Models Have No Real Recourse When They're Sexually Harassed On Set

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, models have begun speaking out about sexual abuse in the fashion industry, where young and vulnerable women and men are too often exploited. A proposed law in New York would help change that.

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Oct 23 2017, 8:23pm

Recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein have reignited a national conversation about how powerful men—and those interested in protecting them—are able to wield their influence to sexually harass women with impunity and scare victims into remaining silent.

But it's not just women in Hollywood and the entertainment industry who are speaking out; the fashion industry has its own problem. (On Monday, the Times published a report in which several models also claimed Weinstein subjected them to inappropriate and abusive behavior.) Earlier this month, model Cameron Russell took to Instagram to talk about how models as young as 15 routinely face abuse during photoshoots, sharing anonymous accounts from several women who say they were sexually assaulted on set as teenagers.

"My stepmother was [with] me... in another room," one woman wrote, recalling a photo shoot that took place when she was 15, in a screenshot shared by Russell. "She had no idea [the photographer] put his fingers deep down in my [vagina] a few times as he was shooting pics of me, saying this will make pics look more sensual."

It's not uncommon for photographers and clients to exploit models by asking them to pose nude or touching them inappropriately on set, according to industry insiders. "When it comes to sexual harassment, the fashion industry is no better than the entertainment business," Robyn Lawley, a 28-year-old Australian-born model, told Broadly. "Modeling seems glamorous, but in reality you start working so young and may be put on the spot to pose nude or semi-nude, and not be supplied with adequate changing rooms or spaces."

The industry is now grappling with the urgent need to do more to protect their often young, vulnerable entrants. Later this week, New York assemblywoman Nily Rozic will introduce an amendment to her state's anti-discrimination laws in the hope of making headway on the issue. According to the New York Times, the new policy will address how the fashion industry fails models, who currently occupy a precarious blind spot within labor law.

Read more: Ending Secret Settlements Could Stop the Next Harvey Weinstein

The bill was written with the help of Model Alliance, a labor rights group for working models founded by Sara Ziff. According to Ziff, modeling agencies are not currently subject to existing workplace harassment regulations that protect employees. Often, modeling agencies claim to merely be "management companies," meaning they don't technically employ the models the represent, and can therefore escape licensing requirements for employment agencies.

The majority of models are thus classified as "independent contractors"—not employees. So when models are sexually assaulted on set, their agencies are able to evade the responsibility of handling their claims of abuse. (As independent contractors, models are also vulnerable to wage theft and they lack health insurance.)

The bill would hold agencies, as well as clients, liable for workplace sexual harassment, directly combatting what Rozic describes as "a lack of accountability."

According to a survey by Model Alliance, 29.7 percent of models surveyed have experienced inappropriate touching on the job, and 28 percent have been pressured to have sex with someone at work. Of those who have been sexually assaulted, only 29 percent felt like they could tell their agency.

"Laws to curb sexual harassment on the job for employees need to apply to models," Lawley said. "Speaking up against sexual harassment or assault is difficult, and can often cause agents and clients to see you as difficult to work with and have a negative effect on your career."

"Speaking up against sexual harassment… can often cause agents and clients to see you as difficult to work with and have a negative effect on your career."

The new bill aims to change this, too, by explicitly protecting models from discrimination, regardless of how they are classified as workers.

"I don't think that it's a revelation to anyone that sexual harassment is a problem in the fashion industry—or any other industry, especially in light of the Weinstein allegations. But I think some people might be surprised to know that models, as independent contractors, are not protected against sexual harassment in the workplace," Ziff told Broadly. "This bill essentially aims to close that gap."

"If this bill passes," she added, "I think the industry would be forced to take sexual assault more seriously because they would be held accountable."