As many of you know, I model. I always hesitate to call myself a model, because as much as my feminism has given me confidence and influenced my behavior, thought processes and choices as a person and as a woman, and my borderline Asperger’s has meant many social mores, including harmful ones, have gone right over my head, I have plenty of insecurities, and there’s always someone (or someones) who will use the term against me — who will, for instance, randomly say, “you call yourself a model,” as if that invalidates the point I made about misogyny in an article (this has happened!). Because I’m not tall enough or pretty enough to be agency standard, because modeling is a side thing I do for fun and profit (mostly profit), to some people, I can’t be a model… even though I model. For fun and profit, with my face and my height.
It is, of course, a way to put me down — to say “you’re wrong about everything because you have an overinflated ego about your looks,” which is wrong on several levels, starting with internal logic and ending with me having an overinflated ego about my looks.
These comments mostly come from outside the creative industry, or people I met through it but who, in that moment, I’m not talking to as a creative industry person.
The other day I was browsing PurplePort, where I have accounts as a model and as a photographer. I mostly use the first one because the site is geared towards amateur or semi-professional photographers who are looking for models and willing to pay them, and I’m looking to get paid. So I was there the other day, and a thread caught my eye from the forums digest on the homepage — someone was talking about being badgered for a reference, i.e. a public review.
I clicked into the thread, and it turned out the poster had been receiving multiple messages from a photographer she’d worked with, asking for a reference. It goes without saying that when someone asks for a reference, they want a positive one; they want an endorsement. This put her in an awkward position because the photographer had, among other things, tried to push her levels. Everyone was supportive and helpful, and many urged her to report the level-pushing to the administration of the site.
Level-pushing. That’s a term I’d never heard before.
Levels, on this site, in a photographer/model culture that stretches from fully clothed to hardcore pornographic, indicate how “far” a model is willing to go — specifically, how naked and how sexual she is willing to get during a specific shoot. Level-pushing is, therefore, a photographer trying to persuade a model to do something she’s not comfortable with and/or hasn’t agreed to.
Funny. I would call it harassment and coercion. Because, you know, there are laws about that, not just moderator rules on a website.
This also brings up my first issue with this whole thing: the term “levels.” High and low. Higher and lower pay. Sex sells, and it commands more money. The more naked you are, the more valuable your time is. And that is understandable, but it brings a whole host of issues with it, many of which culminate in — you guessed it — harassment and coercion. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Disclaimer: 1) Every single one of these things is something I’ve personally had said to me, happened to me, read, or read about. 2) If it happened to me, the photographer who said or did it is not someone whose work I have shared. 3) Every single one of these things has been done by a male photographer to a female model, so that is the dynamic I will be talking about. 4) I think nudity is beautiful and I support sexual work, pornography and, in fact, sex work of all kinds when it’s a safe and fully consensual choice. 5) There are issues within all industries, and I don’t think people who work in porn are necessarily likelier to harass and coerce than people who do art nudes, and I don’t think misogyny, harassment and coercion are in any way limited to those types of creative work.
Now. Some things I don’t want to see, hear, read, or read about again.
Misogyny, Harassment and Coercion in the Creative Industry: A Few Choice Things I Never Want To Hear Again
You’ll get more money if you go up to nude. A lot of people do things for money. A lot of people are comfortable with those things, and some people will push themselves a bit to be comfortable with them. It makes poor people more vulnerable than others, but ultimately it is an individual’s choice to make that doesn’t concern me.
What concerns me is photographers using this to convince a model to do something they have previously expressly stated they don’t want to do. I once replied to a casting call that gave rates for fashion/lingerie, topless and nude. As usual, the price rose with the level of nudity. Nothing in the casting call indicated that these things went together, or that the photographer wasn’t interested in doing a fashion-only shoot for two or three hours.
The photographer, actually, had a specific setup in mind that he hadn’t described in the casting call. He did fashion outdoors for an hour, then went back to his house to do topless for another hour, then went on to nudity. He was willing to do topless only, but he didn’t think it was worth it to just do fashion. It paid less, anyway. “Models usually go up to nude because they want the money.”
Then he went on to reassure me that everyone was comfortable with him, and it was fun, and implied that I was prudish because of my nationality (yeah, sure, okay. Even playing by stereotypes, the comparison made no sense). Which brings me to my next point:
You’re a prude if you don’t want to do nudity, or you’re not brave. Equating bravery and sexual confidence and “liberation” with your modeling levels is commonplace, and no one seems to question it. “If you’re not afraid of nudity” is a phrase I saw in a casting call two weeks ago. We forget that:
1) Models are doing work. This is not their personal life. This is not even their private life, because in most cases they’re agreeing to having the photos used for whatever the photographer wants to use them for: shared, sold, published. There are contracts where they can say they don’t want their name associated with the photos, or that they don’t want them published. Ultimately, that is a risk to take: how many people have we seen who have no respect for private photos? I once saw a random guy publish a naked picture of his ex-girlfriend, without her consent, on a facebook group I belonged to. I called him out, and people “like”d my comment… and he remained in the group. And once your privacy is violated in public, on the Internet, there’s no taking it back.
So a model is choosing what type of work she wants to do based on: what she feels comfortable doing, what she feels comfortable with other people seeing, what she wants out of her career, how she wants to be represented to potential clients, brands, companies, friends, family. She’s making a choice based on whether she feels a photographer will genuinely respect her during and after the shoot. We’ll come back to this. But she’s making a work choice. It doesn’t reflect how much sex she has or has had, how many sex partners, whether she enjoys sex or not, whether she’s comfortable with sex or not, whether she’s repressed or not, or whether she’s turned on by it or not. These things may affect her choices, but they’re separate from what she does as a model. Someone can be completely confident in her sexuality without wanting to pose naked for random strangers, or for a specific stranger, or hell, for a friend or an acquaintance or you.
A photographer actually told me once that if you had a good body, you should show it, and if you had a bad one, you should hide it. The message is: “you’re ugly if you don’t pose nude.” That’s the underlying message. Guess what? Someone can love their body without wanting to share it with everyone else, or with you. Someone can hate their body and still share it with everyone else, and even with you. It’s their choice. It’s their body.
How people don’t get this is beyond me.
2) Women’s sexual liberation, and feminism in general, is about women getting to make choices, and having those choices respected. Sometimes, it takes bravery to stand your ground and say no. Actually, a lot of the time it does. Sometimes, liberation looks like a choice to not have sex. Sometimes, liberation looks like asexuality. Sometimes, liberation looks like men’s desires, or anyone else’s desires, not being the sole deciding factor or a factor at all in a woman’s sexual choices. Fancy that.
Conflating bravery, sexual confidence and the choice to do nudity plays into the insecurities of models. Most people want to be brave, and be seen as brave. They want to be confident and be seen as confident. They want to be cool and they want to be desirable. The line may be “if you’re not afraid of nudity,” but the message is: “if you don’t want to pose nude, you are obviously a prude, sexually repressed, not as cool as other women, not as cool as the ideal woman in my head, not better than other people.” That’s a coercive message. And it’s not okay.
You’re wasting their time if you don’t pose nude. I call this “the guilt-trip.” You’re negotiating rates with someone and they tell you if you don’t pose nude, it’s not worth the time to get to the location, or the travel expense, or the equipment, or the studio they’re renting. You get to a shoot and the photographer tells you they’ve actually never done a non-nude shoot with someone, and they agreed to work with you because [insert reason, often pitying — in my case, it was that I could use the money]. The underlying message is a condescending, not even subtle hint that really, you might as well pose nude, even if you explicitly discussed and agreed that you wouldn’t. Maybe now, or maybe some other time. The intent, whether conscious or not, is to make you feel guilty and feel like you owe them something because you both agreed to a shoot that is not the photographer’s favorite thing to do, or doesn’t get him off, or isn’t worth his time or money.
It’s a bit like a man paying for your drink or your dinner and being disappointed — and sharing with you — that it didn’t buy him access to your body, or consent to sex. That’s what he spent his money for? He’s not getting something you never said he’d get, even after he spent all that time and/or money on you? What a waste. It wasn’t worth it.
On top of being coercive, these comments are also harassment at best, because who’s not incredibly uncomfortable and uneasy after being told they’re not valuable unless they give access — photographic or otherwise — to their body? That sure makes for a fun shoot.
Something else that makes for a fun shoot: not giving models privacy to change. “Just change here,” or not realizing that somebody wants you to leave the room. Not offering to leave the room in the first place. Because come on: if someone is fine changing in front of you, they won’t be waiting for something to do it. If they’re waiting for something? They’re waiting for you to get a clue. “Just say it,” you may suggest, but then, you might say, “Just change here.” And we’re back at square one.
Another small obvious one: touching someone without permission. Always get consent first. Seriously. Every time. Makeup artists can touch to an extent. Stylists can touch to an extent. It goes unsaid. But a photographer can convey a pose or request without touching someone, so if he wants to touch to do it, he needs to get consent. (Special disclaimer on this point: this hasn’t happened to me, and I haven’t heard about it from anyone I know. Consider it a bonus tip, if you will. It can never be stressed enough.)
You’re insulting their experience/work/person if you want to set down guidelines. Many photographers I’ve seen explicitly state that their model is more than welcome — encouraged, even — to bring a chaperone. But there are some who actively discourage it — who say a model bringing someone along to make her feel safe is disruptive.
Then there are the people who are offended when you say you’re not comfortable going to their house/going to a far-off location/getting in a car with them/whatever your safety measures are. They’re offended. You have insulted them. Never in sixteen years of his career has someone he’s never met before been concerned that someone they have never met could perpetrate crimes against them, and set measures to put themselves at ease.
Look, I get it. No one wants to be thought of as a potential murderer or sexual predator or rapist. But to most women, most men (and sometimes other people) are Schrödinger’s rapist.
Give that article a read. It’s a good one. My bottom line: by disregarding or balking at someone’s safety measures, you are saying: “my ego is more important than your comfort.” You’re also dismissing statistics, centuries of crimes, and centuries of women being blamed when they don’t take whatever precautions someone considers necessary for women to take. But when we try to be as careful as possible, they are dismissed and disregarded because you are “not that guy,” and you can’t believe the gall that anyone would think you might be.
But we don’t know that. And by dismissing our safety and comfort, you are being a little bit that guy.
By doing any of the things I described, you are being a little bit that guy. You are raising flags. In some cases, you just need to check your misogyny. In some cases, you are perpetrating harassment, or you are perpetrating coercion.
In most cases, you are disregarding women’s safety, concerns, autonomy, and choices. In most cases, you are minimizing the value of women as people, and placing all value on your access to their body. In all cases, you are making someone uncomfortable as fuck.
And you need to stop doing that.