As a cam model, I’ve learned how to manage other people’s expectations pretty successfully. Online, you have to deal with fans, colleagues, trolls, anti-porn evangelicals and haters. I’ve survived the negative attention thanks to a strong support network from my husband, family, friends and fellow sex workers.
More difficult are the public interactions. Most are innocuous — someone coming up to you in the grocery store, telling you that you look familiar. “I’m a porn star,” I tell them. Most of the time, it embarrasses them more than me. Other times, it’s just a flicker of recognition, to which I just nod and smile.
I live in a small conservative town outside Nashville, so I stay pretty anonymous. But not always. One night, out at a bar with friends, I found that out the hard way.
I had left my friends to go to the bar and buy a round of drinks, when I noticed a table with their eyes darting toward me. I didn’t think much of it. A lot of people you find in Nashville on Lower Broadway are wide-eyed tourists. Locals showing visitors a good time, I thought.
But it didn’t take long to realize someone in that group “knew me from somewhere” and had alerted the others. When one person spots you, you can quietly acknowledge it. When several people are looking your way — exchanging looks, laughing and glancing at phones — you pretty much know they’re talking about you. They didn’t point, but they might as well have.
I steeled myself. One woman was more standoffish than the rest. I suspected her boyfriend had been the one who first recognized me, and from what I could tell, she wasn’t a fan.
Had I not been out as a sex worker, this would have been stressful if not dangerous. Luckily, my friends love and respect me, and see that I’ve built a successful career. I might not be the person I play online exactly, but I’ve never been particularly shy about sex or my body. I’m proud of what I do, and I’ve learned I can’t be responsible for other people’s discomfort.
But that doesn’t mean I tolerate disrespect.
I saw two of the young women approach the bar. One was the woman who hadn’t been laughing. I saw her look back at the group, then at her friend, then over to me.
They made a beeline over to me, taking their places right next to me, as if to order a drink. As I got my drinks from the bartender, the disgruntled-looking woman turned to her friend and said, loudly, making sure everyone could hear: “God, it must be so embarrassing to know every guy in here has seen her naked.”
There it is, I thought to myself. My blood began to boil.
This type of shaming is a common experience for sex workers. It’s something people often do to reduce us to an object, to disempower us by projecting their own insecurities onto us. She didn’t stop to think of me as a person with my own emotions or struggles ― someone enjoying a night out after a hard day, reconnecting with old friends. She saw me as a threat. A woman who’s not afraid of her sexuality. A seductress, yearning for the man she shares a bed with. An unethical, immoral — and often in Nashville’s case “ungodly” — slut.
“It must be so embarrassing to know every guy in here has seen her naked.”
The words rang again in my head.
I was so mad I didn’t have time to process. I just turned to her, working my hardest to appear unbothered, and replied, “It’s not my fault your boyfriend buys my nudes.” Her friend stared back at me, eyes wide and slack-jawed. How dare I speak back to them?
“My boyfriend would never,” the woman said with a forced laugh.
I smiled and leaned in close.
“If I know anything in life, it’s what men are willing to pay for,” I told her.
I paid for my drinks with a $50 bill and told the bartender the rest was to cover my “new friends’” drinks. They nodded, stunned, and I left to rejoin my actual group of friends.
It was the single most empowering thing I’ve done in my sex work career. Speaking up made me 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 about sex workers?
I thought back to an incident in second grade, when a teacher intercepted a note I’d passed to a boy. In the note, I admitted to the boy that I had a crush on him — something the teacher found to be very interesting. She didn’t read the note aloud, but over the next several weeks she continuously threatened that she would. “I’m going to hold onto this, should I decide to read it aloud to the class,” she warned.
I was a good student, but I began to avoid going to school. My mother sensed something was up, so I told her what happened. Her reply: “No one can hold a secret over you if you tell it yourself.”
“After the incident at the bar, I committed to telling all my secrets myself so no one else could.”
The next day, I stood up in the middle of class and told everyone about my crush and sat back down. I was liberated. And the rest of the class was suitably impressed. Except the boy of course. (If only he could see me now, I sometimes think. Then again, maybe he has!)
After the incident at the bar, I committed to telling all my secrets myself so no one else could. I launched a podcast and began filming videos about my life on my YouTube channel. I developed a platform to teach subjects like branding, marketing, production and sales to the millions of sex workers who have come online in the past few years.
Then I had another idea: a line of clothing to help sex workers take back public spaces. Not just clothing, but armor.
My first design? A T-shirt reading, “Your boyfriend buys my nudes.”
Working in this business has given me many things including financial independence and a platform for advocacy. But at the end of the day, it’s my powerful sense of self — forged in unexpected moments like at that bar — of which I’m most proud. I know that not every sex worker can yet be safely “out,” and I respect that. But I hope I can lead more sex workers to claim this part of their identities and someday share in the liberation I’ve claimed for myself.
MelRose Michaels got her start as a cam model in 2011, and has since become 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 sex-worker-focused fashion line Networthy. Follow her on Instagram at @MelRoseMichaels.