Bodybuilding World's Dark Side: 'I Never Consented'

'WaPo' probe uncovers decadeslong, widespread sexual exploitation of its female competitors
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 26, 2022 8:21 AM CDT
Bodybuilding World's Dark Side: Nude Pics, Porn Sites, Coercion
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Prostock-Studio)

It's no surprise that the world of bodybuilding is a super-competitive and intense one. But for female athletes, there's an even darker side, as revealed by a Washington Post investigation that has uncovered a widespread pattern of sexual exploitation that takes advantage of women's drive to succeed in a heavily male-dominated industry. Among the more serious accusations are that officials from the sport's two premier federations have for decades put the squeeze on female bodybuilders to pose for nude photos—which then ended up, sometimes without the athletes' knowledge, on soft-core porn sites. Former officials tell the Post that judges were also often pressured to manipulate contest results in favor of the federations' preferred competitors.

JM Manion, identified as the photographer who's been taking pics of the bodybuilding industry's female athletes for more than 15 years, also "operated a network of paid soft-core pornography websites that at one point advertised 'over 30,000 images' of competitors," per the Post, which talked with "dozens of competitors, judges, officials, and others connected to the sport" during its probe. Both the amateur and professional federations for the sport—the National Physique Committee and the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness—have been run by Manion's father, 78-year-old Jim Manion, for decades. "I never consented to having my pictures put on a soft-porn site," says Jenn Gates, who quit the sport "in disgust" three years after winning the 2008 Olympia contest. It was the Post who informed Gates about her swimsuit pics being on a porn site (she never took her clothes off.)

Others say they were promised top wins or pro cards—entry from the amateur federation into the pro one—if they stripped down. When Mandy Henderson, who quit the sport in 2010 but has since returned, once asked why it was taking her so long to get her pro card, even though she'd agreed to the nude photos, one well-known judge told her, "Because you didn't come to my room last night." Some interviewees say women who didn't acquiesce to certain demands or who spoke out were blacklisted or saw their careers otherwise peter out. "You can never come back," former competitor Ava Cowan says. "Even if you're back, you're ostracized forever." The Manions haven't yet addressed the allegations specifically, though Rob Rosetti, a trainer who attended some of the photo shoots, refutes that anyone was coerced. "It was done completely on the athlete's own free will," he tells the Post.

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As a result of the Post's coverage, the National Organization for Women is demanding "swift justice" on the "systemic culture of exploitation, abuse, and intimidation" in the bodybuilding arena. NOW wants "the justice system [to] open an investigation of its own into this culture, bring wrongdoers to court, and make them pay." It also asserts the exploitation isn't unique to bodybuilding: "Sexual abuse and the economics of misogyny are rampant in professional sports." Read much more here on the scandal, as well as an accompanying article by Desmond Butler (who co-authored the investigative piece) on how he ended up doing a deep dive on "the sport my father made famous." His dad: George Butler, the late filmmaker who made the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron, which brought a young Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger to international prominence. (Read more bodybuilding stories.)

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