In “today’s” Financial Times [true at the time of drafting], quite possibly the world’s best newspaper*, there was an article about HSBC bank entitled, “HSBC to stop new oil and gas project funding.” And then subtitled, “Lender limits exposure to fossil fuels after attacks on its environmental policies.”
The article explained that HSBC will be cutting financing and advisory ties to new oil and gas fields and metallurgical coal projects. It is doing this owing to pressure from environmentally active shareholders and other pressure groups.
HSBC is not the lead lender to these sectors—the article notes that the bank provided close to $55bn between 2016-2021, making it the 6th largest such financier.
This is good news, right? Global warming. Pollution. The environment. Chock up a win for shareholder activism.
But this story triggered a memory of the discriminatory steps that online platform Only Fans took towards sex workers in 2020 and 2021…biting the hand that created them and shutting many profiles down…And all this on the heels of Mastercard’s decision to not provide financial services to sex workers…Paypal is another company notorious for this. Sometimes it is internal policy, other times it is fear of shareholder action, or the wrath of the religious right.
The hypocrisy of what OnlyFans did and does (and other platforms like it) is pointed out in this article in the FT.
It bothered me deeply that the world’s oldest profession, and Sex Workers more generally, are so aggressively targeted and effectively unbanked, making their lives even more precarious, and bringing about the exact outcome that these financial service providers claim to seek to avoid—the vulnerability of Sex Work.
But I wonder, would they do what they had one if they didn’t feel the pressure just as HSBC did? How can we applaud HSBC’s decision, or rather the tireless work of the activists, when other activists with different politics were behind the decisions that so seriously harmed Sex Workers?
Clearly, shareholder activism is a good thing. Clearly, the religious and self-righteous right are taking aim at many forms of this kind of activism, as has been happening for a generation. First it was outrage at those who were “politically correct”. Now it is a fight against being “woke”.
Similarly, transgender people are vilified as threats to our children, sexual deviants seeking to raid female spaces, unsuccessful male athletes finding the only way to compete and win…the list goes on.
If history is any guide, then sooner or later the self-righteous or those who are anti-enlightment, anti-progress, anti-change will lose. While some pockets still exist of extreme hold-outs, most people know by now that racism isn’t cool. You might even find that people call each other out on these things. Goodness, now that’s an idea.
What does all this tell me? That the puritanism and holier-than-thou behaviour of Mastercard and Only Fans was not rooted just in the decision-making authority of a small number of conservative, most probably, older white men, but rather was likely a reflection of the “silent majority”. Most people may be uncomfortable with the existence of Sex Work.
And that tells me that the debate, in order for it to be won, needs to had on a much broader stage. It is not enough to decry Only Fans and Mastercard. Instead, one has to go after the root cause.
The root cause is fear of unbridled female sexuality. Men fear the powerful woman. Men fear a woman who is not dependent. This idea of she can be a mother, represents motherhood, represents the most important personal relationship that anyone ever has—for after all, we are from the body and fed by the body. There is no substitute for a mother’s love, care, listening…and what? Power. That is an astonishing power. The power to heal. The power to listen. The power to assuage. The power of forgiveness.
The idea that so much power, the ‘my mother’ part of the equation, is irretrievably broken down when she is simply an empowered woman, a woman who doesn’t need you. She is an island, you man, are not. No man is an island, but every woman who wants to be, can be.
And that colossally scares men.
It will be no secret that I am a fundamental champion of Sex Workers. As an author of smut under many pen names, I don’t quite qualify for the badge, but I do regard the badge as one of honour. The small number of Sex Workers I know are proud to be such, and enjoy their work, and all that it gives them access to. While it might not be worth suggesting it should be a degreed profession, the proliferation of educators in the field is highly encouraging. At the very least it can very well be an aspirational profession.
Lots of people want to be lawyers but there is plenty of stigma attached to them. Right? What’s the old joke? “I didn’t want my mother to know I was a lawyer so I told her I played piano in a brothel.”
In other words, we won’t break the stigma of sex work, won’t stop companies from shutting Sex Workers out until women become fully empowered. As long as society feels it is okay to use female morality as a baton with which to beat her into submission, grabbing plenty of women along the way to join the bandwagon, we will not free women from the yoke of oppression.
Shareholder activism, therefore, is simply the canary in the coal mine.
*The FT has written some interesting articles on Sex Work, including this recent one about how women are turning to Sex Work to make ends meet. And that is just it. Making Sex a frontier of economic liberation is just the transgressive act that shakes patriarchy to the core.