Updated: Dec 15, 2020
(Trigger Warning: this post contains personal accounts of women who have been sexually harassed, assaulted and raped. If reading this would be triggering for you, please feel free to click away.)
When I was a little girl, I often saw women on the cover of fashion magazines. I was struck by how those women seemed larger than life. Powerful. Seemingly untouchable.
What I didn’t know is that all too often, these women are placed in positions where they feel powerless, invisible and afraid.
There are countless stories of women being asked for nude photos or sexual favors in exchange for receiving shoots or jobs, and when they refuse, being told “you’ll never make it in this industry”, or “I’ll get you blacklisted.” I’ve also experienced this myself.
“I told him I was 16. He started talking about his apparent attraction to me despite continuously mentioning how young he knew I was. At the end of his speech about how “attractive” I was, he told me that if the feeling was mutual, he’d work with me for free. But if he was “too old” for me I’d have to pay him quite a lot of money to be able to work with him.” -Anonymous from New York, USA
Sometimes photographers will show no warning signs of abusive behavior until the shoot is completed. Then, they hold the photos or payment above the model’s head in order to ask for romantic or sexual favors. “You’ll get the pictures when I get my date”, is the sentiment behind these demands.
“I needed a portfolio update and drove hours to shoot with a photographer for free in exchange for the use of the photos. He had excellent references and beautiful work. When I politely declined to get dinner with him, he never sent me the photos, even after me following up several times.” -Anonymous from North Carolina, USA
Often models are asked to strip once on set, when nudity was not discussed prior to the shoot. It can feel like “no” is not an option. Caught off guard, they risk being labeled “difficult to work with” for setting boundaries. For some, refusal has cost them the paycheck. For others, refusal has resulted in assault.
“He knew I didn’t want to shoot implied or nudes and he tried to force me to shoot with no bra on and was very manipulative about it”. -anonymous from virginia, USA
When I first started modeling, I heard countless times the warning: “there’s a difference between a photographer and a guy with a camera”. Unfortunately, there are countless predators who use having a camera as a way to get closer to potential victims.
“I was working with a photographer I had known for a while. He asked if he could bring a couple helpers, little did I know they’d be 3 big dudes. I only had water and thought I kept a good eye on it the whole time. It wasn’t good enough. They drugged me. My clothes ended up off and I blacked out. I got home, no memory of anything or how I got there. I went to report him only to find out he lied about his identity. I went to get a rape kit done, thank goodness I wasn’t raped. But there were definitely photos.” -Ange from Vancouver, Canada
“He asked to kiss me, I told him I didn’t really know if I wanted to so I would appreciate it if he didn’t. He started touching me over my underwear and I just kind of…froze… He touched me, kissed my neck and within 3 minutes he was inside of me.” -lauren from New York, USA
This abuse happens at every level of the industry. Even international superstars like Coco Rocha have spoken out about harassment, sometimes occurring at ages as young as 15 years old.
Photographers aren’t the only perpetrators. Some agents prey on aspiring models, using their desire to “make it big” as a weapon for abuse. Even if agents themselves are not abusive, oftentimes they fail to support and advocate for their models who have experienced sexual harassment or assault. Click here to read an article by Huffpost titled “Modeling Agencies Enabled Sexual Predators for Years, Former Agent Says”.
Modeling is a job. Sexual harassment has no place in any work environment.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has defined sexual harassment in its guidelines as: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: – Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment, or – Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting the individual, or – Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Despite the guidelines listed above, models who have fallen victim to sexual harassment are often not protected under employment laws because they are legally considered “independent contractors” (whether working freelance or through an agency).
I share this, not to scare you away from the industry, but in the hopes that you will see the changes that need to happen, and the power dynamics that are consistently being abused. These things are happening not only to women and men, but teenagers and children. We cannot place the sole burden of staying safe on their shoulders. We need to fight against how normalized these abusive behaviors have become, and create systems built on healthy boundaries and cultivating a consensual, creative working environment.
Organizations like The Model Alliance are fighting to make change. Click here to read more about the work they are doing.
Thank you so much to those who told their stories. You are not alone.