When I was 12 years old, my mother hit pause on the VCR player, stopping the movie we were watching. I’m pretty sure it was starring Ashley Judd, and it could have been A Time to Kill, but all I remember is that whatever it was involved rape. She told me, with tears in her eyes, that when she was 23 years old, she was abducted by a stranger, held captive in the Southern California woods, and brutally raped to within an inch of her life.
From then on, nothing that happened to me was that big a deal. Not a truck driver leaning out his window as I walked to high school, gleefully yelling at me, “I wanna rape that thing, baby!” nor giving a blow job in an alleyway to a boy I didn’t even like nor my eighth-grade homeroom teacher instructing my male classmate to shove his hand up my skirt during a fire drill. Not getting followed to my Cornelia Street doorstep at 19 by a stranger and threatening to call the police while he pressed his erection into my thigh. Not going undercover as an “erotic maid” for an NYU undergrad class, when I wore nothing but a thong and stilettos in front of strange men in their homes to find out if they actually wanted me to clean or if they just cared about getting off (take a wild guess). Not my college professor following me into the women’s restroom in the middle of a lesson to stick his tongue down my throat (same school, different class). Not even my mother’s close friend pinning me to my bed at 16 and telling me, with a hardcover copy of my favorite book in his hands, I was his own version of the namesake character “Lo-li-ta,” as he attempted to penetrate me. None of that was a big enough deal to make into a big deal.
So when Terry Richardson shoved his hardening dick into my face in 2008, when I was 23 years old, it wasn’t anything for me to get too emotional about, either. Only pussies get emotional. I might be a girl who wears lipstick just to check the mail and whines when her high heel breaks and cries when certain things don’t go her way and wants a brand-new dress for every minor occasion and yes, has a pussy, but I would not be a pussy. I would be a “player,” impervious to emotions, too aloof to be vulnerable, too tough to act sensitive, and too cool to admit I sometimes, only sometimes, wanted a boyfriend and not just a one-night stand. I would give blow jobs because I liked giving blow jobs, not because I cared about making guys like me (lie). Because that, from the age of 12 to 27, was my muddled interpretation of feminism. Unfortunately, it didn’t make me impervious to sad, misguided, insecure men.
In July 2008, I attended the launch party of the Nolita restaurant Delicatessen. Swarms of New York’s almost-famous showed up, delighted by the fete’s focal point: a photo booth downstairs, where famed fashion photographer Terry Richardson was on hand to snap portraits. A few would be chosen to adorn the menus and bathroom walls; the collaged photos are still up, mine included. Ironically, my facial expression is one of feigned outrage: jaw dropped, nose wrinkled.
Apparently, Terry was quite taken with my energy in front of the camera. At least, that’s what his assistant, Leslie Lessin, said when she approached me after I exited the booth. I’ll admit I was flattered. She asked if they could have my phone number to set up a proper photo shoot with me, at Terry’s studio. I happily obliged. I had just worked as a stylist on shoots for Self-Service, Chloé and Lancôme; I was feeling comfortable not only with models, makeup artists, and hairstylists but photographers and their crew. Everyone had been nice.
A few minutes later, Leslie returned. Now the pair wanted to know if I’d be willing to skip out on the party for a few minutes and do an impromptu shoot at Terry’s home/studio on Bowery. It was just a few blocks away, and they loved the outfit I was wearing (an antique lace top cut to shreds and knotted to reveal just a flash of black bra, layered rosary beads and pendant necklaces, high-waisted apron-front shorts, and platform Christian Louboutin sandals. I thought I was hot shit). They were appealing to me – my narcissism and penchant for spontaneous, ill-advised adventures – so naturally my answer was, “Sure. Let’s go!”
The quiet, brightly lit studio felt a harsh contrast to the party’s perky din. Richardson didn’t even shoot any of the photos. His assistant held the camera and pressed the buttons, while he gave direction. At first, I simply stood in front of the white wall, making goofy faces, then I moved around, vamped it up. He suggested I show my “tits.” I’m not against nudity by any means, so again the answer was, “Sure. Why not!” He entered the shot for a few photos. Then, as I was kind of crouched down posing, I suddenly felt his semi-hard penis pressing very hard into the right side of my face. No warning whatsoever. (I had been looking straight ahead at the camera, evidently too distracted to notice him whip it out beforehand.) He pressed it to my open mouth, giggling. Leslie smiled, saying something to the effect of “Isn’t this fun?” He wanted a blow job, and he wanted it documented.
Disgusted and unnerved as I was, I smiled and laughed back as she continued snapping pictures for a few moments. I didn’t want to act afraid; I was outnumbered, and I thought showing fear or outright shock would lead to something worse. I just knew I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. I stood up, fixed my bra, muttered something about having to get back to the party, and jetted out of there, returning to Delicatessen to down a vodka soda and try to forget that I had just gotten totally taken advantage of like a naïve schoolgirl.
After that night, Leslie began calling me and leaving messages. I avoided her; I wanted nothing to do with her or her boss. Several days later, I was at work when I received a call from an unfamiliar number, and I answered. It was Leslie. “Hey, Anna!” Her voice was friendly and upbeat. “So Terry cannot stop talking about you. You’re his new muse. He’s obsessed.” I remained silent. She continued, “And his birthday is coming up, and I have kind of a crazy idea I know he would just love. I was thinking you could show up at his apartment – I’ll tell you when I know he’ll be home – and when he opens the door, you just grab him without saying anything and make out with him. Then run away! He will love that. Just don’t tell Jen [Brill, his photo agent girlfriend at the time]. She can never know about this.”
“Leslie, I have no desire to make out with him. Absolutely not.” I hung up.
I never heard from her again, and I’ve never seen the photos that were taken at his studio that night.
I told a couple of my friends about everything that had happened, and we actually laughed about it. My instinct, as it had been every other time something like this had happened, was to laugh it off. Yet another grimy misadventure of the native New Yorker who can’t steer clear of sex, trouble, and renegade penises. I certainly didn’t think I could change anything, nor did I see a point in coming out with it to an outlet like the authorities or media. Who, really, would give a shit about a non-model getting a dick (albeit a famous fashion photographer’s dick) shoved in her face? I didn’t feel traumatized, if only because relative to other incidents that had happened in my life it really wasn’t that bad. Besides, even if I did, I was “asking for it,” right? I went to his home at my own free will, revealed my breasts on my own volition, and didn’t scream, “Mouth rape!” when he pressed his penis to my lips. I had never done much of anything to take a stand before, why start now? I argued against myself because I thought that was the best thing for myself. On top of it, I was afraid of sounding like an embittered, venom-spewing bitch or a sputtering damsel in distress who craved a shoulder to cry upon, both clichés, both constructed stereotypes.
I would keep being the girl who could shrug it off and joke about it; no one can feel sorry for the girl who’s laughing. That is, unless no one else is laughing along with you.
Two years later, Jamie Peck came forward, telling a story about the same photographer eerily similar to mine, though I didn’t stumble upon the article until long after it was published. I still managed to find separation. I deemed her a somewhat innocent young woman who was traumatized by what had happened, and I was not. Looking back, I think,“How dare I make such assumptions, about her or myself?”
I’m not talking about this now because it’s something that has necessarily been gnawing at me for the past six years, but what does bother me is the fact that this man, who has announced with his actions that his desires, fantasies, and yes, his raging boner are more important than another human being’s state of mind or consequential distress, continues to be revered, hired, and supported by celebrities, professionals, and publications alike. And that’s really the problem here.
My mom never told her parents what happened to her in that Southern California woods. She took her attacker to court and in the process, many female friends stopped speaking to her. After all, it was 1978, she explained to me, and the stigma attached to rape – for the victim, that is – was far worse than it is now.
Or is it? There are still a load of stigmas that cling to all forms of sexual assault and harassment (slut, lush, party girl, cocktease, the list goes on), and that’s one of the many reasons so many stay quiet. Somehow, the men at fault seem to go unscathed all too often, Terry Richardson included. So not to get all emotional on you, but for every girl who didn’t want to make a “big deal” about what happened to you when you were 12, 23, or ever, this is for you.