The iciness that pricked Cami Strella on an October day she attended a class with her master’s colleagues at Lenoir-Rhyne University made her realize that she couldn’t be both a graduate student and a creator of sexually explicit content.
She sat in the back of her clinical classroom in Hickory, N.C., hoping that the silence and whispers swirling around her weren’t kindled by a phone conversation she had the day before with a fellow studentwhere she confirmed the existence of her OnlyFans account and risque TikToks.
Strella, who spoke to The Washington Post under the condition that her given name be withheld to prevent harassment, tried to tune out distress about being outed until a classmate who discovered her online identity broached a conversation about sex and Strella’s online content. That encounter signified to Strella that her time as a student in occupational therapy with a neurological rehabilitation track was nearing a close.
“I felt like a complete alien. The entire mood of the class just shifted,” she said. “I was no longer welcome at my school.”
That week, the 28-year-old sought the advice of a trusted academic adviser who told her it would be best if she left the program, according to Strella. She followed that advice and submitted her intent to unenroll from the only graduate program to which she had been accepted.
“I really thought I could do both,” Strella said.
Strella’s experience embodies the disfavored existence of sex workers of the past and those who delve in the current digitization of sex work, earning a living in society’s underbelly as they attempt to pull themselves up by their garter belts to attain financial stability. The demolition of her graduate education and the response her online persona generated among her peers and academic superior further unravels the inherent classism of higher education and the fetor of sex work that’s unlikely to dissipate, sex workers and scholars told The Post.
The Post reached out to the classmates Strella named but none returned requests for comment.
Lutheran-affiliated Lenoir-Rhyne University has no policy against digital sex work, a university spokesperson told The Post in a statement.
“We do, however, have a policy against bullying,” the statement said. “The university does not permit or condone bullying, and we consistently enforce this policy.”
The university spokesperson said the school encourages Strella to communicate her concerns to university leadership. Strella said that opportunity faded with the dropout guidance she received from the academic adviser in her program.
“They said I was in a tough spot and they felt sorry for me,” Strella said of her conversation with the adviser, adding that the adviser made her feel like it was a pity for her to leave the program because she’s in sex work. “It was upsetting.”
Classmates began buzzing her phone from numbers she didn’t recognize, she said, further closing the door on her academic aspirations as moneymaking opportunities from her OnlyFans account dwarfed the money she’d make as a licensed occupational therapist.
The Northern Virginia native went from earning $11.18 a month when she first opened her account in February 2020 to pocketing more than $300,000 in 2021.
Her popularity rose in part because of viral TikToks offering discounts and personalized online interactions to veterans, and a profile in Military Times.
The daughter of two Peruvian parents with some Scottish ancestry has earned enough to support her family, though she said it would’ve been nice to receive the degree she was less than a year from earning.
“Once I started making money in porn, I still wanted the valuable experience and credentials and credibility for myself,” she said, adding that she wanted to be more than a performer. “At the same time, why do I feel like I need to be something else?”
Juana María Rodríguez, a professor whose area of focus includes racialized sexuality and gender at the University of California Berkeley, said the digitization of adult content warrants a rethinking of sex and work, especially in a pandemic world in which people flocked to platforms such as OnlyFans to survive.
OnlyFans and similar sites gave these adult content creators more control. Now they worry about losing it.
Such conversations, she noted, are difficult to have as sex work is still criminalized, making any association with it negative.
“When the state is saying this iswrong, then people feel justified in saying this is wrong,” she said, nodding to the debate over legalization of marijuana. “The moral stigma attached to it still hasn’t gone away. Again, [stigmas] get activated or attached to certain bodies or situations, and it has everything to do with race, class and age.”
Pornography is protected under the First Amendment, though buying and selling sex is illegal nearly everywhere in the country except for a few counties in Nevada.
Some states, such as Oregon and Maine, have taken strides to decriminalize forms of commercial sex, the 19th reported.
No real legal protections and a whorephobic culture that permeates society, academia included, means people who engage in sex work aren’t a protected class and don’t have many places to go when they face discrimination, said Heather Berg, assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
“There’s a long history that often gets left untold because the cost of being out in academia is so high,” Berg said.
In the world of academia, Berg said there’s a resistance to the idea of people pursuing graduate studies while also maintaining jobs to offset the cost of living as focus on anything else is seen as a “distraction from the life of the mind.”
However, what’s different now is the permanence of placing one’s self online for more people to find and more room for scrutiny or acceptance, she said.
Few people have understood the cost of being an outed sex worker as well as 33-year-old Olivia Snow, also known as Mistress Snow, a humanities doctoral graduate and dominatrix. Shetold the story of how she faded out of the world of academia when she outed herself, like Strella, to a trusted mentor in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay that went viral.
Snow, who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her performance name to protect her privacy, told a mentor she had known for eight years that she had worked as a dominatrix when the topic of summer employment came up. That set of facts didn’t sit well with that adviser.
She discovered that the adviser withdrew all her letters of recommendation and gave a warning: “You better not go crying to these other professors because they’ll have the same reaction.”
Snow said she didn’t want to test that hypothesis.
“I’m not an escort. I’m a dom and I’ve sugared. Those just aren’t illegal,” Snow said. “I kind of thought ‘I’m not breaking any laws. Who cares?’ If I were an escort and content creator, I would’ve hidden that a lot more.”
Snow said she received a lot of support for her essay. Her identity largely remained concealed until she dabbled in Medieval Twitter, a community on the social media platform comprised of academics dedicated to the era, after suspecting that a fellow academic was faking her ethnicity.
That was a mistake Snow would regret, as she became the subject of lengthy Twitter threads and doxing that revealed the phone number, address and picture she’d worked hard to conceal since undergrad.
The same people who espoused the belief that sex workers deserved protection were the same ones trying to out her as a racist and making anti-Semitic and slut-shaming statements about her, she said.