“I never thought I’d die fighting side by side with an elf,” the dwarf warrior Gimli tells frenemy Legolas towards the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “What about side by side with a friend?” the lithe elven prince asks.
The scene is an iconic one, and often trotted out online whenever an unlikely alliance is formed. Take Nigel Farage and sex workers – any sentence mentioning one then the other would, in most circumstances, make you want to throw your newspaper at the wall. Over the past few weeks, however, they have found themselves with a mutual enemy: banks.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning (26 July), Alison Rose stood down as chief executive of NatWest Group, following weeks of speculation and debate about why Coutts had closed the account of the former Ukip leader. Though a senior source at the bank (later revealed to be Rose herself) initially claimed that Farage had been debanked because he no longer met Coutts’s wealth threshold, a subject access request revealed that his political views had also been taken into account when making the decision.
Naturally, corners of Westminster and Fleet Street rose up as one to defend Farage, free speech and the fundamental human right to be the customer of a swanky private bank. “Obviously you don’t have to agree with Mr Farage’s views to believe that…” was how many of the tweets and columns began. It has been, in turns, irritating, expected and a good excuse to take a broader look at the issue of “debanking”.
The furore wasn’t a surprise because the press can never get enough of Farage. It felt worthy of an eye-roll because debanking has been a real problem for many people for a long time, and few in the media or politics seemed to care until now. And it is a welcome development, because the intellectual framework of this conundrum could prove useful for other causes.
In 2021, the sex workers’ charity National Ugly Mugs published a report on financial discrimination. It found “evidence of financial discrimination against sex workers from various UK-based banks and financial institutions. This includes the refusal of services, such as business accounts, overdrafts and loans, and other financial products. In some cases, even the personal bank accounts of sex workers were shut down or frozen.”
Earlier that year, several sex-work organisations published an open letter addressed to financial institutions. “Sex work, in the form of providing online content, online interactions and the independent sale of sexual services, are legal within UK jurisdictions,” they wrote. “However, those working in the adult industries are reporting experiences barring them from financial services based solely on the grounds of their occupation.”
According to the National Ugly Mugs report, examples included HSBC admitting that they “[didn’t] have an appetite for the adult industry”, the business account provider Anna Money explaining that they “do not work with OnlyFans clients”, and many other financial providers calmly admitting that yes, they choose not to provide services to sex workers.
Did these stories make the front pages for days on end? I’ll give you three guesses. Editors and reporters may balk at the idea of siding with people they find distasteful, but the Farage logic should apply here. If the argument is that one shouldn’t have to lean towards the populist right in order to have sympathy for his debanking plight, the same should be said of people who decide to sell physical or virtual sex for a living: it’s a question of principle, not individuals – and in fairness to the latter, they are yet to help Britain lose between 2 per cent and 3 per cent of its GDP.
If what adult entertainment workers are doing is legal, they should be able to use both business and personal accounts at mainstream banks. That they are often stopped from doing so should be a national scandal. Of course, politicians may well say it isn’t their place to intervene on any morality clauses private companies might have, but they have had no problem weighing in on the actions of NatWest.
“No one should be barred from using basic services for their political views,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted earlier this month. “Free speech is the cornerstone of our democracy.” He isn’t wrong, but where should the line be drawn?
In fact, if we’re talking about large institutions that people have come to rely on in order to go about their lives, then social media should be taken into consideration as well. Meta, which owns Instagram, has a helpful list on its website of things one shouldn’t post on its platforms. Among them are “offering or asking for sex or sexual partners”, “sex chat or conversations”, “sexual slang terms” and, somewhat comically, “commonly sexual emojis”. Please, keep that peach in your pants.
In practice, what this means is that sex workers – from OnlyFans models to “full service” escorts – frequently lose access to their accounts, and with it the main way in which they advertise their business. The net is so broad that sex educators simply offering educational content are often caught out too. Sure, Meta isn’t publicly owned and sure, masturbating on camera for money isn’t for everyone, but edgy and radical views aren’t either. When a controversial political figure is banned from a social network, free speech warriors usually flock to their defence, while making it clear that they do not necessarily agree with them. Shouldn’t this principled stand extend to strippers or dominatrices?
The Prime Minister himself spoke out in Farage’s defence – would he have done the same when the sex club founder Genevieve LeJeune got her business account shut down for no obvious reason? It’s a silly question to ask, I’m aware. But it shouldn’t be.
There ought to be a serious conversation about how companies that provide increasingly vital services, such as banks and social media platforms, treat people in certain professions, be that political or sexual. But it cannot reach a satisfying conclusion if only one part of the equation is being discussed. Nigel Farage may be tedious, but his misadventures with Coutts should be the start of an important discussion. He isn’t the hero we need, but the one we reluctantly deserve.