“He should be kicked out of your Fraternity! I’m sorry but I don’t understand how all of you guys can just act like this is normal. And HANG out with him.”
I said this very indignantly and genuinely shocked at how this really nice guy I was semi-dating one fall in college knew about a guy in his fraternity who had raped a girl. His fraternity brothers, also friends of mine, knew. The guy who raped the girl, I will give him the pseudonym Donald Harvey, was still in the fraternity. While I do think these guys I was friends with never really hung out with him, they still tolerated him at events, meetings and who knows what else. I never met Donald Harvey in person. It was a big school. I knew the girl though. So did all these guys.
His reaction: “How did you even know about it?”
As if this was something no-one should know. Or if they knew at least never speak aloud. Some big fraternity secret that if it got out would hurt the reputation of the fraternity. That seemed to be the concern.
Me: “What do you mean HOW DO I KNOW?? A lot of people know. How the fuck can everyone walk around like this is normal and it never happened? How are you guys not showing his ass in jail? If I ever see this guy I will LITERALLY punch him in the face. Then make a citizens arrest.”
I meant it at the moment. I felt deeply disappointed in my sort-of boyfriend and our friends. I was still in the naive mindset that while I was never shocked people did horrible things, I was just shocked they got away with it. That kind and decent people allowed them to get away with it. In I still think that way, despite the hypocrisy of what ended up happening a few years later. However, I now know it is really easy to do the right thing or talk about doing it when you have nothing to lose. It isn’t so easy when you have a lot to lose and I suppose that tipping point is different for everyone.
For the guy I dated (and the thing that confused me the most was not only was he was truly a good guy, he was a good-hearted human being) it was keeping peace in his fraternity I guess? Or maybe since everyone around him acted like this was normal, he did too? Or maybe he was just having a lot of fun in college and didn’t want to interrupt that to be the one to do what was right? None of those sounded like even close to good enough reasons at all.
How I got from that conversation with one of my college semi-boyfriends to what I ended up posting the day #MeToo went viral is something I had never let myself really think about, but once I posted it, I have not been able to stop thinking about it.
My first reaction was pretty similar to many other women. I felt a combination of - it’s about time and sickened to see the fact that this post took up 90% of my newsfeeds. I felt a wave of anger at all the shit I have always had to deal with, as well as complete vindication that people were acknowledging Street Harassment as Sexual Harassment - something I have always said. So I easily wrote my post.
If all of the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "me too" as their status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Me - Dealing with disgusting comments on the street constantly! No none of them were/are compliments ever! Yes, those comments on the street are all sexual harassment and should be illegal.
I was about to post when I had the wave of “Do I have the right to post this when so many women have been through so much worse” that lots of other women later shared feeling. As if being sexually harassed is just part of being a woman and something that is pretty much to be tolerated as long as it doesn’t cross the boundary into actual rape. So in hindsight, yes that would have been a very valid post on its own, but that is another topic.
In the middle of this “guilt?” I scrolled through some posts again and I was in serious awe at the vulnerability of what so many of my friends and acquaintances were posting. Many shared opening lines of “I never told this to anybody aside from my best friend before . ." and then shared some heart-wrenching story with their 1k+ followers.
It hit me if we don’t start talking about everything with that level of openness things will not get better. So I wrote part 2. It took me a few hours of pacing around my room, playing with my dog and cat and a bunch of other distractions, as well as an assurance from one friend that the world would NOT hate me, before I posted something I myself had never really said aloud.
and then I added:
If all of the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "me too" as their status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Ok. First part is easy to share but I feel I have to share the second part too. First part -
dealing with disgusting comments on the street constantly! No none of them were/are compliments ever! Yes, those comments on the street are all sexual harassment and should be illegal.
Part two - terrified to share but I think it's important so we all get this to stop.
We ALL knew/know who the horrible sexual assaulter big fashion photographers were/are. (And tbh there are probably some we don't know about) I know it often went way past disgusting comments for so many girls and guys. I heard enough stories that were obviously a LOT more substantial than rumors. Not that I wouldn't believe rumors of sexual assault. Some I even heard first hand and second hand. But I went on the shoots and to events and hung out and acted really nice and normal with these photographers and tucked what I knew away. To advance my career. Bc it was/is so horribly normalized in fashion. Bc I was just the fashion assistant. #Imsosorry #neveragain
When I ended up posting my #MeToo I had to face that I handled something completely opposite of my how self-identity handles things. I see myself as justice based, confident and someone who would never tolerate being in a room with a person who was a sexual assaulter let alone someone who would try to make a good impression on that assaulter.
I had found Cameron Russel’s Instagram a few days before #MeToo went viral (If you don’t know who she is, Cameron Russel is a model who is collecting stories of sexual assault from the fashion industry and posting them on Instagram). The stories are deeply disturbing, sickening and incredibly heartbreaking. I wish more than anything I could say they were shocking to me. They should have been. Not one of them was.
During summers at college and right afterward, I worked as an assistant to fashion stylists and at magazines. I was starting to break away to style my own shoots before stopping to launch my own fashion company Runway Passport.
I knew what was going on behind the scenes. We all did. We all looked the other way.
Before I go into what I saw and knew, I do need to say there are many very ethical, kind, and caring fashion photographers out there and working with great people on beautiful shoots have been some of the best experiences of my life.
However, I think in industries such as fashion (and film) where you have people shooting girls with the goal of making them look beautiful and sexy, the boundaries of appropriate comments and behavior are easier to blur. Some sexual predators are drawn to that world because they know they can blend and take advantage of the fact they can say things such as “Try to look really sexy now” to a 15-year-old girl who is wearing a bikini. While many talented artists are drawn to this field as well, so are many predators. The scary part is when they are both.
I never saw anything too blatant in front of my face and being “not a model” I was comparatively (mostly) treated with professional respect.(Note that I am not doing a beauty comparison since sexual assault has NOTHING to do with beauty or actual attraction, I am just stating the dynamics of the industry as to how I experienced them.) There are almost no protections for the models (and this goes for both the boys and the girls), many who are children here from overseas without their parents.
After just a few months working on photoshoots I heard the names of some of the photographers who were known to be “creepy” and I heard some of the stories. There were the obvious ones that EVERYONE openly knew about and talked about - I am choosing to leave out actual names, but whether or not you work in fashion you know at least one of who I mean. He has been all over the news this past week and magazines are agreeing to not work with him anymore. He is the most public one, but he is far from only one.
Then there were the ones who seemed so nice and respectful, but there were still the stories attached to them.
One of the nicest seeming ones who also shot very clean wholesome and commercial shoots apparently had rape charges against him. The girl was 13 and he said it was consensual. No, it is NOT consensual when the girl is 13 and you are close to 50! Her parents pressed charges. His defense - He was a fashion photographer. That is just part of what they all do. Sex is part of the industry. He won. I tried to google the case. I couldn’t find it.
That story was told to me very hush-hush by a photo assistant. Another photo assistant ended up telling me the same story as well as another story about that photographer asking a girl to come to his room so he could “help her” evaluate her portfolio. That girl apparently walked out pretty quickly when it became clear what he meant. I never heard a girl talk about him.
I had a travel shoot with the “nice-guy photographer” the following week after I was told these stories. I had to, actually got to, sit next to him one night at dinner. He was a big photographer. I was a starting out fashion assistant. I was happy for the opportunity. I was happy he talked to me. Not all the big photographers talk to the fashion assistants. I pushed away what I was told and didn’t let myself think about it.
The one who has been in the news this past week was talked about a lot. Sometimes the models proudly told stories of walking off of shoots when he got too creepy, but usually it was more of a slightly uncomfortable mention of his name followed by, “Yes I did a shoot with him. He is creepy.” I noticed they would often exchange looks with one another or look away. People openly said he was disgusting but people still worked with him.
Like the other stories, these creepy stories happened on shoots for the books and personal projects he was shooting. Not on the actual jobs. (As far as I heard)
I actually never was on a job with him myself, but I went to events he was at and I was happy to get on a list during fashion week for a party he hosted with a magazine I was beyond excited to be doing some assisting for. It was good networking. It was a really fun party.
Then there was the huge photographer who shot some really desirable career launching campaigns who would call young boys in the middle of the night and ask them how much they wanted to be in that campaign. I hung out with a lot of his assistants. We all talked about how great he was.
There were so many other stories told lightly and casually. It was all just so NORMALIZED. It is scary to look back and see how obviously this was the tip of an iceberg and admit how much we all KNEW that.
There was also the stuff I saw on a regular basis and the stuff I personally experienced.
There were the sexual comments on set. I am far from conservative and uptight, but it hit me that I had really normalized something I shouldn’t have on a shoot with a 50-something photographer (one known as being a nice one). He was always really nice to me and I actually never heard anything bad about him. On set he told the model to give the face she makes after “f*cking her boyfriend.” And he followed up with a few joking sexual comments.
My boss (one of my favorites) stopped turned to the girl and said,
“Excuse me. How old are you?”
My boss then turned to the photographer and said: “You are never to talk that way to a 16-year-old girl again.”
He laughed and stopped.
It hit me - she was 16. Remember being 16? How creepy would that have felt to get a comment like that from an adult man. Comments like this were very normal and that was the first (and really only) time I had heard someone called out for it.
A lot of the other stories on Cameron Russel’s Instagram are about girls being pressured to take topless and nude photos while both on set and off. I saw that a lot. These shoots can be very artistic and beautiful, but it is something that should be talked about with the model before the shoot. She needs to be completely comfortable with it, know it is happening in advance, and have the right to back out without being bullied if she feels uncomfortable.
There were so many other kinds of body degradation that went on. It is almost embarrassing to write because it feels like such a cliche of the fashion industry, but it was all true. Sexual assault is the most intense and damaging way you can degrade someone else’s body, but there were small chronic ways that I saw constantly and ended up personally experiencing. Things that I allowed to be said to me and things I allowed to be said in front of me. I stopped even noticing these were offensive they all became so commonplace.
One of the more extreme “micro-offense” examples was on a shoot I worked for on a tropical island. In many ways it was wonderful: the photo assistants, the models, an actress, and hair and makeup were lovely and we had so much fun together. We were all on a gorgeous location for a very creative magazine I had dreamed of working with. I was assisting a big stylist who was working with a big photographer.
One day on set the photographer became very cruel to a model because she refused to do a topless shot. It had not been agreed upon before, but he realized it was what he wanted for his shot. When he didn’t get his way despite saying everything from the fact she was ruining his shoot to questioning how she ever expected to work as a model if she was uncomfortable topless (very clearly implying she had ruined her career), he spent the rest of the trip constantly letting her know how unsophisticated he thought she was. I quietly pulled her aside and told her not to do anything she didn’t feel comfortable with and that I wouldn’t do it in her position either. Then I told her to never tell anyone that I said that. She got it. The power dynamic gave me the options of sticking up for her and being fired, saying nothing or saying this quietly. So I compromised and said it - but quietly. I was a semi-ally.
This same photographer also made a point of telling me I was the “perfect age” because I was old enough to know what I was doing in bed and young enough that guys would still want to f*ck me before I started getting too saggy for guys to want to f*ck me anymore even if I would get better in bed with age. He let me know there was this tiny and perfect window of time and I was in it just for now.
I rolled my eyes, but I also stepped up my exercise routine when I got home to stave off this inevitable?? sagginess. This stuff can really get to you.
There was another shoot we went on where we did a nude shoot with a certain model/actress. She was over 18. It was agreed upon in advance. Nothing was wrong at all in the setup. (I was personally relieved to have a break from steaming and laying out piles of clothes.)The photographer was very professional and respectful and made everyone, including the actress, feel comfortable. His photos were beautiful and artistic and valuing of all involved. The stylist was another story.
The actress was curvy as opposed to runway model skinny body type.
This lack of being super skinny APPALLED the stylist. The woman we shot was kind of famous and that meant a lot to him (the stylist) so he was VERY nice to her face. When the shoot was over and she was out of earshot he proceeded to tell me how fat she was. He didn’t drop it easily either - he would bring it up to me with a whisper in my ear and a poke in the ribs or stomach every time I ate dessert the rest of the trip - “Be careful. You don’t wanna start to look like . . .” and then laugh in my face. I told myself it didn’t count because he was gay so him commenting on my body or her body wasn’t really offensive.
The degradation wasn’t only bodies. It was faces too. One of my favorite makeup artists preferred to work with “real people” (real people in fashion means not models or actresses) because they were so happy to get their makeup done. She loved how her work made people feel so good about themselves. To me, that seems like it would be one of the best parts of being a makeup artist. Making "real" women feel beautiful and happy balanced with the creative team projects of artistic photoshoots.
This makeup artist was often asked by people in the industry how could she handle working with these “real women” because “real people” are so disgusting and ugly.
Writing this now I am half laughing at how absurd that sounds, but also pretty disgusted and a bit shocked at how normal being surrounded by that mentality became.These comments were met with an eye-roll, almost the way you do with that quirky friend who just says silly things. An affectionate - “Oh they are just artists who need things to look a certain way.”
While this was far from everyone, this seemed to be the “boys will be boys” version of the fashion industry. The slight semi rapish jokes told at the frat houses that are symptomatic of the normalization of something much darker.
I think that “boys will be boys” culture varies from industry to industry. Sometimes it is quite literal - as you hear about in very male dominated fields such as Wall Street and fraternity houses. Sometimes it is the “But I’m such a nice guy and girls who reject me are stupid to not notice that and need to be punished for that” of the tech industry. In fashion, it was literally about beauty and sexuality - or perceived lack of.
I look back at what I could have done and sadly at the time not much. I hadn’t blatantly experienced anything directly violent myself nor witnessed anything too extreme directly. I could have refused to go on shoots with certain people, which would have resulted in my being easily replaced as an assistant. I could have written about it - maybe that would have worked but that would have involved my giving up my dream of being a fashion editor, which was what I wanted more than anything back then. The ones I saw write successfully about the negative aspects of fashion seemed to do more trashy and shallow tell-alls than effective pieces that helped motivate for change and improvement. I really love how my boss who called out the photographer for speaking to a 16-year-old like that handled it, but for effective change, we have to all be in agreement and be consistent.
On a really positive note, it seems that something has changed and people are able to speak up more than ever. If you have no one to back you up you very sadly only destroy your own life by speaking up. And that is finally changing.
Bullies, predators, and rapists can only thrive and succeed at causing their twisted and cruel damage if we as a society and as individuals allow them to. So whether they manage to take over Hollywood, The White House, Fashion or even just a fraternity - we all need to stand up, band together and speak up as well as start acknowledging the smaller things that allowed them to get this far in the first place.