MelRose Michaels' new project all started with a public slut shaming.
Back in 2018, the Chicago-based sex worker tried to keep her cool when she was recognized in a bar by a group of men and their girlfriends. However, after one of the women snidely remarked that "it must be so embarrassing knowing every guy in here has seen her naked," Michaels decided to have the final word. And her next level power move? To pay for their drinks while saying, "It's not my fault your boyfriend buys my nudes."
Granted, while most would want to leave that kind of nasty memory behind them, Michaels ended up using it as the inspiration for her Networthy clothing line, a sex work-affirming collection of shirts, hoodies and phone cases that feature tongue-in-cheek slogans such as "I'm doing it for the views," "There's a reason I look familiar" and, of course, "Your boyfriend buys my nudes."
But make no mistake, because Networthy is much more than just a bunch of (admittedly excellent) one-liners that do all the talking for you.
Rooted in the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that already made Michaels a successful self-made creator prior to quarantine's OnlyFans boom, the irony-laden line flips the script by touting itself as "clothing made for removal" within an "industry that rarely wears clothes," all while cleverly tackling concepts surrounding the inherent worth of sex workers as people, their ingenious ability to cultivate an online fanbase and their utilization of physical capital. After all, as she explained, it's no different than "a scientist using their intellectual capital or a football player using their athletic capital."
So when it's more important to legitimize sex work in a post-SESTA/FOSTA world, why can't these people also band together by proudly wearing their profession on their sleeves à la PhDs and jerseys?
"We need to be 'out' about our status as sex workers, [so] I thought we should wear the labels society places on us right there on our sleeves," Michaels said, though she added that we also need to start having this conversation if destigmatization is what we're working toward. "It has to start small, in day-to-day interactions. We have to show people, we're your neighbors, your friends and your family."
However, Michaels also acknowledges that wearing Networthy isn't always appropriate — especially when safety and harassment are potential issues — she believes that the message itself is still important to get across.
"This was something I struggled with and thought a lot about. I don't want anyone who wouldn't feel safe in their day to day environment to be wearing this or identifying what they do if it comes at the cost of their safety," she explained. "The purpose of the line is for those of us who have the privilege of safety to make a statement that moves the conversation forward in support of those who can't."
Michaels continued, "My hope is that we can affect change over time-so one day they too, might have that privilege of safety."
Ultimately though, Networthy is a project to help other sex workers feel empowered, whether that takes the form of owning their jobs, combating the near-constant slut shaming or feeling like they're able to clapback at all the fucked up comments that do tend to crop up. And that's invaluable, even if you're not actually wearing the clothes in public.
"I wanted these designs to send the same message, to give us a voice even if we haven't found our own just yet," she said. However, Michaels also went on to say that if people think they're in a safe enough position, they can use the line as "'armor' against the stigma sex workers face every day" — all in the service of living their truth "without having to explain or apologize" for it.
"The one thing I've known for a long time is that the only way to take power away from people 'holding it over you' is to tell your secrets yourself, so that became what the clothing line would be about," as Michaels added. "If we could 'put our secrets out there' before people got to 'shame us for them,' then that entire uncomfortable interaction is removed from the equation."
Underlying all of this though is Michaels' vision of Networthy as a support hub for sex workers, particularly the people who, like her, have struggled with their mental health amidst the loneliness that sometimes comes with the profession. So while she may have started the endeavor with no fashion experience, the most important thing to her is being able to create a sex work-positive company that also shares a percentage of its proceeds with organizations like Pineapple Support, which provides free or low-cost therapy and mental health resources to sex workers and members of the adult performer community.
And not only that, but she also is planning on dovetailing Networthy's debut with her new Sex Work CEO educational course that provides free classes to empower sex workers as independent entrepreneurs through lessons on content creation, brand building and diversifying your portfolio.
"With the launch of Networthy, I can also show creators how to start a clothing line so they can sell merch to their fans, [because] so many of the skill sets we acquire in sex work have primed us to be successful entrepreneurs, even in the mainstream space," Michaels said, before concluding, "These brands aren't about me. They are me trying to give back to the community all of the things I wish I had. Things like educational tools, mental health resources, and a voice."
Check out Networthy for yourself, here.
Welcome to "Sex with Sandra," a column by Sandra Song about the ever-changing face of sexuality. Whether it be spotlight features on sex work activists, deep dives into hyper-niche fetishes, or overviews on current legislation and policy, "Sex with Sandra" is dedicated to examining some of the biggest sex-related discussions happening on the Internet right now.
Photos courtesy of Networthy