Stigma and Sexual Assault: I Didn’t Ask For This

When I tell people I’m a nude model, the first question I’m always asked is “is that safe?” Though no one ever actually says it, we all know the question actually means “won’t you get raped?”

I usually talk about statistics and aim to reassure them: That though the freelance modeling industry is infamous for sex slavery and assault, the rates of this are actually very low. That this is better combated through education than through telling people not to model. That the risk is largest for new models, and that it can be mitigated and almost entirely removed through research and care. That setting up a bio properly can establish you as an experienced professional who wouldn’t make easy prey. 

I talk about the fact that I faced far more regular sexual harassment working in a hospital and at a law firm than I have as a nude model.

What I don’t say is that their innocent question is part of why the industry can be dangerous. I don’t mention that when people decide that freelance modeling is a predator’s paradise and that the women involved are putting themselves at risk, they’re legitimizing the predators as just a natural part of the industry. I don’t tell them how risky it is for nude models to speak up about this or the stigmas we’ll face if we do. Nor do I tell them that if we do get assaulted or raped, we have far less of a chance of ever seeing justice done - which is saying something, since most rape kits are never processed and most rapists never even face a court, let alone time in prison.

I don’t talk about being sexually assaulted multiple times, by multiple people, from the time I was six, because to do so would mean fueling the agendas of people who believe I must pose nude because I’m “damaged goods”. I rarely mention that I was sexually assaulted four times on a college campus within two years, yet only twice as a model within five years. Even though I’m far safer as a model than as a student, many people will use those facts to justify their idea that I’m working in an unsafe field. 

I rarely tell people that my journey as a model helped me learn to set boundaries and stay safe, because they latch onto the fact that there are dangers in this industry and dismiss the positive in what I shared to focus on those, ignoring the truth that the same dangers exist in for women everywhere within our culture.

I don’t tell people that the day my father proudly announced he had figured out why I pose nude was the day I was told I’d been molested by a police officer as a child.

I don’t talk about having to choose between speaking up about the issues I face as a woman or protecting myself and my peers from further stigma as a nude model.

But it’s all true.

I do face a chance of sexual assault as a nude model. But before you assume that means I should change careers or am ‘asking for it’, please understand that I face a chance of sexual assault as a woman, period. Nude modeling hasn’t changed that, it just means I’m under even further pressure to stay quiet about it.

Out of all my friends and peers that I am close enough with to talk to about the subject, I don’t know a single person designated female at birth who hasn’t been sexually harassed. Many of those friends have also been assaulted at least once, often before they turned eighteen, and most of them haven’t talked about it or pressed charges. There’s little incentive to speak up when claims are so often ridiculed and dismissed - sexual harassment as ‘just the way men are’, and assault as ‘not that bad’. 

The teacher’s assistant only towered over me, grabbing my thigh as he lectured me, and refused to let go - why did I make such a fuss? It took me years to accept the fact that it’s ok, and in fact accurate, to call that experience assault. But I’m urged not to make a big deal about it. The word assault can ruin someone’s life - why would I throw it around and call wolf when all he did was touch my thigh? He didn’t bruise me, he didn’t grab my breasts…. 

But when someone else grabbed my breasts in class, I was warned by campus police that there was a low chance of the complaint going anywhere because while his actions ‘weren’t that big a deal’, it would ‘seriously impact his education’ if the charges stuck. We are taught from the time we are little girls that men’s reputations are more important than our health and safety.

Given this, why is it surprising that I didn’t say anything when a photographer I was shooting shibari with grabbed my boobs while I was tied up, then later told me he thought it was ok because we were friends? I reasoned that it might have just been a misunderstanding, and saying something could ruin his career. I knew that if I spoke up people would say it was my fault because I was naked, because I let him tie me up. They’d say it was a risk inherent in my job, that I accepted it when I chose to pose for him, that I was lucky he didn’t do worse, that I should change careers if I have a problem with it. I’d be viewed as an example of every stigma nude models face - the girl who was sexually abused as a child and decided to pose nude “because” of it, the nude model who was sexually assaulted on the job and thus “proved” that we put ourselves at risk.

When a photographer grabbed my crotch and start rubbing my clit while I was lying down, unable to get away, and continued after I yelled at him multiple times to stop, I convinced myself it was my fault. It wasn’t, but I told myself that because it was the only way I knew to handle the situation safely. I was in Utah, and I was naked in his house. Who could I have turned to?

For a week after he pestered me asking why I was upset. When I finally got mad and told him that what he’d done was beyond inappropriate, that he’d touched me without consent and ignored me when I said no and told him to stop, he started crying. He told me that he had thought I was just playing coy because I was “ashamed of saying yes”, and that in his experience “women always say no when they mean yes”. He tried to make me comfort him, tell him it was ok and apologize for being mad.

Though it was the context within which I met the perpetrators, neither of those scenarios were a case of me being at risk because I was working with photographers. When someone thinks that it’s ok to grab a woman’s breasts because she’s his friend, or that a woman means yes when she yells no, they’re not going to limit predatory habits to the models they shoot with.

I faced these same issues when I interned at a hospital as a fifteen year old and was asked by a patient to give him a handjob during his sponge bath. I faced them when I worked at a law firm at age seventeen and was leered at by male employees, when my computer got a virus and the IT guy teased me about watching porn, when he cornered me for conversations I wasn’t comfortable with and paid me compliments that weren’t appropriate. I faced them in school, in my hobbies, in my jobs, and in every facet of my life. And I always knew that if I spoke up I’d be ridiculed, mocked, examined, and declared a bully and a liar. I was taught that sexual harassment and assault were the woman’s fault long before I became a nude model.

I’m not alone. I wasn’t the outlier who became a nude model to handle the abuse in a way I could “understand”. I can almost guarantee you that every woman you know has faced these same issues. Quite plainly, if sexual assault, harassment, and rape made every woman who dealt with them become a nude model or sex worker, the American economy would cease to function.

Two of my female family members have been raped. Several of my friends have been raped. I don’t know a single person designated female at birth who hasn’t faced sexual harassment at the very least. This is a pervasive issue in our society, and my career and my nakedness have nothing to do with it. Claiming that these issues are because of my chosen career is not only wrong, but it perpetuates the issue and encourages further crimes by punishing the victim rather than the perpetrator.

That is why nude modeling can be dangerous - because accounts of experiences are dismissed as ‘she asked for it’ and predators think they can get away with anything. But it’s also why this industry can be safer than most. The stigma we face has created solidarity among nude models, and when no one else will help us, we help ourselves and each other. We talk, we share our experiences, we help each other heal when needed, and we make sure that predators are labeled as such and pointed out to every new model that comes under our wings. In an industry that refuses to regulate itself we stand as regulators, and we are changing the way things work.

But we shouldn’t have to do this alone. We shouldn’t have to stay quiet about our experiences in order to shelter our peers from stigma. We shouldn’t have to pass on names and stories quietly because speaking out publicly would mean gaining bad reputations as ‘divas’ and ‘trouble makers’. And we shouldn’t have to fight to make an industry that relies on the trust of young women acknowledge that the responsibility of minimizing the risk we take is on them, not on us.

As I #standwithStoya, as I #standwithAmber, as I stand with all the many others whose stories are never heard, I ask that you remember that all people deserve to be protected from sexual violence, and all survivors deserve to see justice done, regardless of livelihood.

This piece, with some edits, is now published in Nasty!, a feminist anthology by Kingshot Press. Contact me to purchase a signed copy of the book.

About the Author

Eleanor is an accomplished traveling nude model and has been pursuing her art since 2010. Her work has been published in a variety of magazines, books, and galleries, including a special event at the Louvre.  To see more of Eleanor’s work you can visit her website .

Contact Eleanor

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