Sexual Harassment of Models in the Workplace
Modeling seems to be a career for a lucky few – endless free clothes, jet setting around the world with celebrities, being pampered by hair and makeup teams. The reality, however, is that it’s a grueling, fast-paced industry where sexual harassment and predation run rampant. Models don’t work in corporate settings where there are zero-tolerance policies in place.
That – coupled with the young age at which most models start working, and the cult of personality that seems to give photographers and other men in power free rein to do whatever they want to whomever they want – creates an environment where harassment and worse seem to be an accepted practice that the rest of the industry sweeps under the rug.
The atmosphere seems to cultivate abusive relationships. It’s a lot to deal with for young girls who are searching for their big break.
Sexual Harassment Facts in the Fashion Industry
Model Coco Rocha experienced harassment early on in her career when she was forced to change in front of an audience at the age of 15. She says models often have stories of being forced to strip nude, or worse. Many times these are vulnerable young children who are alone and without anyone to advocate for them.1
In an anonymous online survey conducted by the advocacy group The Model Alliance, sexual harassment and abuse appears to go unchecked. Models are often pressured to have sex with someone at work, sometimes even by their own agency. Many models feel they can’t tell anyone about their abuse or harassment, and an alarming amount claim they’ve been exposed to drugs and alcohol on set. The majority suffer from depression and/or anxiety. And, on top of the sexual abuse claims, almost two-thirds of models report being told to lose weight by their agency.2
There are countless stories of over-the-top behavior that, some would argue, would not be permitted in any other industry. For example, Gérald Marie, a modeling agency executive, was caught trying to give money to underage models in exchange for sex; he now runs his own modeling agency in Paris.
Another well-known example today involves the multiple allegations against Terry Richardson. He has a long roster of high-profile clients, and a rap sheet of abuse and harassment allegations almost as long. Yet, despite the well-known allegations, no charges have been filed.
Dov Charney, the former head of American Apparel, has been named in a slew of sexual harassment lawsuits, and he was made CEO even after masturbating in front of a journalist.
Male models are not exempt from the dangers the industry poses. Benjamine Bowers sued Abercrombie & Fitch after being made to masturbate during a photo shoot, wherein the photographer also exposed himself and made lewd comments to the model.
Why It Keeps Happening
One main hurdle to overcome is that people don’t seem to think the problem is a valid one. People tend to laugh off allegations of abuse and unfair working conditions because they think the glamour and money make it all worth it. In reality, the average runway model earns just $26,000 a year.3 Yet the promise of a career at the upper echelons of the industry are enough to make girls put up with more than most people would.
Most female models start before they’re 16, and they are thrust into situations that are highly sexualized. That, plus the fact that models aren’t considered “employees,” so much as independent contractors, means they can’t unionize and their legal rights are limited. Additionally, what shoots they can and can’t accept are dictated by their agency – they don’t get to pick and choose.
Social media and the Internet make it easy for older men to prey on younger women. Tevon Harris was sentenced to 40 years in jail for trafficking minors for sex; he had been approaching young girls on social media with promises of helping them become modeling stars.
In an industry based on looks, youth, and revealing clothing, objectification is part of the DNA of modeling, but it’s not as cut and dried as it may seem. Many young girls don’t want chaperones on every photo shoot, and they implicitly trust the men with whom they’re working.
Plus, many young models feel that they can’t say no to anything. They feel that if you don’t go along with what people say, you will fail, or have a hard time finding future work.
What’s Being Done About It
To combat the harassment and exploitation endemic in the modeling world, Sara Ziff formed the Model Alliance, an advocacy group that works to ensure models are safe and treated fairly. British models have a similar initiative under Equity, the U.K. actors’ union.
Models are notoriously hard to organize. A lot of them are young and foreign, and they only live in the U.S. sporadically.
Still, The Model Alliance scored a big victory when, in November 2013, it convinced New York lawmakers to include models in its child labor laws. Models as young as 13 were formerly not protected in the workplace.
The law restricts the number of hours underage models can work, requires them to have a Child Performer Permit, and requires them to provide a chaperone if they are under age 16.
If you or someone you know has experienced treatment that you think violates harassment laws, contact one of our attorneys today. We have a long track record of practicing hostile work environment law and can help you figure out what your options are.
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