As a camera model, I have learned to deal with the expectations of others quite successfully. Online you have to deal with fans, coworkers, trolls, anti-porn evangelicals, and haters. I survived negative attention thanks to a strong support network from my husband, family, friends and fellow sex workers.
Public interactions are more difficult. Most are harmless – someone walks up to you at the grocery store and tells you that you look familiar. “I’m a porn star,” I tell them. Most of the time, it embarrasses them more than I do. Other times it’s just a glimmer of recognition, which I nod and smile at.
I live in a small, conservative town outside of Nashville, so I remain fairly anonymous. But not always. One evening, in a bar with friends, I discovered it the hard way.
I had left my friends to go to the bar to buy a round of drinks, when I noticed a table with their eyes moving towards me. I haven’t given it much thought. Many of the people you find in Nashville on Lower Broadway are wide-eyed tourists. Locals show visitors a good time, I was thinking.
But it didn’t take long to realize that someone in this group “knew me from somewhere” and had alerted the others. When someone spots you, you can recognize them quietly. When several people are looking your way – exchanging glances, laughing, and looking at phones – you pretty much know they’re talking to you. They didn’t point the finger, but they might as well have been.
I got tough. One woman was more distant than the others. I suspected her boyfriend had been the one to recognize me first, and from what I could tell she wasn’t a fan.
If I hadn’t been a sex worker it would have been stressful, even dangerous. Fortunately, my friends love and respect me, and see that I have built a successful career. I might not be exactly the person I play with online, but I’ve never been particularly shy about sex or my body. I take pride in what I do and have learned that I cannot be responsible for the discomfort of others.
But that doesn’t mean that I tolerate disrespect.
I saw two of the young women approaching the bar. One was the woman who hadn’t laughed. I saw her turn to the group, then to her friend, then to me.
They rushed over to me, taking a seat right next to me, as if to order a drink. As I took my drinks from the bartender, the disgruntled-looking woman turned to her friend and said loudly, making sure everyone could hear, “My God, it must be so embarrassing to know that all the guys here have seen her naked. “
Here it is, I said to myself. My blood started to boil.
This type of shame is a common experience for sex workers. This is something that people often do to reduce us to an object, to deprive us of power by projecting their own insecurities on us. She hasn’t stopped thinking of me as a person with my own emotions or my own struggles – someone enjoying a night out after a hard day, reconnecting with old friends. She saw me as a threat. A woman who is not afraid of her sexuality. A seductress, yearning for the man with whom she shares a bed. An unethical, immoral bitch – and often in the case of Nashville “unholy”.
“It must be so embarrassing to know that all the guys here have seen her naked.”
The words echoed in my head again.
I was so angry that I didn’t have time to process. I just turned to her, doing my best to sound indifferent, and replied, “It’s not my fault your boyfriend is buying my nudes.” Her friend stared back at me, her eyes wide and her mouth wide. How dare I answer them?
“My boyfriend would never do it,” the woman said with a forced laugh.
I smiled and leaned towards me.
“If I know anything in life, that’s what men are willing to pay for,” I told him.
I paid for my drinks with a $ 50 bill and told the bartender that the rest was to cover the drinks of my “new friends”. They nodded in amazement and I left to join my group of friends.
It was the most empowering thing I have done in my career as a sex worker. Speaking up allowed me to feel liberated. Buying their drinks made me feel powerful. And it planted a seed in my head. What if I could change people’s attitudes towards sex workers?
I thought back to an incident in second grade when a teacher intercepted a note I had passed on to a boy. In the note, I admitted to the boy that I had a crush on him – something the professor found very interesting. She did not read the note aloud, but over the following weeks she continually threatened to do so. “I’ll keep this, if I decide to read it aloud to the class,” she warned.
I was a good student, but I started to avoid going to school. My mom felt something was wrong, so I told her what had happened. His response: “No one can have a secret about you if you tell it yourself. “
After the incident at the bar, I vowed to tell all my secrets myself so that no one else could.
The next day I got up in the middle of the class and told everyone about my crush and sat down. I have been released. And the rest of the class were suitably impressed. Except the boy of course. (If only he could see me now, I think sometimes. Then again, maybe he did!)
After the incident at the bar, I vowed to tell all my secrets myself so that no one else could. I started a podcast and started filming videos about my life on my YouTube channel. I have developed a platform to teach topics such as branding, marketing, production and sales to the millions of sex workers who have gone online over the past few years.
Then I had another idea: a clothing line to help sex workers reclaim public spaces. Not just clothes, but armor.
My first drawing? A t-shirt with the words “Your boyfriend is buying my nudes”.
Working at this company has given me a lot of things including financial independence and an advocacy platform. But at the end of the day, it’s my powerful sense of self – forged in unexpected moments like in this bar – that I’m most proud of. I know that not all sex workers can go out safely yet and I respect that. But I hope I can get more sex workers to claim that part of their identity and someday share in the liberation that I have claimed for myself.
MelRose Michaels debuted as a camera model in 2011 and has since grown into one of the top adult influencers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped design and launch Centro University, an educational program for new adult creators. Her latest projects include SexWorkCEO.com, a platform to help sex workers think like entrepreneurs, and the Networthy fashion line focused on sex workers. Follow her on Instagram at @MelRoseMichaels.
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