Secret Lives: The "Shameful" Truth


Secret Lives: The "Shameful" Truth About an Athlete, a Scientist, a Schoolteacher & a Police Officer

"Bizarre, salacious and inexplicably careless" - these are just a few of the judgment-laden phrases that presently swirl around Suzy Favor Hamilton, a woman some have called the greatest athlete in University of Wisconsin history.

What has changed public perception of this Olympic runner and winner of nine NCAA championships for the UW-Madison?  What has suddenly changed her from an admired icon to a target of ridicule and vilification?

A disgruntled client exposed Favor Hamilton's secret life as an escort and public reaction to the shocking news has reduced her to a fate familiar to sex workers the world over - she is being ostracized, stripped of her worth and dignity.

Most are surprised that a successful athlete, wife and mother chose to have sex with strangers for money. It can be difficult to understand how any woman would choose prostitution, especially when she has so many amazing accomplishments and resources at her beck and call. It does not appear that her financial life was in peril. Why in the world would any sane person risk so much to engage in something which seems so degrading?

And yet, though Suzy Favor Hamilton's choices may appear to be incomprehensible, she is far from alone.  It is an inescapable fact that many otherwise "normal" women with a multitude of options at their disposal are in fact choosing to become prostitutes. For instance, research scientist Brooke Magnanti, supplemented her income while completing her doctoral studies by working as a London call girl. She wrote of her escapades in a book which became the Showtime cable series, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Victoria Thorne held two professional positions, that of police officer and prostitute, until her conviction for prostitution in 2009. Like Suzy Favor Hamilton, both of these women were capable, accomplished and upwardly mobile. Why would they resort to prostitution?

Sports columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, Andy Baggot, expressed conventional wisdom when he wrote "Favor Hamilton, a wife and mother, indulged in a lifestyle that can’t be excused any more than it can be explained in a rational manner."

But is he correct? Are the choices of these women and thousands of others whose names never make it to the headlines, truly insane? Or is it possible that their behavior can be explained rationally?

Most would agree that being a prostitute is an all together negative proposition.  Who in their right mind would wish such a fate on any female person they care about?

Yet, perhaps it is this assumption which leads us away from the truth.

What if we were to investigate the perspective of those women who have chosen to engage in prostitution?  While many if not most people might hate working as a prostitute, is it possible that the profession could be enjoyable for some people? Could there be something about prostitution that some prostitutes find attractive? Could there be something about the profession that is pleasing, alluring or otherwise positive for them?

While all prostitutes share the act of selling sex for money as a defining element of their profession, the actual circumstances and nature of their work vary considerably. Today's prostitutes are far from a homogenous group. Some obtain clients from the stereotypical street corner, while others work in five star hotels and luxurious penthouse suites.  Some offer primarily "vanilla" sex, some provide BDSM services, and some are experts in sacred and tantric sexual practices.

Given the huge discrepancy in working conditions, it seems only reasonable to acknowledge there are vastly differing experiences as well as explanations for the decision to engage in prostitution.

The athlete, the scientist, and the police officer mentioned above all share the luxury of having a choice in the first place. None of them is destitute or disadvantaged or otherwise limited in their capacity to choose. In fact, Suzy Favor Hamilton, Brooke Magnanti and Victoria Thorne seem to have invested considerably in their respective career choices, carefully crafting professional paths designed to optimize their level of satisfaction and fulfillment. Given the nature of these women's other life choices, it seems logical to assume their decision to become a prostitute more likely involved logical and practical considerations as well.

Most of us have been told that prostitutes suffer from low self-esteem. But the facts seem to point away from such popular stereotypes. Dr. Suzanne Jenkins'  Keele University thesis, “Beyond Gender: An Examination of Exploitation in Sex Work” reports that 72% of escorts feel their self-esteem is higher because of their work.  Jenkins’ study also shows that 72% of escorts like their work for the independence, 67% for meeting people and 93% for the money. 

Many prostitutes who have spoken candidly about their choice to engage in the trade, have listed empowerment as a number one benefit. Some point to the added economic power. Others speak almost glowingly about the positive treatment accorded them by their clients. Freedom and a sense of adventure also seem to rank high, as does the opportunity to take more control over their interactions with men in general.

To be sure, these are not the sort of fringe benefits usually associated with prostitution. In fact, it flies completely in the face of what most of us "know," or think we "know," about prostitution.

While society certainly heaps denigration on prostitutes, is it possible that the actual act of exchanging sex for money isn't degrading for some prostitutes?  Could it be that adults have the mental and emotional capacity to decide what type of sex they want to engage in, with whom and for what purpose?  Might we also honor the right of adults to arrange for the exchange of goods or services or cash in exchange for sex?  And if not, what is the rationale which drives our reluctance to do so?

Will society suffer if sex is allowed to become the province of individual preferences? Certainly we must enforce safeguards for minors, but when it comes to what happens between consenting adults, is it anyone else's business?

We fear what we don't understand and certainly as long as prostitution is framed by stereotypes and taboo,


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