Goodbye, Naked Therapist
Thoughts on Labor Day, sex work, getting paid and social media
I was in another mastermind course this month with Nikole Mitchell, an amazing life coach whom I feel like I’ve gotten to know in real life. She’s so open about her life as a mom to her 3 young kids, the pain of her divorce a few years ago and how her life has exploded after her story went viral. In her previous career she was a pastor who left her conservative Christian community after living in poverty her whole life. She feared becoming wealthy, influential and famous (her secret lifelong dream) as she was taught it would make her a sinner and go to hell. She became a life coach who went on to be very successful in the adult industry selling explicit content on Onlyfans which polarized her community, but she didn’t waver. She and her family went from living in her in-laws basement getting by on food stamps to becoming a millionaire in a few years (Nikole being the sole breadwinner to get there.) As a coach, she’s one of my biggest inspirations to be able face my deepest fears, come out as all of me and go for what I really want to have and do in my work. In her courses we focus on breaking through our biggest obstacles to “have it all”— the career, money, influence, relationships— the life we really desire. I’ve completed several courses from her but the core of her teaching is the same in each module— it’s ourselves that need to get out of our own damn way so we can just do the damn thing we want to do. Why is this concept easy in principal and yet so scary? One of our homework assignments was to do something brave, something that scared us a little to wake us the fuck up and see what’s possible.
In January of 2022, I took the first brave step jumping off the cliff - I came out online by changing my Twitter name to my real full name. My secret identity and sex worker community I spent years trying to keep separated and feared the worst if my multiple identities were ever connected, but I took back my power and flipped the switch myself. Then I went on to change the name of my Substack to my real name so I could be found here. My next step seems small in comparison, but it was what I chose to do for my homework and I shared it on my Zoom call with the other eight female entrepreneurs who hadn’t heard me really share my story.
“This may sound so trivial to some of you, but today I killed the Naked_Therapist. That’s been my Twitter handle for my now-not-secret sex worker account for nine years. I replaced that handle with my ordinary and unsexy real name, Melissa Mermin. It was terrifying typing out my actual name as I’ve trained myself for so long to automatically hide my identity as if I were a criminal. It was hard to not make up some other clever handle to put in it’s place. It feels so vulnerable and strange to just be online as my authentic whole self, as if I was walking around naked in public. While I still think the Naked Therapist handle is brilliant and described so much of how I and many of my friends in the community described our work, it felt like a box keeping my identity stuck inside that world. I know in my heart that I am first and foremost a creator, an artist and writer. That’s what really excites me, that’s the work I want to get back to somehow, but I don’t have a clear path and I’m scared.”
I want to document the world of the Naked Therapist, I just don’t want be her anymore. Since being part of the coaching group I’ve been listening to my higher self (or my gut, my heart, God, the Universe—whatever you want to call it), it keeps saying to me This is what you need to be doing, Melissa- go back to creating art, write your life story and stop living in the what ifs! But the fear that keeps me from charging forth is losing the other thing I love dearly and need— making wheelbarrows full of money that give me the freedom and peace of not having to worry about the lack of money or resources. I loved being a successful wedding photojournalist in my previous career. When someone asks me why I quit, I tell them it quit me first and it broke my heart. As the digital age became bigger and bigger over the last twenty years, it became much harder to do what I love and get paid for it. I got into sex work because I was ready to embrace a new version of myself as I became more body-confident and felt sexy for the first time in my late 30’s. I was also making less money year after year and I felt smaller, bitter and more depressed. After being hospitalized for a mental breakdown at age 39 and having my heart broken by another failed relationship, I had a breakthrough: I could easily channel my looks, sex appeal and photography skills into marketing myself for big spender clients (who I found on Seeking Arrangement and later on advertising on escort directories.) I was also single at the time and frustrated trying to meet men online to land a serious long-term relationship— I desperately wanted to find “The One” (LOL) but all I seemed to attract were dudes that I went out on a few dates, then it fizzled and I’d be mad at myself wasting all that time and energy. Or I would just accept bad drunken sex for a night when I was starved for touch; I gave into what they ultimately wanted from me. Playing the online dating game felt like a part-time job, it felt like unpaid emotional labor. Then the light went off in my thick skull: Why not be well-compensated for my time and put up with bad sex if I had no expectations of that rando becoming my long-term partner? Did I mention the wheelbarrows of cash instead of cheap wine, takeout, weed and “Netflix and chill”? Plus the perks of dining out at high Michelin rated restaurants, staying in uber upscale hotels and knowing I’d never again have to go dutch on a date. And at the time, I liked the idea of having a secret double life. Working as an escort at that point, my only regret was that I wasted most of my 30s being young and hot, marketing myself to men on Okcupid and Match for nothing in return.
Throwing myself into the world of high-end escorting work was similar to my career as a high-end wedding photographer— I taught myself by trial and error how to run my own business. I marketed myself at a higher starting rate to wealthier clientele who wanted an experience that felt exclusive yet organic. Working in the demimonde vs the ‘vanilla’ freelance world felt less competitive within a supportive sex worker community (being part of a marginalized group I think we stuck together as there were more risks in our jobs), even though it was a similar kind of hustle of marketing oneself, logistics and the unpredictability of boom-or-bust gig work. Possibly due to stigmatization and the dangers of working in a criminalized underground economy, there was (and I think always will be) way more demand than supply which was a refreshing change. For once, the mostly-female work force held the cards as it was a seller’s market (at least for my market and demographic.) As one former sex worker lamented, Dick is abundant and low in value.
What felt most empowering was being able to work for myself with less struggle and I made over six figures in my second year escorting (before escorting full-time I worked in sales making $12 an hour, a job I was fired from.) It felt like going back in time when I was an in-demand freelance photojournalist in the roaring early aughts. My starting rate for a wedding gig was six thousand dollars, I was getting press and interviewed for TV news shows. As much as I disliked dealing with film, processing and prints— but ahhhh, those were the good ol’ days. I had my own office on Mass Ave in Cambridge. I bought my first property (a duplex in Davis Square) all by myself without a husband’s money or my dad backing the loan. I strolled into a dealership and bought my dream car, a silver RAV-4 that I paid in cash and I paid off all my college loans in one big check without looking at my bank balance. This was before the digital revolution that killed me and my colleagues, the film photographer rock stars (queue the song, Digital Killed the Radio Star.) Before everyone and their mom bought their first crappy digital camera to shoot events on the cheap as a side hustle and gave all the unedited images away on a flash drive for free. FREE. Then the editorial assignments that didn’t pay well to begin with wanted to pay me in “name credit and exposure” only.
(Someday I’ll create an illustration of a woman taking pictures of a bikini model in a snowstorm and they’re both freezing in the cold. Under the picture the caption reads You Can Die From Exposure.) Would only freelance photographers and writers get the joke?)
After sugar daddy arrangements and escorting, my sex work evolved into many trades: I took a course to become certified somatic sex educator. That work bloomed into tantra bodywork, then intimacy and relationship coaching which evolved into sensual domination, BDSM and role playing. I started a side hustle working online as a content creator and chatting with fans under that persona in 2021, but I couldn’t stick with it as wore me down mentally— it’s hard to enjoy what you do when you’re pretending to be someone you’re not (unless you’re an actor, but fans of actors know they’re playing a character and they get to play other roles.) Sex work was lucrative, empowering and novel in the beginning but I became jaded as my heart wasn’t in it and I was also exhausted by the constant anxiety of stalkers, being outed or doxxed. Most of my clients were straight, cis-gendered men I had to manage (some I really liked, some I tolerated) and then there were all the ur so hot me horny u avail now baby? messages that flooded my inbox at 2am. Even doing intimacy coaching work, I still had to create an erotic fantasy landscape to draw them in which had no room for the real Melissa to exist.