Why are sex workers getting kicked off Airbnb and other platforms without explanation?


During the three years that Arianna Travaglini used Airbnb, she was a very good guest and received stellar reviews from her hosts. The five she stayed with praised her friendliness, cleanliness and conscientiousness. After she visited Toronto in April 2014, the Airbnb host wrote, “Very clean tenants. The apartment was in an amazing condition! Highly would recommend them to other hosts.”

Because of her sterling on-platform reputation, Travaglini was surprised when she received an email in late June saying she was now banned from Airbnb. As she performs in porn and works as a professional domme under the name Andre Shakti, she believes it’s because she’s a sex worker.

“What I think they just did…is someone got around to googling my legal name,” she told me by phone. “And if you google my legal name my sex worker name comes up right next to it.”

While Airbnb has not commented or confirmed why Travaglini was removed, she has reason to believe it’s because of her job: it’s not the first time she’s been removed from an online service for her work. In 2014 she tried to crowdfund a trip to Toronto for the Feminist Porn Awards using Fundly. Although she was using the platform to raise the money for her plane ticket, she was told that the credit card processing company doesn’t allow “adult content.” Travaglini had to find a different way to get to the awards ceremony.

Banks and financial service companies have often acted as an obstacle for sex workers conducting their business online. In 2013, Chase’s refused to issue adult performer Stoya an account. Even though, as Melissa Gira Grant wrote in 2014, “all sexual commerce is technological,” some tech companies show a habit of tossing sex workers off. It doesn’t seem to matter that they are often early adopters of new technology.

The work Travaglini does is legal, and she told me over the phone that she didn’t work out of the Airbnbs she rented. She claims she “never had a single problem” with Airbnb until she realized she was banned while trying to book a trip to Baltimore and Washington, D.C, where she would teach sex-ed workshops. Travaglini tried asking questions of several hosts for two weeks, but got no response.

“I just noticed that nobody was getting back to me, which is really unusual on that platform. And then finally I was like screw it, I’m just gonna book a place. So I clicked the instant book button…and I was immediately thrown back to the homepage.”

She called Airbnb customer service, who told her that the problem seemed “to be a security issue, and that [the customer service representative couldn’t] help me because their security team needs to assess the situation.”

Travaglini asked the customer service rep to elaborate, and was told that wasn’t possible. She said something needed to be done, and eventually, frustrated, got off the phone. Less than ten minutes later Travaglini got the email informing her she was banned. (Immediately after that, she got a customer satisfaction survey regarding the call.)

The email she received told her simply that her account had been disabled at Airbnb’s discretion and without explanation, a right the company reserves in its Terms of Service.

The letter is a form letter, basically identical to one Airbnb sent professional dominatrix and porn performer Julie Simone in March. Simone faced almost the same problem with Airbnb, receiving a swift ban without explanation shortly after signing up. In that case, Airbnb said it doesn’t comment on individual cases, but that “as a general matter we constantly review our platform to ensure that the use of listings are in line with what our hosts and guests both expect.”

Asked about Travaglini and whether Airbnb has a policy on sex work, legal or otherwise, a spokesman for Airbnb didn’t elaborate much. “Prostitution is not allowed and we are constantly reviewing the platform to be sure any activity in the listing is in line with what hosts would be ok with in their home,” a spokesperson explained via email. The company has yet to respond to follow-up questions about sex workers doing legal work or none at all out of Airbnbs.

There have been concerns about Airbnb being used to book ad hoc porn sets (generally in Southern California) or, famously, cases like that of a New York man whose apartment was rented out for an orgy without his knowledge. But, the reality is that people are going to have sex in Airbnbs, especially if you’re renting to a couple. It’s even possible that, *gasp,* some will bring a new friend back to an Airbnb for sex. Many people seem fine with that (even Airbnb hosts).

While prostitution isn’t allowed by law in most states and by the Airbnb’s rules, that a sex worker could get banned from personal use of the platform because of their job brings us into dicey territory. By way of comparison, how would the public react if the company banned a nurse, or a lawyer, or a bartender because of their job? And what if nobody could confirm if their job was the cause for the ban?

Travaglini says, she considers herself relatively lucky, and that this is the worst case of potential discrimination she’s run into because of her work.

“I’ve been a sex worker for ten years, since I was eighteen,” she says. “I think because I’m extremely out about my profession, I’ve managed to avoid a lot of the common discrimination bullshit that happens to sex workers.”

Even when sex workers and other adult content producers manage to make slight gains with online services, they tend to come with caveats and secrecy. At the end of July, crowdfunding website Patreon started letting them use its service with ease through a unique deal with PayPal subsidiary Braintree, even though PayPal hasn’t been a friend to sex workers in the past. But even with that deal in place, Patreon’s Terms of Service still prohibit people from using the platform to fund porn, and a spokesperson for Patreon told me that the company said its “not commenting on the new changes or giving any further info on it other than the announcement that was sent out to creators & our community guidelines.”

That sort of opacity, or Airbnb’s insistence on maintaining the right to ban users without explanation, is unsurprising. It’s a way to avoid liability, letting companies offload users they’re concerned about without consequence. If someone doing legal sex work was banned for their profession, that would cause problems for a company like Airbnb, which has already had to acknowledge problems with racial and anti-trans discrimination by hosts.

While Travaglini just ended up booking a hotel room for her trip to Baltimore and D.C., she’s left with effectively no recourse when it comes to Airbnb. She says she takes it as a further reminder of how many view sex work:

“It’s just another reminder that for most people sex workers are considered second class citizens…not deserving of the ease with which most people float through the world.”

Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at [email protected]

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