Loophole in New York’s Anti-Discrimination Laws Leaving Models Defenseless

Published December 2017

Lauren Switzer has been walking runways for 8 years now. Paris, London and Japan have been second homes to her as her career as a high fashion model blossomed and thrived. She is a seasoned professional and has worked more photo shoots and events than she can count. Even after having “made it” in the fashion industry, Switzer still finds herself and her colleagues the target of unchecked sexual harassment in the workplace.

“There have been countless comments and actions said and done to me either on set, at a casting, in my agency’s office that anywhere else would be grounds for someone getting fired,” said Switzer.

Switzer is nearly 6 feet tall with striking blue eyes and wears her dark brown hair in a short, blunt haircut. Her cheekbones are sharp and so are her eyebrows. With such an intimidating look and dominating presence, it’s hard to imagine anyone trying to take advantage of her, yet Switzer gives many examples of the harassment she has been a target of. A photographer withheld her photos from her after a job where she refused to take his phone number or respond to the numerous inappropriate comments he made about and toward her on set. Clients have gotten angry with her when she refused to pose topless without nipple coverings. Switzer has also experienced a callback where the client had male and female models strip down to just their bottom underwear together and spend hours exposed and making them walk in near-nudity with no break or chance to cover up. Switzer says these experiences are typical of a model, begging the question why the standards for model treatment are so low.

From a legal standpoint, sexual harassment and abuse is gotten away with because many models are classified as independent contractors, not employees. They do not benefit from the same protections employees have against sexual harassment. Since models are booked through their agencies, the client that books them holds only a contract with the agency, not the models themselves, so the client is not liable for abuse that is experienced on set. With such loose regulations, there is no accountability. It is a loophole in New York’s anti-discrimination laws.

Now New York state assemblywoman Nily Rozic is hoping to close that loophole. She is introducing a new amendment that will protect models by extending the same tightly regulated protections employees receive against sexual harassment and discrimination to independent contractors.

“With this amendment we have something to point to and say ‘see you are not allowed to do this, it’s against the law,’ something that we didn’t have before,” Switzer said. “It’s definitely going to affect my career for the better. My job should not include abuse.”

Switzer is not alone in her optimism about change in the modeling industry. Rozic worked closely with Sara Ziff, creator of the Model Alliance, a political organization geared toward improving equality in the fashion industry, while researching and writing her proposed bill. Members of the Model Alliance have championed this legislature, hoping it to be the end-all to the harassment the majority of them have experienced at work.

All you have to do is scroll through supermodel Cameron Russell’s instagram to get first-hand accounts submitted by models about the harassment and abuse they have experienced in the industry to understand just how ingrained the problematic culture is. Although the new legislation will legally change the standards for how models are treated, it is another mountain altogether to address the sexist culture the fashion industry has operated on for decades that keeps the deck stacked against models, often rendering them powerless.

According to a study done by The Model Alliance, nearly 30% of models have experienced inappropriate touching on the job and/or been pressured to have sex with someone at work. Only a third of those models felt they could tell their agencies about the harassment, and of the third of models that told their agencies, two out of three of their agencies did not find issue with the inappropriate behavior. 56% of models start working when they are under 16, with the majority not supervised by a parent or guardian while on set. They are trained from when they are young and impressionable what exactly working in the modeling world entails, which could contribute to the 68% of models who suffer from anxiety or depression.

Many of the models working in the United States are foreign. Their agencies set them up in “model apartments” that are often times connected to their agency. These apartments are usually cheap and cramped, and filled with other foreign models that are likely to not speak English. The agencies often take care of fees like rent and international comp-cards up front, but models have to pay the agency back before they get to pocket their own money. This set-up makes them incredibly easy to take advantage of.

“They have no power at all and can’t change that when the industry is so competitive. A lot of the time, you have to prostitute yourself or you just won’t get booked,” said a 25-year-old former model that now works as a stylist, who wished to stay anonymous. The stylist herself has had abusive experiences she went through as a model, including being pressured into having sex with her middle-aged agent when she was 15, and many photo shoots and events she understood she would only book if she slept with a client.

She argues the law won’t change anything, if anything maybe only momentarily for the wealthier, privileged models that have the means and establishment to stand up for themselves. At the end of the day, it’s just too competitive and too ingrained in the culture for this problem to be truly addressed in the industry.

“It’s the entire industry’s mindset that needs to change,” she says. “This is the system because there is always a girl to replace you.”

Even Switzer agrees with the stylist’s assessment of the industry, “everything in modeling is not black and white, the lines are blurred, which makes it impossible to protect yourself. Having to dodge (sexual harassment) has become the greatest part of my profession.”

Whether or not the industry can or will change is still to be seen, but the passage of this amendment can only be a step in the right direction as more and more models break their silence and advocate for fairer working conditions.

“Everyone is watching and talking to each other now,” said Switzer, “I hope this amendment is the first of many changes in this industry that needs a major make over.”

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