MelissaSweet1, a camgirl in Arizona, started accepting cryptocurrency as payment for her erotic webcam performances three years ago. But usually, she would promptly convert it into fiat.
Until last year that is, when she started squirreling away the digital coins in a hardware wallet. Rather than simply an expedient way to get paid, crypto became a part of her retirement plan.
Like MelissaSweet1, several other sex workers recently interviewed by CoinDesk described similar shifts in their crypto usage. While others in the blockchain industry debate whether bitcoin is primarily a transactional currency or a global store of value, sex workers are already using the technology for both.
The trend speaks to both the surge in cryptocurrency prices, which has made it more rewarding to hold on to coins rather than cash out, and an intensification of the very problem that led the sex industry to turn to blockchain technology in the first place.
Namely, it's even harder than it was just six months ago for people in this line of work to get any kind of mainstream financial services in the U.S. – not just the payment processing that's long been elusive for them.
"More banks are viewing any sex work as high risk, and an increasing number of banks are refusing to accept direct deposits from adult industry companies," said MelissaSweet1, who like other sex workers did not want to give her real name.
In such an environment, sex workers – a broad category that includes not only escorts but lawful workers such as erotic dancers, porn stars and even film production professionals – see saving money the old-fashioned way as increasingly risky because their accounts can be closed and funds frozen without warning. Some are afraid that centralized crypto services will start to do the same.
So, in addition to hodling the crypto they receive from clients, they're also moving their digital money offline from third-party services to cold storage methods under their control.
Adult performer and token enthusiast Brenna Sparks alluded to the new state of affairs in a tweet last month. Recounting a conversation with a makeup artist on set, Sparks wrote:
But since retiring on crypto means securing it for years or even decades to come, these freelancers often evangelize in closed groups about the importance of cold storage. This is the practice of keeping the private key to a wallet – which is like a long, indecipherable and hard-to-remember password – offline, either on a piece of paper or a hardware device.
"I've seen an increase," camgirl and adult film actress Ginger Banks, who has been in the industry for eight years, told CoinDesk about her peers discussing how to manage private keys. "Just recently myself, people have been encouraging me to get my stuff off of Coinbase."
As long as users control their private keys, their crypto cannot be confiscated, a risk that even legal sex workers face when they keep money in the bank.
"The reason that security is taken so seriously by the adult industry is because they are so used having their accounts discontinued or frozen without warning by traditional centralized institutions," Nathan Smale, chief operating officer at the crypto startup Intimate, told CoinDesk.
"You are dealing with women and men who have always had to take responsibility for their own safety and protection, rarely being able to rely on others to actually help them," Smale said. "Is it any wonder that they would take control of their own funds and manage them?"
Even those who continue to use regulated, third-party services are hedging their bets. For instance, Leah, a 20-year-old sex worker who specializes in a form of BDSM, told CoinDesk she worries the government will create stricter regulations for cryptocurrency transactions, which would result in the kind of discrimination and account closures sex workers have long encountered from legacy financial providers.
So Leah uses a hardware wallet in addition to exchange accounts on sites like Coinbase. The flipside of cold storage, as seasoned crypto users know, is that key management can be stressful and involved. If lose your key, or forget the PIN or the recovery passphrase for a hardware wallet, you'll never be able to access your money.
"Cryptocurrency is something still pretty new, it's decentralized so you have to hold yourself more responsible," MelissaSweet1 said.
More to come
Despite the headaches involved, the trend among sex workers of using crypto to save for retirement looks likely to grow, as an unintended consequence of recently enacted and pending legislation.
First, there was the SESTA/FOSTA legislation package that passed in the U.S. in March, which conflated consensual sex work with sex trafficking, and weakened legal protections for internet service providers (including online financial platforms) used by sex workers.
While traditional banks and payment networks like Visa have been inhospitable to sex workers for at least a decade, these new laws gave them one more reason to fear for their reputations if they come anywhere near the industry. Now there is another bill working its way through Congress, which could criminalize providing banking services for "traffickers."
"These laws do pose a real threat to me," MelissaSweet1 said.
But that's not to say these crypto users want to break the law. Indeed, while naysayers may be quick to point out that saving for retirement without a licensed service provider could lend itself to tax evasion, blogs and social networks for sex workers are full of freelancers sharing tips on how to file taxes – including taxes on bitcoin payments.
"There is a way to report income even when you're doing something that might be, in some states or locations, outside the law," Mike Stabile, communications director at the Free Speech Coalition, a nonprofit adult industry trade organization, told CoinDesk. "Those people who are working in sex work do pay taxes. They do have deductions."
To that point, MelissaSweet1 said she has been checking all her legal compliance boxes while working in the adult entertainment industry for the past five years and plans to continue doing so because she is proud of her work.
Besides, she said:
Looking ahead, some sex workers are thinking about other potential wealth-building applications for blockchain technology. For example, Ginger Banks said she hopes to someday establish her own studio using smart contracts to send royalties (which are rare in the adult entertainment industry) directly to individual cryptocurrency wallets for long-term income throughout retirement.
"It feels like I am a part of history if I hold these coins for the future," Banks said.
Image via MelissaSweet1