Culture
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Porn stars battle stigma with sex awareness amid bank account closures

Chanel Preston awaits the porn industry’s civil rights movement, blogs to improve sexual openness in the US

It’s not easy to shock porn star Chanel Preston, but that was what happened, she says, when City National Bank closed her personal account without explanation.

“When I went to deposit my check, my account had been shut down. They didn’t explain why,” Preston said. “I asked, ‘Is it because I do porn?’”

The bank didn’t answer. Preston said she felt humiliated and that a “basic human right had been infringed upon.”

Almost a year later, Preston says she never received a response to queries as to why her account was closed, amid reports — corroborated to Al Jazeera by adult entertainment trade association the Free Speech Coalition (FSC) — that JPMorgan Chase Bank has in a little over a week closed hundreds of adult entertainment industry professionals’ accounts. Chase declined an interview request from Al Jazeera.

Numerous porn actors have reported that they received no clear explanation of why their accounts were closed. 

“Out of left field we got a notice our two personal and two business accounts were being closed,” said Joshua Lehman, the husband and former manager of ex-porn actress Teagan Presley.

Lehman said that branch and telephone bankers told him it was “because of our industry,” but staff at corporate headquarters “categorically denied this” and gave no reason for their decision.

“For us it's awful, as we aren't even in the adult business anymore, but we have since opened other accounts,” he said.

“They used social media and Google to link our personal names with our professional names, obviously.”

Presley agreed with her husband, adding that a customer support representative on the phone said her account posed a risk but wouldn’t specify how.

"I think it’s crazy that in 2014 that you wanna give a bank money and they won’t take it. Who doesn’t want money?"

But porn professionals haven’t only accused Chase.

Tasha Reign, 25, is a porn actress, adult industry entrepreneur and student pursuing a degree in gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. For over a year, Reign has attempted to open PayPal accounts — the only payment method available on many websites where she performs for customers via webcam. Repeatedly, the accounts have been shut down.

After a series of emails and letters, PayPal finally responded, in an email obtained by Al Jazeera, that Reign’s transactions posed a threat to its network "security" but did not specify how the money transfers were any less safe than others. 

A separate email said her account "violates some of the agreements you have with us," citing potential fraud. Reign said all the activity she engaged in was legal in her state of California. 

Reign tried using both her given and professional names, but her account was repeatedly closed.

PayPal did not respond to a request from Al Jazeera at time of publication.

Reign said the Chase issue was, although unnerving, “a good thing,” because it reminded her that action is necessary to protect adult entertainment workers’ interests.

Still, for her, “it's a much deeper issue than just banking. We live in a puritanical and patriarchal society that discriminates especially against female sex workers. Every one of you watches porn! You’re just shamed for it.”

Part of a larger issue

Leading sociologist on adult industry affairs Chauntelle Tibbals told Al Jazeera that discrimination by banks has been going on “for years” and that it’s one of countless forms of discrimination faced by people who produce content she believes nearly everyone consumes but many deride as immoral.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it? Yes — nobody watches porn at all,” Tibbals said sarcastically. “It’s just four weirdos spending billions of dollars each.”

Despite generating an estimated $13 billion a year in an occasionally faltering post-recession economy, advocates say porn industry workers are at the center of what they call one of the most accepted forms of marginalization today.

The banking problem “highlights issues of marginalization for adult performers,” said FSC spokeswoman Joanne Cachapero, “because most of the public is unaware of how people in these professions are pushed out of opportunities that most of us take for granted: having a bank account, getting a job after working in the adult industry, personal privacy and so forth.”

The FSC would not comment on whether it would seek legal action against Chase for allegedly discriminating against members of the adult entertainment industry. Cachapero and Tibbals noted that the FSC is currently engaged in a battle over a California state Legislature bid to enforce the use of condoms in porn shoots.

For Tibbals, the fraught battle for banking faced by porn professionals bespeaks a larger issue faced by all Americans.

“We are seeing that banks are able to make moral judgments on their clients. If [porn stars] can have their accounts canceled, everyone can,” she said.

Preston said the closure of her bank account is an infringement on her human rights, made by people she feels fail to understand that she entered the industry out of an interest in expressing herself sexually and not because she was coerced or couldn’t find other employment.

“It's hard to not have a bank account unless you live under a bridge. It's a human need, and apparently someone has the right to say I'm either not good enough or not complying with their standard … [and] I don’t even get to know what their standards are,” she said.

Preston added that she has since adopted an alias and withheld details about her work to obtain another account.

On a separate occasion a few years ago, she said, a Wells Fargo employee told her the bank does not offer business loans to porn industry professionals.

City National Bank and Wells Fargo did not respond to interview requests for Al Jazeera at time of publication.

For Preston, 28, her difficulties in finding a bank are an omen of what she fears will be a future full of social stigma after her work in adult entertainment ends.

“Every day, I live in fear what I'm going to do when I'm done. I'm not going to be young forever,” she said. “People put us down a lot — ‘They are stupid, they have to have sex for a living.’ But society doesn't let us do much else. It's not uncommon getting fired from other jobs. You think, gosh, I don't want to put effort and money into something and get fired from doing anything else.”

Preston is not alone.

“Porn actors have been discriminated against for years in the United States,” Tibbals said.

In one prominent case, Stacie Halas, then 32, was fired from her job as a middle school teacher for having had a brief career in porn.

The legal rights of women in porn are also in question. 

"I don't go to fraternity parties alone," Reign said. Although she has never been the victim of sexual assault, she feels she doesn't "have the same protections as a woman not in [the adult industry.]"

In her quest for answers about her banking dilemma, Preston said that unlike fellow porn professionals Lehman and Reign — who say they may consider legal action — she won’t seek legal retribution.

“It seems like a lot of work, money and time. It's hard to know if it's worth it or not,” she said.

But she believes a movement is needed to address the issues faced by her “small” and often vulnerable community.

“I don't know when we'll have our MLK Day. I am hopeful — I work towards that all the time. In an indirect way, I am always trying to help people expand their sexual boundaries and views on sexuality. I hope in turn that will change how people see our industry.”

Preston runs a blog called Naked With Chanel that promotes sex and sex health awareness.

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