Julie Simone had heard wonderful things about Airbnb. "So many of my friends, when I was at [the Adult Entertainment Expo] in January, had used Airbnb and were like, 'It's really great, that's who you should use when you travel, because y'know, you can cook your own meals, it's cheaper than a hotel,'" she told me over the phone, quickly adding, "That's why I tried it, because I can probably rattle off like ten sex workers that I know that rent from them."
So Simone signed up for Airbnb for a trip to New York she's making soon. She found a comfortable apartment in Queens and got a notification that her host had confirmed the booking. But then, an hour later, she got a nasty surprise: the company told her it didn't want her as a customer.
Simone (her professional name) suspected the problem was her job: she is a dominatrix, as well as a pornographic actor and director, and has been for years.
Along with an apology for inconveniencing her and an assurance she'd be refunded, the email from Airbnb read as follows:
We wanted to reach out to you regarding your Airbnb account. After a routine review, and given information uncovered pursuant to online public records, we have determined that it is in the best interest of Airbnb, and for the users on our site, to deactivate your account permanently. We realize that this may come as a disappointment and that you may have questions regarding this determination. We hope you understand that this decision is exercised at our sole discretion and that we are not obligated to provide an explanation as to the action taken against your account, nor are we liable to a user in any way with respect to deactivating or canceling his or her account.
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Simone told me that she has good credit and no criminal record, so she is convinced that her status as a porn star and sex worker is the reason she was rejected. A spokesman for Airbnb told me that he couldn't on the specifics of the case "[f]or privacy reasons," and added 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." (AirBnb did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how they handle discrepancies between users’ legal names and other aliases, professional or otherwise, in their background checks.)
The decision to cancel the reservation, and to deactivate Simone's account, was made entirely by Airbnb. I reached out via Airbnb's messaging function to the owner of the Queens apartment Simone had planned to rent. He told me that after confirming the reservation Simone had made, he received an email from the company saying that "she didn't complete verification process and therefore they had to cancel reservation."
As part of that Airbnb verification process, Simone had voluntarily submitted a number of items, including a scan of her ID with her legal name and access to her Facebook account. According to Airbnb's site, the verifications are available for users to prove who they are and "to build trust in our community." A cursory Google search of her full legal name, which is on the ID she provided, would've quickly allowed the company to connect the dots between her legal name and her professional one.
Because Airbnb has refused to provide details, it's hard to say for certain what the reason for the deactivation was. If it was because Simone is a sex worker, it's also hard to say whether it had to do with one realm of her work or another: her work as a domme or her porn work.
However, Airbnb has found themselves at odds with sex workers very recently. Late last month KNBC, a Southern California NBC News affiliate, ran a story about an Airbnb host suing a guest after finding out he'd booked her home in order to film pornography. Earlier in February, VICE News reported on a Swedish controversy over prostitutes using an Airbnb to subvert Nordic model prostitution laws, which legalize selling sex but outlaw buying sex.
In both circumstances, however, what was going on doesn't appear to be illegal. The pornography case violated Airbnb's rules, because the service doesn't allow commercial filming unless a host consents, but the filming itself was legal, provided the producer had filed for a permit. In Sweden, the sex workers renting through Airbnb may have been doing so in part specifically to avoid being culpable under pimping laws that are still in place. While prostitution is criminalized in New York, there's legal precedent that working as a domme, like Simone does, does "not appear to fit within the category of sexual conduct referred to in the statute."
Also, unlike the cases in Sweden and L.A., Simone was a first-time Airbnb user. When she got the email telling her that her account had been deactivated, she wanted to know more, and told me that she "wrote them back and said 'can [Airbnb] give me more specific information about why I'm being cancelled?'" The company's response, excerpted below, re-emphasized parts of the original deactivation notice:
We received your message. This decision is exercised at our sole discretion and that we are not obligated to provide an explanation as to the action taken against your account, nor are we liable to a user in any way with respect to deactivating or canceling his or her account.
Technically, as a private company and per their terms of service, Airbnb is within their rights to remove the account, but Simone is upset that she had her account was cancelled and described it as "a dangerous precedent." Because she was banned during the verification process she feels she "was punished for something I hadn't even done, they just decided that I was going to do this thing."
In the meantime, she says for her trip she'll temporarily rent an apartment she lived in when she was a New York resident. She "had wanted something closer to the city, but at least my former landlord has no problems [with] what I do for a living."
Are you a sex worker who's had a similar experience with Airbnb? Please get in touch at email@example.com.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org