Las Vegas became the stage set for America's latest psychosexual drama this week, when muckraking website The Smoking Gun revealed that former Olympic runner Suzy Favor Hamilton was moonlighting as an escort for the Sin City outfit Haley Heston's Private Collection. After a reporter confronted Favor Hamilton in the casino at the Venetian, two things happened: Disney promptly dropped the runner from its roster of motivational speakers. And Favor Hamilton herself—a realtor whose husband apparently knew about her side gig—issued a series of mea culpas saying the work was a "coping mechanism" for her but calling it "a huge mistake."
Vegas Seven spoke with Lynn Comella, Interim Director of Women's Studies at UNLV, about the fallout from the sex scandal du jour.
As a Women's Studies professor who's studied the sex industry, what was your first reaction to this story?
On the one hand, I like that the story showed that different kinds of people do sex work for different kinds of reasons, but I was really surprised that she felt the need to publicly apologize for it.
I feel like we see this a lot with different kinds of sex scandals, where people feel compelled to apologize for their decision in order for the process of public redemption to occur. The media expect it, as does the public. But what would happen, say, if someone like General Petraeus [the CIA chief who resigned this fall after his extramarital affair was made public] said, "I am sorry I hurt my wife and family, but the relationship I entered into with this woman was a good relationship for me." We never hear that, which I think is too bad. I kinda wish Suzy Favor had responded by saying, "My husband knew what I was doing, no lies were told, it's my body, my business."
If she had said that, how do you think the public and the press would have responded?
The story could have fizzled out. Or it could have provoked a different kind of outrage, like, how could she not be contrite?
If you look at all the political scandals that have [happened], you have politicians making these public apologies with their wives by their side. It's like a public performance and we have a certain set of expectations of how that performance plays out. It would be like attending a wedding and the couple doesn't say "I do." People would be like, "What's going on here?" I think people get mad when they don't get what they expect.
Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? Europeans, for example, seem to have a different attitude towards infidelity among their celebrities.
I don't know if it's uniquely American but we have a uniquely American set of contradictions around sex and sexuality. We're still embedded in a deeply puritanical history, and at the same time we live in a hyper-sexualized society where we're used to sex selling everything from beer to cars to perfume. Like, god forbid we use sex to actually sell Viagra or condoms. We can only use committed loving relationships to sell sex, but we can use sex to sell any other commodity. That's really contradictory.
What about in Las Vegas, a town that profits at least to some degree from it seamy side. Are we more likely to say, "What's the big deal?"
One of the things I was very struck by in this story is it does seem very likely that one of [Favor Hamilton's] clients outed her to a reporter. There really is a kind of unspoken code of ethics and confidentiality between sex workers and clients. On the one hand, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is a touristy cliche. But I think that people do kind of take seriously that Vegas is a certain kind of adult playground and you can do certain things there without the same kind of fear that you'd have if you did them in your own backyard.
It reminds me of this summer when those pictures of Prince Harry came out in the press, and the Brits were outraged. They weren't outraged at him or his behavior, they were outraged that someone had the audacity to leak those pictures.
Favor Hamilton has said she was not a victim, and knew what she was doing. But she's also confessed that she struggled with depression. Is this really a story about a former Olympian under pressure, who needed support to cope with her mental health issues?
I think the question of why is hard to impossible to answer. Was this fueled by depression and confusion, or was this someone who just wanted a little more pizzazz in her suburban Midwestern life, and found out, "I can do everything I've been doing and have this life on the side, and no one's going to know about it"?
The Smoking Gun pieces indicate that she was highly sought after, one of the top three escorts at this service. Here's this competitive former athlete who's used to being at the top of her game. That may have fueled her ego in ways that really felt good. I was a competitive gymnast for 10 years, and you're very focused on athleticism and physical pursuits and then you move away from the adrenaline rush that comes from competition. As an escort, she could be physical in this entirely different way and have people really appreciate the services she provided.
What's your take on the Suzy Favor Hamilton scandal? Tell us in the comments section below.