Meet the Censored: Cherie DeVille
Long before controversies in Canada and Russia saw financial services politicized, porn star Cheri Deville warned about payment processors having too much power over speech
Over the last few years, you may have read stories explaining that Visa and Mastercard were imposing new rules to “stamp out illegal activity” in pornography sites. In these pieces, company spokespeople are often heard evincing concern about human trafficking or “missing or exploited children,” which sounds more than reasonable. Who doesn’t want to stop trafficking and child abuse?
As porn star Cherie DeVille explains, the story is, and has been, a lot weirder than that. Because Visa and Mastercard hold effective duopoly status all over the world — controlling 98% of credit transactions in the U.K., 80% in the E.U., and over 70% in the U.S. — no porn performer can afford to cross the rules for acceptable content the two companies have laid down. And those rules are beyond strange.
“Women are allowed to squirt, but we’re not allowed to urinate,” DeVille says. “We can’t insert our panties into our vaginas anymore, because that’s an object. I tried to use a carrot-shaped dildo. That’s a problem because that’s an object, too, but a phallic-shaped dildo is apparently okay.” She shakes her head in amazement. “The rules are completely nonsensical.”
Officially, terms of service use vague language like, “Mastercard prohibits merchants from processing any transaction that… may damage the goodwill of the corporation” or “reflect negatively on the marks,” or is “patently offensive and lacks seriously artistic value.”
But porn performers have found that charges for whole ranges of activities are routinely declined under those general terms, leading sites to bypass content containing keywords ranging from sleeping to vampire fantasy to aliens to toilet to fisting to a whole list of other stuff someone in the credit industry apparently spent a humorously enormous amount of time pondering.
Somewhere in the world’s biggest financial companies sit offices where human beings, likely dressed in ties and loafers and dress suits, decide how many fingers may be shoved up a human rectum (less than five, currently). DeVille imagines a board room full of old white guys waving thumbs up or down to an endless series of acts — yay to inserting identifiably phallic objects, nay to spilling red corn syrup on boobs, etc. “That’s just me using my comical mind to make myself sane,” she says. But the story actually isn’t all that funny, because the issue goes beyond the lunatic mass refereeing of sexual behavior, which is already bad enough.
DeVille, who also writes for the Daily Beast, has been warning for years that the power private monopolies and duopolies like Visa and Mastercard have accrued in the digital economy should worry everyone, not just porn performers, that this problem would soon pop up in other arenas.
“The general public should freak out that Mastercard now controls what they can and cannot watch,” she wrote last year, in a piece called Why Mastercard’s New Porn Rules Should Scare Everyone. “Today, they’re regulating porn, but what if they start deciding what cinema and books we consume?”
After a slew of recent international controversies that have seen banks, credit companies, and payment processors deployed as levers over speech or political activity in previously unimaginable ways — from the freezing of donations to trucker protests in Canada to cutoff of Visa and Mastercard services in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine — DeVille suddenly sounds like a Cassandra.
For years, as documented in this space, platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have been imposing more and more aggressive content prohibitions, eating away at the First Amendment as the speech landscape has increasingly become a single privatized space.
DeVille has also dealt with these speech bans, on various platforms. Her experience of having accounts frozen for uploading photos that would fly if a “mainstream” figure like Britney Spears appeared in the same pose should sound familiar to news videographers like Ford Fischer or Jordan Chariton, who’ve had controversial news footage zapped while CNN or the New York Times have been permitted to use the exact same film. The same double-standard exists with porn and “mainstream” entertainment.
“All of us sex workers trying to advertise on these platforms would abide by whatever rules they decide to put on us, but they don’t apply those rules evenly,” DeVille says. “We’re specifically targeted, removed, and/or shadow-banned from these platforms where our mainstream counterparts are also selling sex on the same platforms.” DeVille for instance is opposed to even simulated underage content, but finds it odd that companies like HBO and Netflix regularly get away with airing shows that sexualize children in ways that freak out even porn stars.
Those contradictions are bad enough, but DeVille’s experience also represents the next, more frightening level of speech enforcement, in which financial firms — perhaps at the behest of governments — act as de facto behavioral regulators. Visa and Mastercard, as well as services like PayPal or ApplePay or GooglePay, have enormous theoretical power not just over the boundaries of erotica but over ideological preference and political behavior.
The outlines of a carrot-stick social credit system built around such companies were visible long before it became financially unsafe to be, say, a protesting Canadian trucker, or an unvaccinated New York City welfare mom, or a donor to various Palestinian sites “linked” to terrorism (as determined in cooperation with UK Lawyers for Israel), or a contributor (until he was acquitted) to Kyle Rittenhouse’s defense fund, or any resident of Russia now. DeVille takes no position on any of these issues, but implores people to think about who ultimately gets hurt most by the broad use of financial penalties.
“I’m not even going to talk about politics, I’m just thinking about human beings that have nothing to do with the bullshit that their governments are doing,” she says. “So, we’re going to take stuff away from their kids’ mouths? We’re going to remove their food? You think their governments give a shit? No. You’re just hurting people. People, people. Nice, regular, human beings.” She pauses. “How about remembering we’re all just human beings and our governments do some dumb shit?”
We saw where this might be headed as far back as December 7, 2010, when Visa and Mastercard cut off services to the whistleblower site WikiLeaks, reportedly under pressure from the U.S. government. Seemingly, this was in retaliation for the site’s release of a quarter million American diplomatic cables. A series of other private companies immediately joined in, with PayPal and Western Union stopping payments to the site, Amazon removing WikiLeaks content from its EC2 cloud, and the finance arm of the Swiss post office freezing the bank accounts of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Even when the specter of a possible arrest of Assange on sex crime charges was raised, Forbes wrote then that this seemed “like a trivial problem compared to the starvation diet that financial industry has implemented.” These moves received some backlash, and WikiLeaks did at one point win a victory when an Icelandic court in 2012 ruled the two credit card companies violated contract law by cutting off donations. For the most part, however, the public shrugged at the idea of private companies working with governments to seize funds or deny services to groups or individuals who hadn’t even been charged with a crime.
WikiLeaks seemed an isolated case, but the War on Porn hasn’t been. The same concept of financial firms imposing restrictions that are much tighter than existing law has been going on for ages in this industry. Most Americans have consistently shrugged at this, too, which to DeVille always seemed crazy. “The precedent should scare Americans,” she says. “These companies are not only dictating what you get to watch, but dictating what you can consume. How is everyone okay with that?”
After a few hundred years in which safeguarding the freedom to make unpopular or unconventional decisions was considered a core American value — particularly on the liberal left, keeping an eye on these issues was until recently considered crucial to the success of the democratic experiment — a huge chunk of our population has lost all appetite for defending the right to disagree, get consentingly kinky, or even think bad thoughts. Instead, there’s new vigilance in the other direction.
“There’s this whole culture of putting your moral choices on everybody else and being intolerant of discussion or choices that other people might make,” DeVille says. “If you limit yourself to a box of people all saying the shit you already agree with, you don’t live in the real world.”
In the wake of Canada’s invocation of its Emergencies Act, and Visa and Mastercard ending services in Russia, DeVille talked about her absurd and frightening experiences, the bizarre rules about what can be inserted where, and what she thinks the regulatory precedent credit cards set in her world might portend for everyone else:
MT: Financial companies are suddenly in the news all over the world, but you’ve been warning about this for a while. Why?
DeVille: Visa and MasterCard have been the bane of the industry even before I started talking about it. For us, this is incredibly old news, but now it seems like it’s just starting to affect industries other than porn. Of course very few people, if anyone, will stand up for porn. They’re going to say: “Oh, we don’t worry about what Visa, MasterCard, or the legal system, or the government is doing to sex workers. That’ll never happen to us.”
It seems like that’s changing now. Still, just because something’s happening to a group of people that you don’t agree with, it’s like I’ve been saying, the precedent is what should be important to people. Whether or not you agree with sex work as a profession, the precedent of our financial institutions having any control over freedom of speech, or becoming more important than laws and government, I think is a red flag in a variety of ways across the board that really have nothing to do with porn or adult content.
MT: Aren’t credit card companies just making sure no laws are broken? That’s the argument.
DeVille: I’ve only been in porn 11 years, but for the entirety of that 11 years, the conversation of what we can and can’t do on set has really had nothing to do with what’s legal. No one’s going to do anything illegal and try and sell that. No legitimate company would ever do that. It’s crazy. The rules instead have everything to do with billing.
Maybe, for example, you enjoy using the platform OnlyFans and one of your favorite kinks is urination. That’s obviously legal. No one is getting hurt. Everyone is consenting. We’ve always had age verification.