Terry Richardson’s studio behavior sparked a fashion-world conversation about the sexual harassment of female models. Meanwhile, their male counterparts are getting manhandled regularly…but can’t boys fend for themselves?
On a recent September weekday during New York’s Fashion Week showing the Spring 2015 collections, editors, buyers and other honchos on the male side of the fashion world—most of them gay men who all seemed to know one another, many of them in mid-thigh tailored shorts and sockless oxfords—milled through a series of rooms at Industria, the photo studios in downtown Manhattan. Lubricated with drinks from a free bar, they perused presentations from various designers. In every room, male models—almost uniformly tall, rail-thin, white, Northern European-looking and twentysomething—stood in formations, nearly immobile, their chisel-cheeked faces impassive. Industry types examined and occasionally approached them, feeling the fabric of their form-fitting garments and sometimes turning back lapels or hems to look at stitching and construction.
In one show, the designer himself ushered over two other men to look at the details of the pieces being worn by one model. The two men accompanying the designer murmured and nodded their heads appreciatively. Then, as the trio was walking away, the designer gently and briefly caressed the model’s neck. It was a gesture that, whatever its intentions, clearly had nothing to do with stitching or construction.
The moment was fleeting, likely innocent, but it provided a glimpse into an aspect of the industry that is usually only whispered about: sexual advances, let’s-make-a-deal suggestions or downright harassment of male models, usually (though not certifiably always) by gay male photographers, designers, casting agents or other industry poobahs. In a year in which the famous fashion photographer Terry Richardson has seen mounting allegations of sexual harassment against him by a string of former female models, culminating in aNew York magazine cover story and a very public discussion about the sexual abuse of female models, the male side of the equation has gone virtually undiscussed.
Yet as I talked the past few weeks with scores of male models, casting agents and other industry insiders—most of whom demanded anonymity—it became clear that various levels of harassment, from inappropriate comments and touching to surprise requests to disrobe and explicit quid-pro-quo offers (accept my come-ons and I’ll advance your career), happen every day to male models, creating a troubling subtextual power dynamic that echoes its counterpart on the female side of the business.
One thing’s clear: Nobody really wants to talk about it—often, least of all, the (still mostly straight) male models themselves, who aren’t comfortable using the same language of sexual harassment that the women’s side of the casting call is only just now acclimating itself to.
"Harassment definitely happens," says a men’s agent at a top agency, "more so than a lot of the guys like to tell us. A lot of them come back from shoots feeling very uncomfortable but they’re afraid that if they tell us, we’ll have to talk to the client. Then, if it gets back to the culprit, he, depending on his status, could actually destroy that model’s career."