Why Sexual Assault And Harassment Keep Happening In The Fashion Industry

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Two Australian fashion photographers recently came forward accusing the same worker in the Sydney fashion industry of sexual assault.

The photographers posted their stories on Instagram detailing how this worker had allegedly kissed and touched them inappropriately whilst on photoshoots. And it soon became apparent that other fashion workers had similar stories of their own.

What is it about the fashion industry that seems to allow these kinds of violations to keep happening?

And why are alleged offenders permitted to keep working, unchecked?

Just a note, this episode will contain limited descriptions of sexual assault, if that will make you uncomfortable, please feel free to give it a miss.

CQ: “When were first subjected to this treatment we didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know whether to come forward with it or tell anyone”.

That’s Christopher Quyen, they’re one of the photographers who has accused the fashion worker of sexual touching.

Christopher told me their career felt marred by the event and they felt deeply uncomfortable returning to work.

After coming forward, Christopher and the other Sydney-based photographer received over 20 accounts from other industry workers who had experienced the same type of behaviour from the same individual.

CQ: “For an industry which is not regulated by a watchdog, or has no HR department, where our workers are at the whims of their other colleagues, having someone like that on set just terrifies me once I realised how widespread it was.”

Stories of sexual assault in the fashion industry aren’t exactly rare, even earlier this month supermodel Emily Ratajkowski penned an essay in The Cut describing a sexual assault at the hands of a male photographer in her early 20s.

There have been multiple media investigations and industry attempts to try and shed light on the problem over the past few years.

In 2017, American model Cameron Russell launched a social media movement called #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse spurring top models to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault on sets.

And then in 2018 there were a series of investigations published about sexual assault in fashion.

The New York Times published accusations from male models against celebrity photographers, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber.

And a month later, the Boston Globe published an investigation into sexual assault in the industry, saying that there was a web of abuse going on behind the scenes of fashion.

There was some fallout after these exposés. Brands and magazines cut ties with Testino and Weber and Vogue published a new code of conduct to make people less vulnerable on all Condé Nast shoots.

The #MeToo movement made its mark on the fashion industry, but a lot of the advances have had a hard time sticking.

Industry workers who have been accused of sexual assault or harassment have still been able to continue working and stories of these violations keep popping up again and again.

Christopher said that probably has a lot to do with the structures and attitudes of the industry.

For a start, fashion is mostly composed of freelancers and there’s a lot of fear about never rocking the boat because of the economic risk that comes with.

CQ: “Our industry is built on so many isolated workers where we just drift in and drift out and we just don’t actually communicate or have any sort of community to fall back on.”

But abusers in fashion can also often just be given a free pass when they act out because of ideas around sexual and creative liberation.

CQ: “I do think there is a room for erotic art and sexual liberation…it has to come with consent and it has to come with the idea that when we are creating these works everybody involved is a consenting party.”

Christopher told me that at the end of the day, they hope that their story will influence the fashion industry to change to prevent these kinds of crimes from happening again and make workers feel safer on sets in general. 

The Takeaway

This latest story of sexual misconduct in the fashion industry is horrendous but it’s also, unfortunately, unsurprising.

Fashion is structured in a way that allows perpetrators to continue working and ultimately, industry figures need to take accounts like Christopher’s extremely seriously to keep opening up that dialogue and actually addressing these problems.