented mothers who find that making $500 to $1,000 during bedtime hours beats other options—say, making $200 a week to nanny someone else’s kids.
This job exists because of the large, untraceable piles of dollars—which, according to the most adamant financial experts, are not long for this world. Cashlessness is trending around the planet. According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 29 percent of Americans reported not using cash at all in a typical week. For the lazy among us, digital currency is a boon: eminently trackable, instantly accessible, and relatively secure. But for the business of stripping, the end of cash is causing a crisis.
A club makes the majority of its profits in credit card charges at the door, the bar, and the private rooms; the cash that flies around has always belonged to the strippers. On the floor, customers hand out hundred dollar bills as liberally as business cards. It’s a rare exhibition. Though the Federal Reserve estimates there are 13.4 billion hundreds “in circulation,” the bills rarely make their way ordinary businesses, like grocery stores or laundromats, circulating instead among illicit industries—money launderers, drug dealers, predatory employers, according to Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash: How Large-Denomination Bills Aid Crime and Tax Evasion and Constrain Monetary Policy. Financial experts often present these contraband uses of the hundred dollar bill as evidence in the case for eliminating cash, Rogoff adds.
But without cash, the club I work at is free to exploit. Cash handed directly to a dancer gets pocketed, but credit card charges are skimmed—and because workers are more or less off the books, we have no recourse to contest absurdly high fees. When a customer pays several hundred dollars to spend time in a dark room alone with a dancer, the club takes a 70 percent cut. (Though the club explicitly forbids sexual services, management offers no advice or instruction in how to give an hour-long “private dance.”)
When the customer runs out of cash bills and doesn’t want to pay the exorbitant fee at the club’s ATM (which is often, conveniently, broken) the club will take roughly 30 percent out of every dance dollar—plastic bills representing the cost of a lap dance. That’s on top of a roughly $100 nightly fee that dancers pay in order to work, positioned as a “sales target” or “membership fee.” This club is particularly predatory, but almost all clubs siphon a hefty chunk of digital payments. Aside from the money, the banking industry’s long history of discrimination against vulnerable people—particularly communities of color—is a reason why millions of Americans remain unbanked, despite the high fees. Without cash, strippers are forced into the banking system, an industry that many believe is designed to undermine them.
A segment of sex-positive feminism tends to frame strip clubs with an empowerment narrative—an economy that reclaims female sexuality by making men pay to watch. But the benefits of that economy exist because of cash. Cash allows sex workers access to reliable and untraceable income, it makes it possible to avoid the discrimination inherent in the banking system, it allows us to hide our work from outside scrutiny. Without cash, sex workers pay the maximum price literally and emotionally when they walk into a business which ritually serves them up to drunk and violent regulars, who expect sexual favors in the private rooms. The trauma is worthwhile only because of the sub-economy of cash–without which, stripping here is just a really shitty experience.
It’s easy to preview the cashless world: look to Sweden, where, in one 2018 survey, only 13 percent of respondents said that they made their most recent transaction in cash. Most of those transactions are conducted through Swish, a bank-sanctioned Venmo-like app, used by around 60 percent of Swedes. According to the New York Times, about half of all businesses in Sweden are expected to go cashless by 2025.
For strippers in Sweden, this means that tips for extra conversation or a little kindness no longer come from wallets; instead they are transferred through the club’s checking accounts and dispensed only for the set price of a dance. A Swedish stripper helped me do the math. She received a “guaranteed salary” of the equivalent of $55 USD per night, a deduction from the 80 percent cut the club takes from her lap dances ($100 USD). In lieu of tips, which are forbidden in the private rooms, the club encourages customers to buy her drinks (for which she gets a ten percent commission) or pay for a dance. Her only unskimmed tips came in the form of cash, from the stage, collected by a manager or bartender. She has since left for Norway, where the tax rate is lower.
“As the cash disappears, more and more I’m turning to underground clubs owned by criminals,” another Swedish stripper told me. “It isn’t worth it working in the clean clubs in Sweden anymore.” But by operating outside of government purview these “underground” clubs, places where neither the business nor the dancers pay taxes, have less protection against sexual assault and physical attacks by customers, she told me. The tradeoff: Now she averages the equivalent of $3000 USD a week.
Sweden is known for legalized sex work, a separate but parallel industry to stripping, which is also being upended by digitized money. The cashless economy works as an ersatz penal system, allowing the government to track workers via their bank accounts and impose moral judgement. A head of a Swedish sex workers’ rights organization explained to me that, though selling sex is legal and taxed, sex workers are also technically, legally, considered victims of exploitation. In at least one case, the government has used these legal semantics to justify taking custody of a sex worker’s children, because she was engaging in what was considered a pattern of self-harm.
Because running a brothel is illegal, landlords who rent apartments to sex workers can be prosecuted for pimping; because buying sex is illegal, sex workers’ sexual partners can be suspected of buying sex. And then because sex work is considered a “dishonest” profession, foreigners with residency permits can be denied re-entry to the country, thanks to a law dictating that immigrants must make their living by “honest means.”
The chilling effect of this kind of punitive policing is that many sex workers to go unbanked in order to avoid being tranced, which effectively shuts them out of society: no savings account, no Swish-only businesses, no IKEA (possibly), no pension, no leases or mortgages. Because landlords don’t take cash, sex workers have to rely on fixers and pimps to do their banking for them; wire transfer companies such as Western Union ask for government-issued ID for both sender and recipient, making it near impossible for migrant sex workers to move money out of the country.
If that sounds familiar, similar things are happening in the United States. The End Banking for Human Traffickers Act, which passed the House and was subsequently introduced to the Senate by Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio, would pressure banks to alert the government to suspected money laundering by human trafficking. It came on the heels of last year’s swift, widely-supported bipartisan legislation FOSTA-SESTA, which resulted in the shutdown of sex workers’ safety information-sharing forums online and in person, collateral damage in the campaign to stop human traffickers from operating online. The banking bill hasn’t made much progress since last summer. (Warren’s office agreed that it needed more precision. Attempts to reach Warren and Rubio’s offices were unsuccessful.) But when banks have been encouraged to target suspicious activity in the past, sex workers have found themselves to be easy targets. Even without legislation, it’s easy to feel like a target.
In January 2017, adult film actor and director Lorelei Lee’s mother attempted to send her daughter money via Square Cash so that she and fellow activists could rent a bus to the Women’s March in Washington. The transaction wouldn’t go through. ”Security reasons,” it said. “My mom called me up and was like why isn’t this working?” Lee recalled. “They don’t always tell you why, they say things like ‘security reasons,’ but you know why–it is categorical discrimination.’” When asked for comment, a Square Cash representative did not specify whether Square Cash discriminates based on profession, but highlighted three forbidden activities from its terms of service clause: illegal activity or goods, adult entertainment oriented products or services (in any medium, including internet, telephone, or printed material), and escort services.
Beyond Square Cash, punitive banking has a history in the U.S., where financial institutions effectively decide whether sex workers (including strippers, cammers, and adult film entertainers) should be allowed to have access to their services. “It has a psychological effect which prevents you from doing things like reporting violence to the police, trying to get access to social services,” Lee told me. “Imagine what happens when you are trying to get out of the industry and how much harder it makes for you to do any other kind of work.”
Lee, a politically-attuned documentarian, is used to advocating for herself and others in the adult film industry, where workers have been indiscriminately cut off from their finances over the past few years. Rumblings of banking discrimination against US-based sex workers—criminalized and working legally—roiled Twitter in 2014, when adult film actors posted images of Dear John letters from JPMorgan Chase informing reportedly hundreds of US adult industry professionals that their banks accounts were closing, without explanation, which banks are under no obligation to provide. Adult entertainer Teagan Presley tweeted that Chase told her that her account was closed because she was “an infamous figure in the adult business.” Major softcore porn producer Marc Greenberg claimed that he was told, after months, that Chase had refused him a home loan due to “moral reasons” in violation of the bank’s morality clause. Stormy Daniels, Stoya, Layton Benton, and Chanel Preston have all claimed to have been refused accounts or had theirs shut down. As of publication time, JPMorgan Chase has not returned request for comment.
Some speculated that they were casualties of “Operation Choke Point,” an Obama-era initiative in which the Department of Justice asked banks to close accounts associated with “high-risk” industries, including payday lenders, gun dealers, and pornography (listed on a now-removed page on the FDIC’s site). But a Chase source told Mother Jones that the closure of porn stars’ accounts had nothing to do with the DOJ; rather, Chase wielded its power over perfectly legal enterprises, such as safe-sex site Lovability, because it declared condoms an “adult-oriented product” which posed a “reputational risk.”
“I think clamping down on sex workers is a great diversionary tactic, and it’s not enough that it’s going to seriously impact the bank’s bottom line,” Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer for sex workers told me. “Imagine you are Wells-Fargo, and you don’t want them to look into the fact that they are opening eight to ten accounts for a single consumer, and they don’t want them to follow your paper trail. So they go for the low-hanging fruit.” As a result, sex workers are left not only at the mercy of the banks but of their fellow citizens from partners who sign their leases and car payments to the accountants trusted to steer them through the system if those partners turn on them. “Any time you give a civilian any of your legal information,” one sex worker told me, “that is terrifying.”
In an industry where workers are used to lying about their jobs to acquaintances, family, prospective employers, and “coming out” to new partners, the scrutiny of digital financial service providers means everyone is judged for their sins. When I told a coworker recently about this story, she winced. “How much time do we have left?” she asked me. I couldn’t say; but in the sense that cash represents freedom from moral arbitrators, those days are already over.
Dame Joan is a pseudonym for the author of this piece.