In 1983, the Big Ten Conference established a women’s Athlete of the Year award and later named it after Suzy Favor Hamilton, a University of Wisconsin middle distance runner and alumna who followed her illustrious college career with three appearances in the Olympic Games. She was more than qualified to have her name attached to such a prestigious award. Unfortunately, the conference announced on Tuesday that her name would be removed from the award after it was revealed in December that Favor Hamilton had worked as an escort since 2011.
“I do not expect people to understand,” she wrote on Twitter, “but the reasons for doing this made sense to me at the time and were very much related to depression.” She added that her husband knew about her work and didn’t approve of it.
But something that the Big Ten needs to realize — along with the rest of the country — is that sex work is one of the most stigmatized professions in the world. Many current laws criminalize the workers themselves instead of their potential traffickers, and sex workers disproportionately fall into groups that have been blamed for social problems historically: women, immigrants, the mentally ill, LGBT individuals, and many more. On top of this, the “whore stigma” defines all sex workers as people who are incapable of sexual independence.
Most sex workers, in fact, choose their profession the same way anyone else does: to make a living. And while some do engage in prostitution, many are employed to perform other sexual or erotic activities. Think exotic dancing, being a dominatrix, or acting in pornography. All of these people are considered sex workers, too, and face the same stigmas as those who prostitute.
A problem arises when a person in Favor Hamilton’s situation — mentally ill and knowingly working for an illegal operation — is shamed for her choices. Shaming a sex worker for their profession is never okay, but adding it to the fact that she did it to cope with mental health issues makes the reaction to Favor Hamilton’s confession even more reprehensible.
What the mentally ill don’t need is more shame on top of their already bad situation. Favor Hamilton was motivated to engage in sex work because she couldn’t reason another outlet for her distress. She called it a “coping mechanism.” That’s the real problem here — not her sex work.
Thanks to the Big Ten’s announcement, another blow to the sex industry has been dealt, and the illegality of Favor Hamilton’s work doesn’t seem to be the critics’ main concern. No, it’s the fact that she’s a “hooker,” a “whore,” or any number of slurs for sex workers that reduce them to sex-crazed individuals with no autonomy and no problems.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote of Favor Hamilton, “Hookers don’t make good role models. Call girls don’t have trophies named after them. Prostitutes aren’t worthy of honorifics from collegiate conferences.”
But you know what? Successful athletes do make good role models. They do have trophies named after them. And they are worthy of honorifics from collegiate conferences. This is why Favor Hamilton’s name appears on the award in the first place, and that is why it should stay. Just because others’ sexual activity leaves the proverbial bedroom doesn’t mean people are allowed to shame them for it.