"Not Rape Epidemic": The Modeling Industry Is Anything But Immune

The modeling industry sets up camp at the crossroads of youth & beauty and age & wealth — and moreover, it's an arena where those qualities cleave to the most predictable gender and power divide.

Latoya Peterson's excellent essay, "The Not Rape Epidemic," a version of which was published in the brand new anthology Yes Means Yes, and was blogged about last week by Megan, isn't exactly a gentle holiday season comedown. But I was struck, reading the piece — which is both moving and important — by a strange feeling of recognition. Peterson defines a new term, "not rape" — the kind of sex and sexual attention young women get from men which is, if not outright unconsenting, some measure of coerced. Not rape is every kind of uncomfortable experience you're made to feel complicit in: for choosing to go to the party, for wanting the kisses but not knowing how to say 'No' to what came next, for ending up alone with someone you thought you could trust — or, in Peterson's case, for opening the screen door a few inches to a friend-of-a-friend one summer afternoon while her parents were out.

The essay made me think of all the times I've not been raped. And all the other women in my industry who've not been raped.

Most models start working in their early teens. The youngest girl I've ever lived with in a model's apartment, a girl who went to the same grown-up job castings our agency gave me, was 12 years old. (We were working a fashion week in a secondary market, and her show list was easily twice as long as mine and our 16-year-old roommate's. The clients just loved the 5'11" middle schooler; she gave her age as 14.) My first real modeling job was a photo shoot for a major European magazine — and when I got to the studio that day, I was greeted by the sight of a 17-year-old Russian, posing topless, smoking a Marlboro. She told me in broken English that she'd been working full-time for three years. I think I'd gone a week in Paris before I met an Arkansan, also 17, who'd dumped her boyfriend of several years to sleep with with a man old enough to be her father who happened to be the director of her (major, well-regarded) agency.

I can't count the number of girls I meet in this industry who speak in regretful tones of that short-lived "relationship" they had with that older photographer or client; I can't count the number of men I meet who radiate the unmistakable sense that they have literally been sleeping with 17-year-olds since they were that age themselves. Agency directors in the mold of Gérald Marie. Financial backers. Clients. Or any of the industry hangers-on, the restaurateurs and the importer/exporters and the gossip columnists who end up at the parties we go to (because, you soon learn, going to parties is sort of part of the job).

And the fashion industry, which is an industry I love and whose vital importance as both an economic engine and a field for the projection of women's dreams I affirm, probably has a case to answer for perpetuating the idea that teenaged girls — or the occasional leggy 12-year-old — are the equivalent of grown women in every way. There are some photographers — Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, for example — who will only work with models over the age of 18, because, as Inez told me once, before then, you don't really know who you are or what you're comfortable with, anyway. And the modeling industry, or at least some of its players, probably should be more careful about the level of supervision and the kind of working environments it provides for their youngest charges.

You spend a lot of time in this line of work away from your regular support network of family and friends, in cities where you may not speak the language, working with an agency that, while technically in your employ, pretty much feels like your boss, down to telling you how to dress and comport yourself. I won't even pretend I know the intricacies of the sexual assault statutes in Milan or Paris or Hong Kong — let alone the responsiveness of the local police to such complaints. A 15-year-old from a small town in Ukraine probably wouldn't have a hope. Being not raped is something our work environment tacitly encourages us to shrug off.

A few months ago, a 19-year-old friend of mine told me a particularly sad story about a model we both knew who had just turned 17. Part of the story was that she had been dating a man in his mid-twenties, a sorta-famous musician, and the relationship was over. (The other part of the story involved heroin.) There was a long pause. "The thing is," my friend said, with a rueful laugh, "I was sleeping with him when I was 16, too."

I know these kinds of relationships — which, at the very least, are characterized by regrettable power dynamics — are not unique to the fashion industry. And even within it, they're not exactly normal, just more common than perhaps would be ideal. But I think it is worth considering whether these kinds of inappropriate behaviors are connected to the fact that, in this industry, you're treated as an appropriate professional stand-in for adult women from menarche — or from when you hit 5'9", whichever comes first.

I reached that height threshold when I was barely 13; I remember that was the year men started leering at me on the bus, or pestering me with awkward come-ons. It has not gotten any easier since. As women, we are so often compelled to see ourselves as nothing more than our bodies — to look, in essence, through the eyes of the men who objectify us without our consent, and to want to dislike what it is they see. As someone who is complicit in my own objectification for a living, as someone whose work is in my body, I think I maybe even feel this discomfort more keenly. I sometimes buy into the whole notion that life would be easier, somehow, if I were less attractive, if I didn't have a job that required me to hit the tight/revealing/short clothing trifecta every day I have castings, that I wouldn't get this kind of unwelcome attention if I could somehow change myself. (I know that's not true, because it isn't a function of my choices, and because I don't think a single one of my women friends from outside the industry has experiences that are in any way different.) The other night I got briefly out-of-step with my boyfriend, and as soon as I turned a corner, the rolling public commentary on my looks that is the reason I usually keep my headphones on even if they're not plugged in to anything, not to mention why I wear dark glasses whether it's sunny or not, started up, courtesy of a group of middle-aged men who were standing on my street. My boyfriend heard and when he caught up he looked at me, aghast. I thought at that moment, At least now he gets, if only for a moment, what it's like to be us.

Sometimes it's difficult to define yourself as a woman in this culture by any other measure than your persistent fear of men. Men can do things that we will never be able to do without first brokering some kind of peace with the fear. In case the fear doesn't produce itself in your gut whenever you're alone in public, in case you don't know any survivors of sexual violence yourself, rape is made a plot element of television shows and movies every single day, male violence fills the news, and even the media created for us and by us constantly interrogate what it means to be raped and what "counts" as rape, as if we didn't know, or might forget. And as Peterson's essay illustrates so aptly, there are a million male behaviors that are not so much rape as rape spectrum, or rape-ish, or not rape by degree instead of by kind, an entire constellation of potential violations, that almost every sentient woman has more than enough reason by experience to be afraid of. We are taught to put such extraordinary faith in such ridiculous talismans — I can go jogging if it's still light, I can walk these three blocks if I hold my keys out, I can leave my drink unattended while I go to the bathroom if I put a napkin over it, I can trust him if he's so-and-so's friend — that, if we stopped with the bargaining for a minute and actually thought about the chances we have to take to live as men take for granted or to try and have some semblance of trusting romantic relationships, we might never leave the house again. Refusing the fear — walking home alone when the buses have stopped running, doing anything at all alone after dark to make the point that you can — doesn't feel entirely liberating, either. It mostly feels stupid. (I still do these things, sometimes, because if I'm going to feel putting-a-napkin-on-my-drink stupid, I might as well occasionally feel walk-home-drunk-alone stupid.) How to contend with this fear is, I am convinced, the major question of 21st century womanhood. Are there any positive ways to define yourself, as a woman in the Western world? I'm still trying to come up with some.

The last time I was not raped was earlier this year. I had flown to a major market for work, and rather than stay at a hotel or in agency housing, I thought it would be more fun to sleep on the couch of a guy close to my age, who I think I suspected even then would not prove a lasting or dependable friend. One night, he had his girlfriend and a few of his friends over for a late dinner, and afterward, we all had a couple drinks. I think I was nursing my third glass of wine around 1 or 2 a.m. when my friend called it a night; two other guests left shortly thereafter, and soon it was just me and a part-time male model, sitting on my friend's porch. We were talking about David Foster Wallace, who was at that point still alive, and I liked the conversation right up until he put his arm around me, grabbed my breasts, and tried to kiss me. I was in a (different) relationship then; I'm the kind of boringly faithful girlfriend who mentions her absent boyfriend to new acquaintances at least once every few seconds. If my talking points that night had a chyron, it was Not Interested Or Available! And what's more I could hardly see how our nerdy patter could be misread as an attempt at flirtation, let alone an invitation to suddenly slide my sundress down my shoulders and make a grab for my breasts. I stopped, told him curtly that wasn't acceptable, and scooted away. He made some dismissive, faux-innocent comment — Really? That's not OK? — that implied I was the one with the problem, but he promised not to do it again, and I uneasily returned to our conversation, hoping that he'd leave soon. Within five minutes, he tried to kiss me again. I wrenched free and went inside, but my friend and his girlfriend were asleep, and the male model was my friend's close buddy — they went back much further than he and I did. Since it wasn't my place, I didn't feel like I could ask him to leave. When he followed me into the living room, I turned on the loudest, most grandiose, least romantic movie I could find — Scarface — and sat as far away from him on the couch as possible. He kept on creeping closer to me, and he rebuffed any hint I gave that he should think about going home.

I thought if I consented to his rubbing my shoulders, he might limit his other activities. (I was wrong.)

I thought if I stiffened at his every touch, he might get the message. (Wrong.)

I thought if I said clear, standard-issue stuff like "Don't do that," he might abide it. (Wrong.)

I thought if I joked, changed the subject, made light of Tony Mottola's creepy relationship with his younger sister, he might cease the pawing and get a clue. (Wrong.)

I thought if I hunched my shoulders so he couldn't work my sundress off them, he might not decide to reach for my zipper instead. (Wrong on that count, too.)

We watched the movie until 7:30 that morning; he would find a way to put his hands on me, as if to say, "I'm in control here," and eventually I think I got too tired to always be swatting him away. He only got up to leave when my friend walked through his hallway to the bathroom as the credits were rolling. The male model said, "Well. I suppose I'd better get going," in a tone of voice that meant, since you are clearly no fun and I locked my friend's front door behind him. It felt like a very long time before I heard his car start.

When my friend suggested hanging out with the male model a day or so later, I tried to explain what happened, and why I didn't want to see him again, but he avoided my gaze, and said something that implied I'd misunderstood his model friend's intentions. My then boyfriend, never having had the opportunity to witness the diligence of my long-distance fidelity, was suspicious and mistrusting of me as a rule — rightly or wrongly, I thought if I told him, I'd get an argument about why I was "always" in strange cities with strange men, and why I'd been so thoughtless as to end up alone with this creep, and drinking at that. It wasn't really any of my agency's business, plus my booker in that city — one of the only straight men employed there — had long made a habit of standing too close to me, and once rubbed my knee under a table, so telling him was out. And, besides, as violated as I felt, I know it could have been much worse. It was not rape.

A major theme of Latoya Peterson's essay is the importance of words, because articulating an experience can help stop it from being reproduced. "This is how the Not Rape epidemic spreads — through fear and silence," she writes.

Women of all backgrounds are affected by these kinds of acts, regardless of race, ethnicity, or social class. So many of us carry the scars of the past with us into our daily lives. Most of us have pushed these stories to the back of our minds, trying to have some semblance of a normal life that includes romantic and sexual relationships. However, waiting just behind the tongue is story after story of the horrors other women experience and hide deep within the self behind a protective wall of silence.

I polled the other Jezebels, and virtually all of us has been not raped. Megan has written bravely about her sexual assaults before; the rest of us can remember, variously, high school boyfriends who pressured us into doing things we weren't comfortable with, guy "friends" who helped us through breakups, only "he decided to take advantage and I decided to let him," and all the older men who magically started hitting on us when we turned 13. One of us had a college professor angle for some "side boob action" and the same Jezebel had to deter a friend of her parents by punching him in the stomach. Another had her mom's graduate student assistant corner and grope her in an empty office when she was 12. Only one of us says she's been lucky enough to never have to contend with these kinds of situations.

As Peterson writes,

At age fourteen, I lacked the words to speak my experience into reality. Without those words, I was rendered silent and impotent, burdened with the knowledge of what did not happen, but unable to free myself by talking about what did happen.

I cannot change the experiences of the past.

But, I can teach these words, so that they may one day be used by a young girl to save herself

Related: The Not Rape Epidemic [Racialicious]
Yes Means Yes: Visions Of Female Sexual Power And A World Without Rape

Earlier: Not Every Sexual Assault Starts With A Man And A Gun
'Cosmo' Tells Me I Was 'Gray Raped'; Feministing Says It Was Rape. Are We Really Arguing About This?