Sexual Exploitation in Bodybuilding

It sounds like the IFBB Pro is run by a couple of assholes. Apparently, according to reporting over the last six months, they quietly, and maybe illegally, turned the nonprofit into a corporation, and then while raking in the dough, created an incentive structure in which the only official photographer was the son of the asshole in charge. This son, who just happens to own a porn website that features athletic women, would hold photoshoots before competitions. Moreover, evidence suggests that an athlete’s willingness to get nude photos taken improved someone’s odds of winning a prize on show day. Judges have come forth stating that they were asked to change the rankings of athletes because they were “one of [son-asshole’s] girls.” At least one former judge has also admitted to soliciting sexual favors from athletes before competitions, and several women say that they felt their careers were harmed for not participating in these activities.

“At an amateur contest in 2009, [Mandy Henderson] placed fourth and was surprised that it was taking so long for her to earn her pro card. When she asked why, she said, a prominent judge told her: ‘Because you didn’t come to my room last night.'”

Thanks to reporting by Desmond Butler at the Washington Post, we now have significant reason to believe the stories are true.

“Aly Garcia, a bikini competitor, said she refused to do the nude photos, and had to fend off advances from judges and promoters as gently as she could to keep her career alive. She abandoned the sport in 2017 when she concluded that she would never get a top win if she didn’t have sex with the power brokers. “This is the only way I’m going to hit my goal?” she thought. ‘Guess I’m not going to hit my goal.'”

Omar made this video a few months ago after reading Butler’s series and hoped to create some dialog in the bodybuilding and lifting space in order to create pressure for change.

Later, Omar and Dr. Eric Helms talked further about the allegations with Butler on Iron Culture.

While I am truly grateful for their efforts to spotlight these issues, unfortunately, the gents at Iron Culture failed to center the conversation on the women who had been exploited, instead going down a rabbit hole, debating with the presumably male-dominated audience who questions if the situation was consensual or exploitative. Butler’s piece raises this issue as well, and it’s hard not to notice it’s the men in power who claim the events were consensual and above-board. Rather than arguing with the comments section, I would have loved it if they had focused on what the women said, believing them when they say there’s a disproportionate power dynamic.

As Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic gold medalist swimmer and lawyer, states “It’s not consent when it’s your boss and it’s someone that holds power over you.”

I would have also appreciated a deeper conversation connecting the shared culture of law-breaking that is implicit in untested bodybuilding. There was some discussion around the “culture of consent,” how anyone who speaks out gets silenced and their careers suffer. But I wonder if we can have a truly uncoercive culture in which most/all of the participants know that they’re doing something illegal? Maybe decriminalization of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) could be seen as necessary for the safety of the athletes in the same way that folks argue for decriminalization of prostitution and recreational drug use–taking away the legal threat makes it more likely that folks with concerns would be willing to come forward. I’m personally against PEDs, prostitution and recreational drug use, but I can see that there may be societal-level benefits from making it easier for folks to speak up and ask for help in those communities. In my ideal world, we would build systems that incentivize long term health over short term gainz and PED use would simply go out of fashion.

As the system currently stands, however, I’ve heard stories of women being taken advantage of, given PEDs by coaches who are basically pushers and dealers, and I don’t know how we separate the various power dynamics from one another. Seems to me that the sport needs to be rebuilt from the ground up into something more athlete-centric.

All of this also raises the issue of who are these competitions for really? I love bodybuilding–the act of lifting to build my physique, to create balance and shape, the personal expression that comes from molding myself into a piece of art–and I have NEVER been drawn to competition. All those sparkles, heels and make-up– what’s up with the hyperfeminization of the athletes when they go on stage? How many women get breast augmentation so their busts are still traditionally attractive even when they diet down? Why the overall vibe that it’s a beauty contest with more big hair than Texas?

What would the sport look like if designed for the women who compete, by the women who love it? I’m guessing a lot of us would rather look and feel like a badass than a Barbie. We’re seeing push-back in all sorts of sports–gymnastics, beach volleyball, and most recently, running–from athletes who want their uniforms to function well rather than show off their bodies. How would female physique competitors present themselves if it was up to them? Unfortunately, I’m guessing that conversation isn’t being had, and as long as the sport is treated as eye-candy for the male gaze, I can’t see how we overcome the environment “ripe for predation.”

There are so many challenges for women and other folks with a uterus entering the lifting space, it saddens me to know that the sport has been so deeply corrupted and creates so much harm. I want the sport to be fair, healthy, and a celebration of what our bodies can do, not who’s willing to get naked. This story deserves a lot louder attention. It’s past time to take the power away from the assholes and create something wonderful.

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