Research: How independent contractors respond to sexual harassment in the modeling industry

June 29, 2021

Ever wonder what the life of a model is like?  Glamorous?  Exciting?  How about vulnerable?

Models are independent contractors.  As such, they do not receive health insurance, vacation pay, workers’ compensation, and many other benefits that typically come with having an employer.  The majority of models work for a short period of time and make a modest living as there is always a new generation of young, eager women seeking modeling careers.  Self-employed or independent contractors are a growing segment of the US economy and workplace protections do not cover their occupation.

In “How Independent Contractors Respond to Sexual Harassment: The Case of the Modeling Industry,” (Springer: Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal https://doi.org/10.1007/s10672-021-09374-2) Bloustein School Professor Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D. looks at the vulnerabilities of people, mostly women, working in the modeling profession. She examines the issue of sexual harassment and models’ response to it in the absence of workplace protections. 

Typical victims of sexual harassment have three avenues of redress: legal, organizational, and informal. The first is not available to independent contractors as they require initiating complaints with various state and federal agencies (EEOC), who then launch an investigation against the employer.  Further, organizational remedies use all of the policies that are in place within an employer’s workplace structure to combat sexual harassment.  These, too, are not available to independent contractors.  Finally, victims of sexual harassment can use informal methods such as confronting the harasser or engaging in forms of internal coping or interpersonal strategies to manage the abuse.  Since models are self-employed, they can only use these informal methods.  This has significant implications as more and more of the US workforce are becoming independent contractors.

Data used in the study were gathered from individual, anonymous submissions about sexual harassment by Cameron Russell, a model, and social justice activist.  She invited models to anonymously report sexual harassment that they had received in the course of their work via her public Instagram account.  After eliminating anything that could be used as an identifier, she garnered 88 accounts of separate cases of abuse from 70 mostly female models and posted them with all identifying information redacted between Oct. 12-14, 2017.

The independent contractors in this study were models who most commonly used confrontation when they were sexually harassed.  Confrontation included “controlled” verbal opposition, direct verbal opposition, and physical opposition. All forms of confrontation carry significant risks including angry or violent counterattacks.  Despite high potential costs such as being labeled difficult to work with or losing representation by an agency, this was the avenue taken most by models. 

Some models were hesitant to confront their harassers and were not sure what to do. They felt that they had no one to complain to, and expressed fear of being dropped by their agencies if they did so.  Models expressed feelings of powerlessness and confusion about what the appropriate response should have been.

It is important to note that as the independent contractor workforce expands, state and federal governments should look to cover them as a protected class of workers.  This would shield models and others from sexual harassment and other forms of workplace abuse.

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