I’m currently doing work for a company that will launch as an online collective of ethical fashion and various home goods. As a part of this team, I keep an eye on human rights issues and on fashion. I read a lot of articles every day about sex trafficking, human labor trafficking, domestic violence, refugees, internally displaced persons, HIV/AIDS, ethical fashion, and fashion trends. It doesn’t exactly seem like two worlds that really cross over into each other, but lately I’ve been seeing it do so more and more – but not in a good way.
Many girls who find themselves coerced into the sex trafficking industry are lured in by professional pimps and traffickers with promises of becoming such things as models, actresses, or dancers; but find themselves face to face with much more sinister forces. They become not just models, but nude models, not just actresses, but actresses in pornography, and not dancers, but strippers. While I have no qualms that there are people who freely choose to work in the sex industry, I am very much heartbroken that there are women and girls out there forced to perform sexual acts without pay and against their will.
Lately there has been a surge of accusations against fashion photographer Terry Richardson, and, in actuality, this is nothing new. For years now women he has photographed have been sporadically coming forward and speaking out about their uncomfortable experiences that left them feeling defiled and unstable. Within the past few weeks, several women have found their voices, stepping forward and giving explicit detail about the impropriety of Richardson’s shoots. While he claims that his shoots are fun and the models do nothing against their own will (signing consent forms before shooting starts), the girls coming forward clearly felt differently about their experiences. He argues that they are aware of the nature of his work; therefore know what they are getting into. However, many of the girls who have undergone these photo shoots that seem to cross the line (i.e. giving hand jobs, blow jobs, him jacking off into a model’s eye, asking for a model’s bloody tampon for the purpose of making a cup of tea. Just to name a few.), were only 19 when these took place. It’s not difficult to imagine your 19 year old self in the same situation being terrified to say no to someone whose work is printed in all of the major fashion magazines all over the world – because, hey, this could be your big break. This could be the exposure you need to make it.
Yet nothing happens. Nothing happens for their career and nothing happens to him. To me, this is terrifyingly close to the issue of sex trafficking that just breaks my heart, turns my stomach, and motivates me to want to lead a thousand crusades against the twisted, disgusting industry. Many of the traumatic effects that victims of forced prostitution feel after they’ve been compromised are the feelings these models shot by Richardson have experienced. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely, in no way implying that Richardson is trafficking these women. What I am saying is that the lines in these issues are uncomfortably blurred. At what point does artistic and sexual liberty become violation and pornographic? Would Richardson treat the males he photographs with the same sexually charged interactions? Art is beautiful. Sexuality is beautiful. Violation and pressure to become objectified to the point that your actions feel pornographic is not beautiful. It is not empowering, not liberating, and not art.
When I see these things that make my heart ache for the victims, I dream of being able to make a change. I don’t know how, though – and that makes me even sadder. But I’ve realized that nothing makes me happier than knowing that I’ve empowered someone. Maybe that’s all I can do right now, attempt to help women (and men!) feel empowered. Let me clarify that, I don’t mean to trivialize the impact that I (or you) can have. Empowering even one person means you’ve given them the courage to change their life. We all have voices, you, me, the women who’ve survived large scale sex trafficking, the rewomen humiliated by unethical fashion photographers. Let’s use our voices. Let’s change the world.
Mary P. (Thanks for the submission, and we miss you now you’re back in the US!)