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Stripe Discriminates Against Witches

Editor's Note 12/1/2021 11AM EST: In November 2021, after the publication of this article, Stripe updated its policy to help US-based psychic, occult, and spiritual services use its platform and products. (Previously, such businesses were not supported by Stripe's financial partners in the US.) Per the company, it has found a new financial partner that allows these businesses and Stripe will no longer remove shops that fit under the "psychic services" list so long as there are no other violations of its terms of service.

When I decided to start offering tarot readings, selling them through my website seemed like the easiest method. I’m a writer, and prefer to give my readings in a written format—and after building out my site on Squarespace, the integration with Stripe took only a few minutes to set up. I eventually added more products—digital workbooks and study guides that had gained traction through my growing Instagram following—and built up a steady business selling these goods online.

After a few months, I received a notice from Stripe that my sales violated their terms of service, as my tarot work seemed to fit into their broad category of “psychic services” and was therefore considered a restricted, “high risk” business. After emailing them back to defend my business, to no avail, I restructured my payments to work with PayPal and continued to offer services through my website in this more limited capacity.

Then, in early 2020, with the start of the pandemic and the subsequent loss of my freelance photography income, I launched a Substack newsletter. After studying the Stripe terms of service carefully and designing my personal tarot writings around them, I launched with great excitement, and was thrilled to have people immediately sign up for paid subscriptions. I was able to run it for a month before I got the same familiar notice from Stripe, saying I had violated their terms. And again, I fought back, this time winning my case and keeping my newsletter alive. I was relieved, believing that my newsletter was safe, and continued to create content on Substack—only to run into similar problems with Stripe a year later.

I’m not alone. Stripe, a technology company launched in 2011, serves as the exclusive payments processor for popular platforms like Substack, Teachable, Circle, Ghost, Shopify, Medium, Revue, Memberful, and Clubhouse. Operating on over 3 million websites, they’re one of the most ubiquitous payment platforms on the internet—and they’re unfriendly to people who run metaphysical businesses, which, because of the “psychic services” label, are often deemed ineligible for payment processing.

The lack of nuance in these terms, combined with a consistent misunderstanding of what occult work actually entails, has led to many individuals and businesses in this space getting kicked off the platform, often without warning. Books, courses, workshops, lectures, consultations, readings, and other services are essential sources of income for many freelancers and small business owners, so being unable to be paid for these offerings directly impacts our livelihoods. And with the majority of these metaphysical services being offered by women, queer people, people of color, and individuals with marginalized identities, this policy may disproportionally impact people that may already be at a financial disadvantage.

Occult work being classified as “high risk” is nothing new. Companies like Etsy and Square have also historically made it challenging for metaphysical practitioners to use their platforms to sell products and services. Stripe’s official policy, per an email from its support team, is that “these businesses often make claims that are not backed by science or past evidence, which can lead to a high chargeback rate. Customers will be promised an outcome, and when that doesn't come true will dispute a charge as ‘Product not acceptable.’” Their policy is broad enough that the company can terminate service immediately and permanently, even if businesses have been operating without issue for some time or have never had to issue refunds to unsatisfied customers.

It’s not unreasonable for Stripe to want to protect customers from scam artists or disreputable sellers. But for many, the generalized label of “psychic services” that attempts to define and categorize our businesses isn’t even accurate. Occult services offer opportunities for reflection, self-awareness, and compassion, providing different ways to explore truth, spirituality, and intuition. They’re empowering, comforting, and can help people reclaim strength and purpose in moments when they feel vulnerable or afraid. Anyone working in this industry already has a vested interest in making sure clients know exactly what they’re getting—we don’t want to have unsatisfied customers either, or promise things that we can’t actually deliver. The tarot readings that I provide, for example, help my clients look at challenges, questions, and situations through a different lens, providing clarity and new perspectives in a safe and affirming environment. I have never claimed to be a psychic, and in fact explicitly say that I’m not psychic on my website.

“The use of terms like fortune teller and psychic are pejorative, demeaning, and discriminatory, as was the suspension of service,” said attorney and Wiccan priestess Phyllis Curott about her own struggles with Stripe. “The fact that countless Wiccans, Witches, and Pagans have had a similar problem with Stripe begins to sound not like random, algorithmic stupidities but as a pattern of religious discrimination.” Legal questions around metaphysical services are already complicated, and centuries of misinformation around spirituality and witchcraft make it even more difficult for small specialty businesses to defend themselves.

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When payment companies like Stripe actually take the time to look at our work and services, it’s clear that we aren’t making false promises or trying to scam anyone. In my case, I was able to get my account reactivated simply by contacting the company and talking openly about my work— indicating that, in some capacity, Stripe already recognizes that metaphysical businesses are not inherently high risk.

When individual workers and small businesses have to bounce between platforms and payment processors, it can be incredibly difficult to keep income consistent, and to hold onto clients. I was booted from Stripe a third time in the spring of 2021, when Substack came under fire for their controversial Substack Pro program. I had begun looking into other platforms, hoping to shift my newsletter to a service that offered better protections against hate speech. In setting up an account with Ghost, and integrating my existing Stripe account, I was once again flagged as a restricted business. And this time, no matter how many emails I sent, I couldn’t convince them to let me stay. In spite of never processing a single refund from an unhappy customer, I had only a few days to inform my readers and clients before my account was shut down. Six months later, I’m still struggling to make up the income that I lost.

Folkloric witch and teacher Siri Plouff said they were also removed from Stripe for using the service to sell tarot readings through their website. They applied again when opening their new apothecary, to no avail: Their account was initially confirmed, and then taken down within 24 hours. “I tried to contest that, but I wasn't successful,” Plouff said. Another occult business owner who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of having their business damaged said that they’d never had to issue any refunds or had any complaints. Still, for them, there was no method of recourse after their business was shut down.

For Sara Calvarese, owner of The 8th House metaphysical shop, the most frustrating part of this situation is that companies like Stripe make money on the backs of small businesses. “It’s not like these companies are doing us a favor, “ Calvarese said. “These payment processors collect monthly fees and take their percentages of our sales without fail. The fees can add up to thousands of dollars throughout the course of the year. However, without warning, they can shut our businesses down in a matter of minutes. How is that OK?”

For others, the growing dominance of Stripe has been eye-opening. “When we were scrambling for a backup that would allow us to have our own branded membership area, every single one of the membership sites we checked out were tied to Stripe by default, or were hugely cost-prohibitive if not,” Heather Vee, a web assistant for Phyllis Curott, the attorney and Wiccan priestess, said. “It was really eye-opening to discover how so many avenues to being a teacher/professional of occult topics on the web were cut off because of Stripe's arbitrarily enforced policy.”

Companies that process payments increasingly hold the power to decide which kinds of content, products, and services are available for purchase. Platforms like Substack may be interested in facilitating free speech and giving people a way to earn money with their writing, but companies like Stripe ultimately decide which of those voices deserve to be monetized and who is empowered to sell products and services online.

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As the $2 billion metaphysical industry rises in popularity around the world, it’s long past time for financial institutions to catch up. It’s essential for payment processing companies to examine how their internal policies are created, understood, and enforced. (When approached for comment, Mark Jansen of Stripe’s Global Communications Policy team directed me to a 2016 blog post that outlines Stripe’s high-level strategy for categorizing businesses—but it’s worth noting that metaphysical businesses are not specifically addressed in this post, and Stripe said it currently does not have "further specifics to share.”)

“These companies need to be accountable,” added Sara Calvarese from The 8th House. “If they don’t support metaphysical businesses, they need to clearly state that up front in the onboarding process, not bury it in the fine print of the terms of use.”

Indeed, if Stripe is unwilling to support metaphysical businesses, they need to be much clearer about it from the jump—but overlooking a growing industry, particularly one with such a high number of marginalized peoples and communities, is short-sighted, discriminatory, and unfair. Instead, Stripe should take the time to expand their understanding of the occult business world and adjust their policies to better separate out the scammers, so metaphysical practitioners are able to be paid for their work (which, at the end of the day, also means more money for Stripe). After all, why would anyone want to piss off witches?


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