The Fashion Industry's Complicity With Sexual Abuse Sucks

Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images.
Here we are, mid-way through an investigation into why women didn’t stand up to the bloated self-importance of yet another sex predator, this time the disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. Women could have, should have, said more? Women let it happen... again? Women will have to wait until there are a few more female CEOs to prevent further gender assault in the workplace? Stuff that.
Systems where a sense of entitlement fuels the knowing exploitation of the many by the few are in part responsible for this messed-up situation. But gender politics and the privilege of masculinity to experience the culture of male predator/female prey as normal, or observe other disparities such as the pay gap as inevitable, are just as culpable. As Lena Dunham declares her sorrow for complicity (she found herself shaking hands with Weinstein at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, even though she knew what he was capable of), she asks to hear from male film stars examining their own complicit support of the ongoing gender order.
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Taps fingers on table. Shuffles a bit... are there any takers? That isn’t to say that men don’t suffer too. So as male stories of abuse of power surface, can we count on guys to gather with us in collective reflection towards progress? Women talk so that they can warn other women and of course they tell their male friends so EVERYONE knows there are many more Weinsteins and Saviles out there.
Some of us even publish what we can (libel laws permitting) in national newspapers and, although lawyers impose a partial gagging order preventing us from telling the story as it is, we attempt to say our piece, outing known predators on the evening news as I did on Channel 4 primetime in May 2014. There was a flurry of press from other female writers and then... nothing. Not being able to tell the story had me doubting my entitlement to comment, and I found myself reduced to visiting a prominent art director to pressure him to exclude said predator from the magazine contributor list and scratching my head for other ways to be effective.
Numerous allegations describe international photographer Terry Richardson routinely asking women to strip for his photo shoots and then reportedly getting naked himself and attempting to initiate a sexual act. This tactic sends the same message used with impunity by all self-important fully supported predators – ‘If you want this break, you must comply with my sexual demands.’
And I’m very late to the current but long-term campaign against Richardson, as a plethora of anti-Richardson stories on the internet dating back to 2001 will testify. Numerous accounts by women who report that he objectified and assaulted them, as well as coerced and manipulated them into sex, reveal that fashion has a big complicity problem too.
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Just as Weinstein has many awards to his name, Richardson has worked with dozens of luxury designers and most of the top fashion magazines, not to mention portrait commissions for Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Pharrell Williams and many more.
But why should someone who publishes images of himself in the public domain as naked and masturbating, naked and copulating in numerous positions, naked with erection proudly displayed or engaging in cunnilingus and biting a tampon string – even being fellated by a young woman with the word SLUT written on her forehead – ever be allowed to work with young models? In an interview as far back as 2007 with Hint magazine, Richardson happily confirmed his role of honest pervert: “Like I've always said, it's not who you know, it's who you blow. I don't have a hole in my jeans for nothing.”
Now fashion’s best-known models will take no more. Christy Turlington has spoken out on how widespread sexual abuse and harassment is in the fashion industry, highlighting the way fashion and of course other freelance creative set-ups can insulate and disempower the individual. “The industry is surrounded by predators who thrive on the constant rejection and loneliness so many of us have experienced at some point in our careers,” she told WWD.
As model and activist Cameron Russell calls for other models to share their stories under the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, she recounts her own experiences:
“Non consensual kisses, spanks, gropes, and pinches. Failing to provide adequate changing space, shaming in response to requests for adequate changing space. Bullying by editors, photographers, stylists, and clients to go topless or nude. Publishing nudity after contractually agreeing not to. Non consensual massage. Inappropriate emails, text messages, and phone calls. Pressure while underage to consume alcohol. Being directed to 'pretend like I'm your boyfriend.' Being forced to sleep at the photographer's home rather than provided a hotel. Having my job threatened if I don't participate. Being called difficult, feminist, virgin, diva when speaking up or saying no. Being unclear about boundaries because so many boundaries have been crossed. I lose count. And this is only what's easy to share, what's as commonplace as 9am call times, fittings, and lunch."
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Overstepping those boundaries, as Edie Campbell – one of the UK’s best-known faces – points out, is murky territory in the minds of predators. "When we go on set, we enter into an unspoken contract: for that day we give our bodies and our faces over to the photographer, stylist, hairdresser, makeup artist. We give up ownership for that day. The power imbalance is huge, and the duty of care to that model is even greater as a result."
But boundaries will continue to be transgressed when professional conduct is abandoned and others stand by in complicitous silence. Perhaps questioning how complicity thrives might help. Is immersion in a culture that routinely objectifies women as eroticised embellishments clinging to the edges of an androcentric system, and the disempowered sense of worth that follows, to blame for the lack of angry female voices every time a Weinstein strikes? The assumption by so many young girls that they have somehow brought this on themselves, that women have to put up with this to earn a crust, must be tackled now.
Meanwhile the benefits that boys and men receive from a culture where women are presented as scantily dressed and sexually available to serve the male gaze, while assuring them that all is as it should be, needs to be shot down in flames. Current listings of top fashion photographers are very male-heavy. In other words, not much room for girl gaze and women consciously shooting women to bring a different perspective. The psychology of objectification helps us to understand the mindset we all enter into and can all mindfully step out of again.
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When presented with images of unclothed bodies in studies, participants associated both male and female models with diminished mental states and reduced personhood. In other words, we form patterns of thought that influence our perceptions of others. Objectification effects depersonalisation in both genders but as image-making features greater numbers of objectified women (a confirmation of who is behind the lens, perhaps), we have access to new protocol.
I’m not naïve – this will take time – but as the only Professor of Diversity in Fashion (in front of the lens and behind it), I spend my time mentoring young creatives to understand the territory of image and identity politics by offering insight to both young male and female practitioners so they can choose to action a better, aspirational narrative for us all once out in the commercial world. And in doing so they can develop a practice that respects all service-providers, especially models, for their individual contribution. Disrupting visual culture or addressing self-esteem issues in the field may not seem like a heroic or immediate solution, but as a powerful taste leader, fashion can move into new areas of cool to influence others. And fashion must name its own predators. With agreement from us all that, from this moment on, complicity is the epitome of uncool.
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