By Gabriel Bell, Refinery29
.We like model Charlotte Free. We like her hair, her face, her style, the brands she represents, and her fun, unapologetic personality. But we don't like what she said on Tumblr in a since-deleted comment regarding the various sexual harassment allegations against creepy photographer Terry Richardson, who's made a career out of asking models to pose nude for him, among other X-rated things. As reported on The Fashion Spot:
"Terry likes to do sexy stuff, that's his shit. If you don't wanna be part of it, make it clear in the beginning. Don't willingly blow the man and get all mad and ashamed later…I hate when girls say 'but he asked me to.' You should have said no then, stupid bitch! There's plenty of other girls waiting in line, so he's not forcing you to do shit. When you make a choice you have to live with it - unless someone got you fucked up against your will."
After deleting the post, Free wrote, "I don't even believe the accusations against terry…. And if they are true, I still stand by what I said. I shouldn't have used such offensive language...I'm sick of people making stuff up about him, and even if it was true, I still have Terry's back no matter what." It's a very strong defense of someone who, in all fairness, has been accused repeatedly, but never convicted or even successfully sued.
But, here's the thing. What we find troubling about Free's comments isn't her ride-or-die support of Richardson. Rather, we're confused and disappointed about her victim shaming and her note that, "There's plenty of other girls waiting in line, so he's not forcing you." Taken generally, it's a comment on the entire modeling profession, one that seems to suggest that if you don't accept an uncomfortably sexualized working condition someone eventually will and, perhaps should, replace you. It's the way these things work, both with Richardson and others, the logic goes. Deal with it or find another job.
But, we can't agree. And we're not alone. "There is a long history of people like Charlotte Free blaming the victim in situations where there is an abuse of power," says Sara Ziff. The working model, critic of unfair labor standards in the fashion industry, co-founder of the Model Alliance, and the co-director of the revealing documentary, Picture Me is certainly one to know. She continues, "Free's logic that, 'everyone is a free individual and so is responsible for the choices they make,' is appealing in the abstract, but it's also incredibly naive to think that, in reality, everyone has the same ability to resist mistreatment. This is why we protect children, it's why we have workplace harassment laws, and it's why we have a minimum wage. It's not always economically or socially feasible to just leave, or just say 'no', because you don't like how you're being treated.
"Unlike other performers (such as actors, singers, and dancers), models lack union protections and have been excluded from regulations that protect minors. This makes models uniquely vulnerable. They don't receive the sort of protection in their workplace that other types of workers take for granted. We established our Model Alliance Support service for exactly this reason - so that models can report abuse and have somewhere to turn for safe, discreet advice.
"Sexual harassment, abuse and assault are not part of the 'creative process.' They're against the law. Imagine if during an interview at Walmart or McDonald's the interviewer implied that performing a sex act on him might improve the candidate's chance of getting the job. Nobody would think that's okay. Why should it be okay for a model?"
Ziff's right; it's not okay whether you're in front of Terry Richardson or anyone else in a position of power. It doesn't matter that sexuality is a strong part of his artistic process. You can't say, "well that's just Terry." Free tells us you have a choice to engage in whatever on or off-camera sexual situation Richardson or another creative proposes, and it's up to you to say no and walk out if the demand or behavior crosses a line. That's true, you do have a choice. However, Ziff and the law hold that models and professionals of any stripe shouldn't even be forced to make that decision, that being presented with a choice between a sexually uncomfortable situation and employment is itself the definition of sexual harassment. It just doesn't matter how many people are lined up behind you to take your place if you say "no" or how many before you have said "yes."
Charlotte Free is young and most likely has a long and promising career ahead of her (as we said, we like her), so she's got room to grow and change her attitude. The industry, however, should take moments like these to reflect on where it's going and what kinds of changes it needs to make now. When even models are shaming each other defending a wrong, outdated attitude toward sexual harassment, it's a sign that there's some very heavy lifting to do - starting immediately.