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Not Good For Me: An Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton

Suzy Favor Hamilton. (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)
Suzy Favor Hamilton (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)

In 2012, former Olympian middle distance runner and motivational speaker Suzy Favor Hamilton was outed as a Vegas agency escort. Recently, Favor Hamilton published her memoir, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, telling the story of her childhood, her athletic career, her stint escorting, her family life, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. After reviewing the book for Tits and Sass, contributor Katie de Long had a conversation with Favor Hamilton over e-mail about the New York Times bestselling autobiography. The dialogue below is a condensed version of those e-mails.

What motivated you to write your memoir?
When I was outed, I was contacted by several writers within the first couple days. I was still in a heavily narcissistic mode, which […] can be pretty common with bipolar mania, especially when untreated.

At that time, I wanted to pretty much write a sex book, detailing my adventures in Las Vegas, capitalizing on my misfortune, so to speak. No mental illness aspect at all. No running, no childhood, just Vegas. At this time, I had no idea I was bipolar…and saw nothing wrong with me.

As time went along, my motivations changed, and I grew unsure I wanted to write a book at all. My parents were making it clear they did not want me to write a book. Others were advising me against it. Things had settled down, so why bring it all out in the open again?

As I began to achieve more clarity, and what had happened to me began to make more sense after diagnosis and treatment, my motivation for writing a memoir grew again. Before the escorting, I was speaking quite a bit about my brother’s suicide and my experience with anxiety and depression, so that desire to make a difference had always been there. I saw a memoir as the most effective way of making that difference, being better understood, sharing what is admittedly a complicated story, and doing so on my terms. I thought a book could have a more lasting impact on a bigger platform.

What do you hope people will learn about bipolar disorder from your book?
I wanted to show the common elements of denial, silence and stigma and how they prevent good people from getting help, and getting well. I want people to be aware of behaviors to look for, so they can help others or perhaps motivate those not yet diagnosed to seek help for themselves.

There are many people out there who don’t buy the whole idea of mental illness and bipolar and how bizarre behavior can stem from it. The “convenient excuse” argument. I hope my story might open a few minds.

Now that you are receiving treatment and establishing a new normal for yourself, do you find yourself being treated differently? Do some people expect you to be able to return to who you were before the disorder worsened?
My parents want the old me back, but I think they are accepting that won’t happen.

There is that perception that I’m not well, mainly when I speak about sex, dress a certain way, hang with a certain person, use my voice. Or, quite frankly, if I happen to be a little manic or depressed on a certain day (especially manic). I’ve learned with certain friends and family, I…stay away from certain topics…sit on my hands and smile, otherwise…they’ll just give me that concerned look. Others, they like “this me” who’s not afraid to be myself. [They] know my moods might change from day to day, even minute to minute. Those are the people I tend to gravitate to these days.

Those who don’t get mental illness think you have to be a non-functioning zombie when you’re manic…In many ways, you can be more productive, more creative, and go, go, go, etc. I believe my mania was a big reason I was a desired escort…My clients loved my mania. Disney, who hired me for their racing series, also loved my mania when I think about it. Zero inhibitions. Bubbly, sparkly. Life of the party. I had no off switch, no ceiling.

I am that imperfect girl, and I want to be that imperfect girl. What’s the bipolar? What’s the real me? I just know I want independence, [to] do what makes me content. I still want to live life to the fullest, live it with a little edge. Don’t want to live by others expectations. Be myself. But admittedly, I’m pulled into old habits often where I do what others expect of me. People are so accustomed to the old me that they think I’m not well when they see someone else.

Let’s say I were to want to go to Burning Man, go hiking with a couple of escort friends, post a beautiful nude portrait of myself that was done for me…many around me would raise red flags. I’m having to be something to please others and doing what drove me to craziness in the first place. So am I going to get criticized on occasion or told I’m not well? I suppose. Dr. Phil said as much when I was on his damn show.

Everybody Has Their Own Hustle: An Interview With Jacq The Stripper

Jacqueline Frances (Photo by Danielle Rafanan)

Jacqueline Frances has drawn attention and acclaim with her deceptively simple cartoons of everyday strip club doings.  The simplicity of her comics draws you in, and before you know it, you’re seeing men and masculinity from a sex workers’  view that few people can bring themselves to take on consciously. Frances toured last year with her baby-stripper memoir The Beaver Show, and is touring this year with her new project, Striptastic!, a comic book celebration of strippers.  She’s traveling the country for the next month and a half on the Sex Witch Tour.

Red: So, early on in Striptastic! you have a great illustration of a woman onstage saying she’s smashing patriarchy, and then you write a bit below that about how stripping is feminist and against patriarchy.

And I wanted to ask if you think it’s that simple, because there are later illustrations of “bad nights,” and one of a girl being groped where the caption is something like, “for every Instagram picture of a stripper with stacks, this is what she had to put up with” (which is WAY TOO REAL). These illustrations hint at a different reality, one where women/strippers don’t have all the power—or much power at all—and the work is a complex negotiations of boundaries with customers for cash and then with management for their respect (or for them to at least act like it) and with some management beggaring dancers before allowing them to leave after a slow night.

So, given these illustrations, I was wondering how you see stripping now, if you still see it as a patriarchy-smashing activity, or if it is in fact just another job with compromises like everything else, or if it can be both. Can it be patriarchy-smashing if the clubs are set up to profit men with as minimal benefit to the dancer as possible? Is a woman with low or no social capital being able to earn a living radical (I think it is!), but can that also co-exist with the fact that she’s able to make this living by working in a space that expressly centers men, male desires, and male conspicuous consumption of female energy, bodies, and services?

And is her work that benefits all these men, is that still smashing patriarchy?

Jacqueline Frances: No, it’s definitely not that simple. We exist within it and all have bills to pay. There are many ways to chip away at and/or smash the patriarchy, and I don’t believe there is one pure and simple way to do it.

Red: What’s your ideal outcome with the book? Are you trying to build stripper solidarity? What would you like to do with that, if that’s your goal? What are your visions?

Jacq: Yeah, I totally want to build stripper solidarity! Hmm, what was my goal with the book? I don’t know—the book kind of just happened organically, I started drawing and I knew that people were disappointed that The Beaver Show wasn’t illustrated—

Red: [laughing] Did you see the review—someone posted a review of The Beaver Show and it was clear they hadn’t even touched it, they describe it as a comic book and I was like, “Mmmm…”

Jacq: No, it’s not! But yeah, there are a lot of typos and it is a baby stripper memoir, it’s how you start. And so I was like, “I guess I should make a book of pictures!”

So I made it, and the survey made it not so much a book about me, more about other people. And I was talking to my mom today, [telling her that] I want it to feel like a yearbook, I want other strippers to open it up and relate to it and be happy about the positive memories and the strength they’ve discovered through stripping and sex work. I really want it to be an artifact for the women who’ve done the work, to celebrate their achievement. And I also want it to be educational for people who don’t do it, but that’s not my MO.

My MO is not teaching dudes, that’s all I do at work all day. I’ll offer some pearls of wisdom, or my zine, How not to be a dick in the strip club, which I just made available on Amazon again, but this is a gift for strippers.

…I’d love to usher in more women telling their stories. I know it’s not safe to come out, I know I have a ton of privilege that makes it safe—stripping is legal, I’m white, I’m educated—I have a lot of privilege that makes it easier to come out, so I want to use that. I want to start a dialogue.

A Nation of Sex Workers: An Interview with Tracy Quan

photo taken by Stanton Wong
photo taken by Stanton Wong

I’ve been reading Tracy Quan since before I was a sex worker, when a prequel to Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl was serialized on Salon.com, and I’ve been chummy with her online since 2003, when she graciously replied to my e-mails. I’ve learned so much from Tracy, her callgirl comedy-of-manners novels, and the quirky takes on sex work, relationships, and public figures in her articles. I imagine many of us have.

One of the first of the sex worker literati, Tracy was also one of the first to successfully transition from out sex worker and sex workers’ rights activist to in-demand freelance writer, modeling a career trajectory that helped bring our voices to the mainstream. Yet, her street cred as part of the sex workers’ rights movement is unimpeachable.  After reading about the history of PONY (Prostitutes of New York) collaborating with ACT-UP in the 90s, I asked Tracy to talk about her involvement with PONY’s work during that era, as well as many other things.

You started working quite young, at 14 years old, as a way to gain financial independence from your live-in older boyfriend and your parents. Nowadays, there’s a whole lot of tangled discourse about youth sex workers, from a law in NY state that may be able to retroactively erase youth convictions , while another NY State law  diverts those now arrested into “state protection”, to anti-sex work feminists shrieking fallaciously that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13, to the sex workers’ rights movement trying to figure out a way to help homeless queer and trans youth who subsist on survival sex. As a former teenage sex worker, what do you have to say about all this?

The Joke Has To Be Funny: An Interview With Vee Chattie On Their New Podcast, The Comedy Whore

Vee Chattie. (Photo by Mandy Flame, courtesy of Vee Chattie)

One of the best people I have met through sex worker groups is undoubtedly Vee Chattie. We met in person a couple of years ago in the back seat of a car on the way to a hearing at the Capitol.

Vee develops hard-hitting performance art and organizes activist events, but the bulk of their work is stand-up comedy. They took a brief hiatus from stand-up when moving to Seattle a few years ago, but came back to it with force, hitting multiple open mics per night and making a name for themselves as not only a hilarious stand-up, but a tough person who is cool to hang out with. What follows is an edited and condensed version of an interview I did with them via text messaging:

What was the impetus behind The Comedy Whore?

Basically, every time I went to an open mic, comedians (mostly the young male ones, go figure) would ask me questions about work. At first, I just told them I’d answer the question if they bought me a drink, and that request was completely ignored. So, I thought I could just invite them for a sit down and they could ask the questions in a more formal way. And also I could record it and use it for the entertainment value rather than just going home annoyed.

Also, you’ve got them on record being ridiculous. So they can’t ever deny being shitty (if they were being shitty rather than ignorant).

Honestly, it doesn’t take that much to get a comedian on record being shitty.

The Bloody State Gave Him The Power: A Swedish Sex Worker’s Murder

Petite Jasmine, 1986-2013 (Photo via her Facebook page, courtesy of Rose Alliance)
Petite Jasmine (Photo via her Facebook page, courtesy of Rose Alliance)

On Friday, Swedish sex workers’ rights organization Rose Alliance released this statement on Facebook: “Our board member, fierce activist, and friend Petite Jasmine got brutally murdered yesterday (11 July 2013). Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker. The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. They told her she didn’t know what was good for her and that she was “romanticizing” prostitution, they said she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occasions.  She was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her. She always said, “Even if I can’t get my kids back I will make sure this never happens to any other sex worker.” We will continue her fight. Justice for Jasmine!”

Rose Alliance coordinator Pye Jakobsson was gracious enough to answer some questions about Jasmine’s struggle with the state and murder for Tits and Sass.

Caty Simon: So, for starters, can you tell us a little bit about how you met Jasmine Petite and what she worked on for Rose Alliance?

Pye Jakobsson: Jasmine contacted me around three years ago, just after the local council took custody of her kids. She was looking for help with this and had been advised to contact us. Her main activism was around her own situation and others like hers, plus a lot of stuff around the Swedish Model.

Caty: The Swedish Model criminalizes the clients of sex workers in Sweden. How does it affect sex workers there?

Pye: The biggest overall result is the increased stigma. Practical results have to do with the police going after clients. Street workers have lost valuable assessment time they need before getting into a client’s car [because the clients are too nervous about arrest to stop and talk.—ed.]  Also, their clients have more control and can say, ” Don’t drive to that spot, I know a better one the police don’t know about.” Police target  indoor workers too, trying to catch their clients. That means the focus is now on making clients feel safe enough to see us, rather than us focusing on our own safety.  In addition, the pimping laws force us to work alone. It’s also illegal to rent out premises to us. Many work from home, and if the landlord finds out, he is forced to evict you. So they want to save us, but they punish us until we are willing to be saved. And if we say we want to be “saved,” all they offer is therapy [rather than economic alternatives—ed.]

Caty: Can you tell us a bit more about Jasmine’s custody battle? In the Facebook statement from Rose Alliance re: her murder, you guys wrote that she had been pathologized for not admitting that her sex work was a form of self-harm, and that her ex was given custody of the kids because she was a sex worker, despite the fact that she’d reported that he abused her. Can you elaborate on how the state justified taking her kids away from her?

Pye: She had kids with the same guy who was abusive towards her, mostly verbal abuse, though he was convicted for physical violence 12 years ago. They had already separated when the second child was born (the children are four and five now). So they had shared custody of the oldest and then she had sole custody of the youngest.

She was doing sex work as a way to stay at home with her kids, but after only a few months of working, a relative of hers called social services to let them know she was selling sex. The relative also called the father of the kids, who also called Social Services, claiming she took clients home, etc. The truth was she only worked in Stockholm, one hour away from the city where she lived.