The #MeToo movement of 2017 suddenly thrust sexual harassment—an underlying and harmful workplace norm—into the spotlight. Over the past few months, a wide range of employers and industries have come under fire for overlooking sexual harassment.

The fact that sexual harassment represents an especially pervasive problem in the fashion industry should come as a surprise to no one. The fashion industry tends to recruit young, beautiful women to work as fashion models. Their age makes them a particularly vulnerable target, while their beauty makes them a desirable one. Models also give up immense amounts of control over their body when working. Typically, designers and photographers make decisions over almost every aspect of how models present themselves. To illustrate, a related question was posed at recent meeting of fashion models to address sexual harassment: “Who had been put on the spot at a casting or job to pose nude? Every single hand went up.”

One less obvious aspect of models’ job characteristics makes them particularly susceptible to sexual harassment: their employment status.  Fashion models in the United States are widely considered independent contractors. The triangular nature of their employment makes it feasible for both agencies, who book models’ work, and photographers and designers, who pay for models’ services, to disclaim an employer-employee relationship. Thus, the practice of classifying models as independent contractors has continued without successful opposition.

Fashion models’ independent contractor status leaves them with far fewer legal protections than workers who are considered employees. Vitally, Title VII—the federal law that sexual harassment claims arise from—does not apply to independent contractors.  Because of this loophole, not only are models especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, but they are provided with almost no legal remedies after experiencing on-the-job sexual harassment.  Industry members are likely aware of this fact, and thus have faced minimal incentive to curb sexual harassing behaviors until now.

Luckily, the #MeToo movement has provided the much-needed deterrence effect that the law has failed to provide in the past. Going forward, potential harassers will be forced to consider the potential for negative publicity associated with sexual harassment, which will lead to reduced harassment prevalence.

Further, the modeling industry is attempting to change the structure of applicable laws. New York Congresswoman Nily Rozic announced on October 23, 2017 that she plans to introduce legislation that would extend coverage of anti-discrimination laws in New York to protect fashion models. Hopefully, the added pressure from the media and potential expansion of laws will be enough to combat harassment in the industry going forward.

Erin Meyers

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