I started working in fashion when I was 19. Two months into my first position as a stylist's assistant in New York, I was sexually harassed for the first time. A well-known male photographer who worked frequently with my boss invited me to his bedroom after a shoot, which was, conveniently, located right next to the studio portion of his live–in studio. I was squatting down onto the floor as he towered above me; I was busy trying to sort through shoes and clothes, and was startled by his question. Startled and embarrassed, but not for him, as maybe I should have been. After all, wouldn’t that be the logical thing to be when a 42–year old accomplished photographer tries to persuade a 19–year old assistant into his bedroom? But I was only embarrassed for myself.
Isn’t that what sexual harassment does? It makes the girl or woman in question feel as if it’s her own fault. Her own fault for allowing it, for being incapable of avoiding it, sometimes feeling guilty for existing at all. Was it my age, or lack of it, my long hair, or the fact that I giggled when he first suggested it? Maybe it was a combination of all three. But I giggled, in embarrassment and in fear, a fear of his power as he was lurking over me, and a fear of losing my own, barely at-all-established reputation and professionality. Giggling is a bad defense mechanism for dealing with inappropriate questions from men, as a giggle is never found as a synonym for “no” in any well–known dictionary. In a trial, a giggle would likely be seen as encouraging and enabling. The legal system doesn’t take into account that giggling is often an expression of fear for a woman in a situation like this.
I managed to avoid giving him any solid answer in that moment, almost thinking that I had exaggerated the awkwardness and and inappropriateness of it. But that same night, he texted me. I hadn’t given him my number, so he must have found it on the call–sheet. He pressed me for an answer this time, asking me if I had thought about his earlier question. I finally mustered up the courage, a courage I might have not found had I been face to face with him, and wrote, “No, I don’t think that’s appropriate.” To which he replied, “I hope you know that you will never make it in this industry with that attitude.”
French model and musician Carla Bruni told InStyle in an interview this weekend, “Fashion is not so dangerous for young girls. There's a lot of work, there's a lot of traveling, and you need to have a lot of discipline. I would say that it's one of the places in show business that is safe. People don't want to abuse girls — they want to photograph them. It's a healthy environment."
She added that the kind of sexual abuse and harassment made by men like Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood “doesn’t happen in fashion," because “there are a lot of women in fashion — women rarely go into that kind of abuse. That keeps it safe for young models."
Carla Bruni is wrong. It does happen, because even though much of the fashion industry is dominated by women, there are always key players and decision-makers who are men. Just like in Hollywood, just like in any industry. On a fashion shoot, the entire team is almost always all–female: from the assistants and the models to the stylists and the makeup artists. But the ones who often hold the most power, and ultimately decide the direction of where the shoot is going, are in most cases straight white men.
These are the photographers. The power they hold and the lenses they shoot with are why women's fashion is still mostly captured by the male gaze on the pages of Vogue and ELLE in 2017. They have power, and for the ones who want to abuse that power, the fashion industry is a prime hunting ground. Because, just like Bruni said, “there are a lot of women in fashion.”
There are many examples of famous fashion photographers who have kept their careers long and strong in spite of sexual abuse accusations. Look no further than Terry Richardson who, in spite of several well–known cases of alleged sexual assault and harassment, still today is as celebrated and frequently employed in the fashion and entertainment industry. And just this past week, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein media frenzy, model Cameron Russell has gathered and published more than 45 stories sent to her anonymously via Instagram, from models who recount various degrees of sexual harassment and assault by photographers they've worked with. From photographers who request oral sex and masturbate in front of them, to ones who force them to take their clothes off and who touch them without their consent.
The other reason the fashion industry is a safe and nurturing environment for powerful men who sexually harass and assault women is that it’s, much like Hollywood, relatively small. Everyone knows everyone, or at least that is the rhetoric these men want to make you believe in, as it will intimidate you and inhibit you from speaking up and will let their behavior flourish without interruptions or consequences.
I worked with the photographer who harassed me plenty of times after that and I, to this day, see him at industry events and parties. I never told my boss, and I tried to avoid his cold stares on set as well as his increasingly disturbing text messages at night. After a while, they stopped. I guess I was lucky. I guess I was also not alone. With men like him, like Harvey Weinstein, like Roy Price, like Donald Trump, you are never alone.
There will always be more girls. Maybe they handled it better than you did, maybe they were braver. Maybe they also giggled. Maybe they said no in the first place, or maybe they said yes because they didn’t know how to say no in that moment. There is no right or wrong way to handle sexual harassment or sexual abuse, no matter in what industry it happens. The moment he puts his hands on your shoulders, the moment he lingers with his gaze a bit too long on a part of your body that isn't your face, or the moment he asks you to come to his bedroom – it’s too late, it’s already too wrong. The only thing we can do is speak up in hindsight, and say “me too.” In Hollywood, in fashion, and in the world.
Top photo: Screenshot of photographer Terry Richardson on set with Lady Gaga from Supreme/Youtube.
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Amanda Brohman is a 23-year old editorial intern at BUST, a freelance writer, blogger and fashion journalism student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She loves everything that glitters, taking long walks in and around her SoHo neighborhood, and drinking Chardonnay on her fire escape at midnight whilst listening to Halsey.