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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.

“The Higher End of the Community”: John Scarpa and Solidarity

RIP Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar (photo via the Gothamist)
RIP Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar (photo via the Gothamist)

There are John Scarpas everywhere. There is a John Scarpa in every department of the federal government. There is a John Scarpa in every police department. Every four years, a John Scarpa is nominated to run for president. Our world is full of John Scarpas. The difference is that, unlike his doppelgangers, the actual John Scarpa stated the ethical beliefs that underlie the transphobia, whorephobia, and HIV criminalization policies carried out at every level of government around the globe out loud.

For those who missed it, John Scarpa was a Queens-based defense attorney for Rasheen Everett, the murderer of trans sex worker Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar. And while Everett acted out the hate in his heart by killing Gonzalez-Andujar for being transgender, his attorney acted out his own hate by way of his defense. From The Gothamist:

…defense attorney John Scarpa caught the ire of the judge when he argued against the victim’s character. “Shouldn’t that [sentence] [twenty five years] be reserved for people who are guilty of killing certain classes of individuals?” he reportedly asked, adding, “Who is the victim in this case? Is the victim a person in the higher end of the community?”

“Pretty Woman” Is Real

Ahh, marital bliss.

If there’s one element Pretty Woman is most commonly maligned for, it’s the improbable ending of a street working prostitute whisked away by a filthy rich client. Civilians love to crow about how wildly unrealistic it is to think that a john will ever marry his sex worker and yeah, if you’re entering into sex work with the goal to use it as a dating service, you’re probably going to be a disappointed. That goes for clients and providers. But it’s not uncommon for sex workers to have romantic, unpaid relationships with men they first met as clients. I’ve been in just such a relationship for almost six years. And at last count, I know five married couples who fit the same bill. (I should stipulate that two of these are now divorced, which is consistent with the national average.) It’s not just escorts; strippers, too, can end up with a patron. Nor it is limited to folks who work indoors. A street worker I know spoke to me once about a burgeoning unpaid relationship with a former client, although she made it clear to me (and to him) that she had no intention of quitting work just because she began dating him.

That’s where Pretty Woman really gets it wrong: even when sex workers find a man willing to support them, they often want to keep working.

Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness (2015)

afastgirlSuzy Favor Hamilton’s autobiography, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, catalogs the Olympic runner’s experience with mental illness, her career shift from professional mid-distance running to high-end escorting, and her eventual outing and diagnosis as bipolar. Following the birth of her daughter and her retirement from running, Favor Hamilton found her career path fraught and unsatisfactory, its travails amplified by her growing problems with postpartum depression and bipolar. Eventually, the media outed her as a sex worker, exacerbating her struggles.

From growing up picked on by her bipolar brother in small town Wisconsin, to her love/hate relationship with the athletic talent she built into a career, and the way that relationship shaped her psyche and primed her for sex work, Fast Girl covers a wide range of material. It is also one of the more honest memoirs I’ve seen on the day-to-day struggle of being bipolar, and how the disorder can escalate.

I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. My thoughts upon reading the book were filtered through my own experiences with the illness: some of these ideas may seem strange if you haven’t lived with bipolar disorder, or lived with someone who copes with it.

In my experience, an important thing to understand about living with bipolar disorder is that it doesn’t always make sense to those who don’t suffer from the disease. Triggers might be minor, like someone looking at you wrong. You might never find out exactly what association triggered your most recent bipolar episode. Sometimes you do know exactly what the trigger is, but even when you know, you can’t really stop it, only remind yourself your perceptions aren’t reflecting reality.

At times, bipolar made my work in a strip club a hell in which I was irrationally afraid of accepting drinks, terrified that every customer was laughing at me. It made me second guess every moment so thoroughly that suicide sometimes felt like a logical post-shift endeavor. At its worst, this illness makes me question everything about myself: my agency, my sanity, my humanity, my very perceptions. My body and mind became communal property- things for others to manage without my input, sometimes overriding my preferences.

Accepting treatment for a mental illness like bipolar can feel like a violation to me. I have to accept that it’s not about me, it’s about what people around me want for me. Maybe I want it, too, but accepting that treatment means accepting I won’t be the arbiter of what’s “right” for myself. That is left to the family members who can no longer handle my outbursts, or the doctor who thinks that no matter how I feel now, it’s worth reaching for something even better by shifting the med dosages, even at the risk of the new doses making me sick.

That level of outside authority is one that women who’ve grown up in a patriarchal society are already used to. We’ve had it enforced from birth that our wishes and agency are second to the men around us, second to our families, second to the comfort of our community, etc. Favor Hamilton’s story is rife with that conflict, even in instances unconnected with her mental health or sex work. From the other department’s coach in college who videotaped her breasts as she ran, with no negative consequences; to the coach who dictated her sex life after her marriage; to the spectators and competitors who claimed her main talent was her beauty; to her dad’s pushiness and embarrassment in response to her swimsuit calendar modeling, the list goes on and on.

Satisfaction (2007-2010)

Image via SocialistJazz
Image via SocialistJazz

When I heard about the Showtime Australia drama Satisfaction, set in a swanky Melbourne brothel, I think I elbowed an old lady out of the way to check it out of the library. Yep, library: they take sex work much less negatively in Australia than they do in the United States. It’s legal, although to varying degrees of decriminalization, normalization, and support depending on what state you’re in. West Australia, where I worked, had a variety of irritating laws designed to prevent women from working outside of brothels: they weren’t allowed to hire support staff, like drivers or security, and often had to file taxes in a totally ridiculous way. In Melbourne, across the country in Victoria, sex work is legally licensed and regulated by the state: workers have licenses, regular mandated medical check-ups, and can work independently or through brothels.

Satisfaction is a super swanky TV show about a super swanky brothel, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve never been to a Melbourne brothel, but I have to assume that the glittery hanging curtains, ornate gilt decor, and licensed bar of 232, the Satisfaction home base, are probably not par for the course. They smell more of “movie set designed to make you impressed” rather than “actual working brothel.” The script, though…the script treats sex workers as real human beings, with dignity and respect, facing a variety of issues unrelated to their jobs. Sometimes they hang out together after work; sometimes they have problems unique to sex work; but for large chunks of every episode, the show discusses human dynamics among a group of women who are working for themselves and doing it by choice. There is no coercion here, and the all-too-frequent stereotype we see on US TV (“Debbie couldn’t pay her rent, and now she’s giving blow jobs for crack in some dude’s Pinto!”) is notably, refreshingly absent.