Last week, yet another story broke about photographer Terry Richardson sexually abusing a young model in his employ. Stories about Richardson’s NC-17 exploits have been circulating for the past few years, with models like Liskula Cohen, Jamie Peck, Charlotte Wheeler and Coco Rocha — along with others who’ve requested anonymity for fear of being blacklisted or deemed difficult to work with — talking about his inappropriate behavior on set and vowing never to work with him again. Even Scout Willis (daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) tweeted in 2012 that Richardson tried to finger her during a shoot. Ewww.
But this time around, the allegations — made by Charlotte Waters, who was a 19-year-old art model at the time of the encounter — are particularly horrific, resulting in a louder-than-usual outcry. Not only did Richardson take out his dick during the shoot and instruct Waters to grab it and squeeze his balls as hard as she possibly could, he also demanded a blow job and then proceeded to straddle her chest and jerk off in her face, urging to keep her eyes open “super wide” so he could cum in them while he and his female assistant took photos.
Waters described feeling “nervous and paralyzed” during the assault and said she blamed herself — then and for years afterward — for what happened, only realizing after reading recent accounts from Richardson’s other victims that she was not alone and she was not the one at fault. Reading Waters story, I felt anger, sorrow and an unexpected jolt of recognition, because the artist I worked with when I was 19 also sexually assaulted me. Though my experience, which wasn’t nearly as harrowing as hers, happened decades earlier and I hadn’t thought about it in years, this young model’s piece brought it rushing right back, my sense of shame and embarrassment as fresh as the day it happened.
It had been a beautiful early spring morning, and I remember walking to work feeling excited about being back in New York City after a few miserable months in LA — and about my future, which felt wide open and full of possibility. It was so unseasonably warm that I’d left my coat at home, and I remember feeling really good about what I was wearing: a loose ivory Henley tucked into olive green paper-bag-waist, rolled-cuff pants with ivory suede bucks and piles of delicate silver jewelry at my neck and wrists. Walking down University Place to my new job in the East Village, I felt incredibly happy and confident.
My boss, a renowned kinetic light artist, greeted me at the door of his home office, a beautifully designed space that filled me with awe. He, too, filled me with awe. Then in his early forties, ER (as I’ll call him) had been a successful artist for two decades and his pieces were in the permanent collections of MoMA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had been hired as his secretary/personal assistant a few weeks earlier through an ad in the Village Voice.
It was my first job working in a creative environment (I’d only had office or retail jobs before), and I was beyond thrilled to be there. I had recently dropped out of college and didn’t yet know I wanted to be a writer, but I did know I wanted to do something — anything — creative, and this was my first step in the direction of the life I’d long imagined. A little over a week into the job, I still couldn’t believe my good luck at landing a spot with this brilliant and talented man.
A few hours later, everything changed. I was eating my homemade tuna salad sandwich and reading a book, occasionally staring out the window overlooking Fifth Avenue, marveling at the wonders of New York. I heard ER come into the room. Suddenly, he was standing behind my chair. Before I could register what was happening, he slipped his hand down the front of my shirt and took my left breast in his hand, holding it appraisingly.
I literally froze, terrified and numb, the bite of tuna salad I’d just taken turning to lead in my mouth. “Nice,” he opined, in a low, appreciative tone. I stared straight ahead, focusing on the dust motes in the sunlight above the radiator. If I had any thoughts as ER stood there palming my tit, I can’t recall them. I just remember sitting there, feeling as though time had stopped, and waiting for it to be over.
Finally he released my breast, turned on his heel and walked back down the hallway to his office. I spat the un-swallowed bite of sandwich out onto the paper plate in front of me, folded the whole thing into a ball and shoved it in the kitchen garbage can. I started to shake and was on the verge of tears, but didn’t want him to see me crying, so I grabbed my bag and yelled, “I’m running out for a minute!” and did just that.
The doorman in the lobby, sensing my distress, asked, “Are you ok?” I couldn’t bring myself to meet his eyes and just mumbled, “Yes, I’m fine!” as I dashed past. I walked around Washington Square, wiping away tears and trying to make sense of what just happened. Clearly, this was my fault. Yes, I was just eating my lunch and minding my own business when my boss stuck his hand down my shirt. But why wasn’t I wearing a bra? Why was my shirt unbuttoned so low? None of this would have happened if I had been dressed differently. If I wasn’t feeling so self-satisfied and happy. If I hadn’t let my guard down.
I stayed out of the office as long as I could — quitting on the spot didn’t even occur to me back then, as I was afraid of being viewed as unprofessional (yes, really) — and when I got back an hour or so later, he acted as though nothing had happened. We finished out the day with me flinching every time he approached. The next day, I gave two weeks notice (again out of fear of being seen as unprofessional if I just quit in protest). When I think about this now, it makes me sad — and it makes me laugh. At my innocence and naiveté. At my desire to be seen as professional by a man who was anything but. And at my willingness to accept blame — and feel shamed — for something that was clearly not my fault.
Waters’ struggle with shame and blame mirrors my own experience — and that of countless of other young women who’ve been taken advantage of by men in power. Because at its core, that’s what the Terry Richardson assaults are about: an abuse of power, pure and simple. Despite having agreed to take her clothes off, and despite having signed a release form, Waters — who had posed nude for several other male artists without incident — did not consent to give Richardson a blow job or have him cum in her face when she signed on the dotted line. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to recognize this — and seems incapable, in fact, of admitting any wrongdoing, despite legions of women lining up to share stories of his bad behavior — is the problem.
Waters says she left Richardson’s shoot feeling like “a sex puppet” and that it took years to recover her equilibrium after the assault. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to sit idly by like so many powerless Pinocchios waiting for those who pull the purse strings to do the right thing. Because, as we all know, money talks. And ultimately, the people who pull the purse strings aren’t those at magazines or fashion brands who pay Richardson millions and millions of dollars each year. It’s us — the people whose dollars support these brands.
As such, taking a stand is as easy as mounting a vocal and ongoing boycott of any brand that continues to work with Richardson from this point forward. I understand that no one wants to boycott his or her favorite brands or celebrities (no new Bey — are you cray?). But if we don’t stand up for young women who feel powerless to stand up for themselves, who will? Our silence just makes predators like Richardson stronger, and it sends the message that his behavior is acceptable. It’s not. Let’s all do our part to make it stop.