gender: violence

Please welcome Guest Blogger Ashley Mears.  Mears is a model-turned-sociologist who is doing fantastic work on the modeling industry.  In her forthcoming book, Pricing Beauty: Value in the Fashion Modeling World (UC Berkeley Press), she examines the production of value in fashion modeling markets.  When Osocio‘s Tom Megginson forwarded us a link to a trailer for a new documentary on the topic, Picture Me, we turned immediately to our resident expert.  We’re so pleased that she agreed to share her thoughts.


Picture Me documents ex-model Sara Ziff’s 4-year rise and exit through the fashion modeling industry.  It sets out to expose the grit behind the glamour, chronicling models’ exhausting work and travel schedules, warped body images (include hints of anorexic and bulimic practices), debt to agencies, innocent youth and the attendant vulnerability to sexual predatory clients.  It is a long, wandering complaint of the industry, and in the end, Ziff equates all bodywork with exploitation and dismisses modelling work as cheap thrills—albeit emotionally costly ones.

While critical of the industry, the film glamorizes what it supposedly condemns, most insidiously by portraying Ziff’s meteoric success as normal for a model.  Twice the camera zooms in on the many digits of her paychecks.  As her co-filmmaker/boyfriend Ole Schell wryly notes, “It’s not everyday you see a check for $112,000.”  This is especially the case, they should add, for most working fashion models.  As a winner-take-all market, modelling is extremely unequal; very few women reach this kind of success.  At any given modelling agency, in fact, dozens of women owe significant debt, an issue far more complex—and exploitive—than the moments it gets in Picture Me.  Models accrue debt for start-up costs advanced by their agencies, from plane tickets and visas to pocket money and apartment rent in an agency-owned apartment (to the tune of about $250 per week to stay regardless of how full or vacant its state).  They are charged anywhere from $5 to $50 for bike messengers to deliver their portfolios across town daily.  These costs are not negotiable or traceable; they are deducted automatically from her future earnings.  And they add up; at one New York agency I studied, a model was in the hole up to $18,000 even before stepping foot into her first casting audition.  To recoup their losses, agencies count on the top 5% of their models who bill more than $100,000 annually, people like Ziff who are statistical anomalies in their field.

A model who leaves an agency with a debt is legally bound by contract to repay it, though accountants will tell you that they don’t bother to pursue these debts, since indebted models are an unlikely source from whom to recoup losses.  Instead, agencies write off negative accounts as business expenses.  However, models’ negative accounts will by law transfer to their next agencies should they attempt to work elsewhere, which is unlikely as agencies are hesitant to represent models with existing negative balances from prior agencies.  In other words, once in debt, everywhere in debt.  It is an independent contractor status designed to alleviate the organization’s responsibility for its worker, pushing all market risks onto the freelancer in a work relationship that can resemble indentured servitude.  Thus, Ziff sits at the top of the pile, nonchalantly waving a wad of cash in her hand that masks a precarious career structure in which, for every Sara Ziff, there are thousands of women struggling to make ends meet.


Another telling omission in the film is men.  Ziff’s accusations of systemic sexual abuse are distressing, and something I heard all too commonly in interviews with models—male models, that is.  I found women were far less likely than men to recount ordeals of sexual advances by clients.  There are a couple of explanations for this discrepancy.  First, it is likely that female models may not report or even recognize as report-worthy sexual advances by men, given the ubiquity of sexual harassment women are likely to face on any job.  Second, the filmmakers seem to have encouraged their subjects to recount their ordeals in confessional-style video diaries, a technique quite different from open-ended interviewing.

Also likely, I think male models do experience more unwanted come-ons than female models.  In an industry over-represented with gay men in decision-making positions, male models report feeling pressure to flirt with men in order to book jobs.  Male models earn considerably less than their female peers, making each job more important to them, and their agents often instruct them to charm important clients.  It’s referred to jokingly in the industry as going “gay for pay,” similar to male porn actors who do gay sex scenes to boost their earnings.  Male models do not as a population identify as gay, but it’s widespread and openly acknowledged that straight men must flirt shamelessly with gay clients to get work.  As one male model told me, “Everyone has to play his cards.”

But it’s not a game to the men I interviewed who told horror stories of such performances turning into threatening situations.  Men reported being “felt up” by stylists while dressing, told to wear revealing clothes, or no clothes at all, and being kissed and hugged by prestigious clients at parties.  One model described how, on a shoot with a male photographer, he was asked to make himself semi-erect.  This is not to downplay women’s encounters with sexual harassment in the industry, but to note that all models are relatively powerless in this market, and given the sex composition of those in power, male models are especially vulnerable.

Picture Me revolves around shocking personal narratives, and as a biting (and I think unfair) NY Times review notes, the filmmakers go straight for the easy critiques at the expense of their social context.  It’s hard to contextualize economics, gender and sexuality, and a complicated career structure in a 75-minute documentary, especially when stomach-turning confessionals and eye-catching runway pictures are so readily available.  And this is what sociologists are for anyway.

For more of Mear’s insights on the modeling industry, see our posts on the contrasting aesthetics of high end and commercial modeling, the ugly other side of the model search, and control and thinness.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Lest you think that rape culture is confined to simply excellent institutions of higher education, Salon reports that Yale students pledging the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity were marched by women’s dorms marching “no means yes, yes means anal.”  Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory writes:

Now, DKE President Jordan Forney has been forced to apologize for this blatant sexual intimidation by calling it “a serious lapse in judgment by the fraternity and in very poor taste.” But this sort of hateful crap isn’t a “lapse in judgment.” It doesn’t innocently happen that you’re guiding male pledges by young women’s dorms in the dark of night chanting about anal rape. It isn’t a forehead-slapping slip-up, it’s a sign that you need major reprogramming as a human being.

UPDATE: Sociologist Michael Kimmel has a fantastic analysis of the second half of the chant:

This chant assumes that anal sex is not pleasurable for women; that if she says yes to intercourse, you have to go further to an activity that you experience as degrading to her, dominating to her, not pleasurable to her. This second chant is a necessary corollary to the first.

Thanks to feminism, women have claimed the ability to say both “no” and “yes.” Not only have women come to believe that “No Means No,” that they have a right to not be assaulted and raped, but also that they have a right to say “yes” to their own desires, their own sexual agency. Feminism enabled women to find their own sexual voice.

This is confusing to many men, who see sex not as mutual pleasuring, but about the “girl hunt,” a chase, a conquest. She says no, he breaks down her resistance. Sex is a zero-sum game. He wins if she puts out; she loses.

That women can like sex, and especially like good sex, and are capable of evaluating their partners changes the landscape. If women say “yes,” where’s the conquest, where’s the chase, where’s the pleasure? And where’s the feeling that your victory is her defeat? What if she is doing the scoring, not you?

Thus the “Yes Means Anal” part of the chant. Sex has become unsafe for men–women are agentic and evaluate our performances. So if “No Means Yes” attempts to make what is safe for women unsafe, then “Yes Means Anal” makes what is experienced as unsafe for men again safe–back in that comfort zone of conquest and victory. Back to something that is assumed could not possibly be pleasurable for her. It makes the unsafe safe–for men.

In this way, we can see the men of DKE at Yale not as a bunch of angry predators, asserting their dominance, but as a more pathetic bunch of guys who see themselves as powerless losers, trying to re-establish a sexual landscape which they feel has been thrown terribly off its axis.

For more indications that we live in a rape culture, see our posts on media coverage of a rape video game and the George Sodini murders, rapists as hyperconformists to ideal masculinity, the rape scene in Observe and Report, t-shirts endorsing sex with “drunk girls”, and, of course, the Purdue Exponent’s sex position of the week.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

As Anthropologist Peggy Sanday has shown, societies can be more or less rape-free or rape-prone.  A rape-prone society is characterized by a rape culture, one in which women’s desires are unimportant and emotional, psychological, and physical sexual coercion is normative.   In the U.S., pressuring or convincing women into sex is, in fact, well-tolerated.  So goes the saying, ” ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘no’; it’s just the beginning of negotiations.”

Claire B. and Sylvia M. sent in matching sartorial testaments to the dismissal of the requirement that women consent to sex.  The first, on a website called teesbox (trigger warning), is a t-shirt that reads “I heart drunk girls.”  In case you don’t get the point, along with the shirt are photos of drunken or incapacitated women and captions like, “She’ll let you do anything you want to her, any hole, any time (as long as it’s while she’s still wasted).”

This second t-shirt (text below) is sold on


two beers $7
three margaritas $15
four jello shots $20
Taking home the girl who
drank all of the above…

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Given the intense publicity given to Chris Brown’s violent beating of singer, Rihanna, and the subsequent release of her domestic violence-themed single, Russian Roulette, it’s hard to interpret her partnership with Eminem on the new song, Love the Way You Lie, as anything but symbolic.  Unfortunately, it’s also hard to interpret this video as anything other than the message that true love is violent.

Eminem sings about how he hates the woman he loves, and alternates between expressing shame for his violence and describing how badly he wants to hurt her.  Simultaneously, Rihanna’s beautiful vocals tug at the heart strings, representing the love side of the coin against Eminem’s angry voice.  Add to this the acting by Lost’s Dominic Monaghan and super-sex-symbol Megan Fox, who alternate between beating each other and appearing to be deeply, profoundly in love.  Eminem closes by threatening to kill her if she ever tries to leave him and, in the end, they lie in each others arms.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a beautiful song.  Rihanna’s vocals are gorgeous; it’s was hard to not feel heartfelt while listening to them.  And that’s the problem.  It’s a powerful form of socialization.  That we might internalize the message that passionate love and incontrollable rage go hand-in-hand is really very scary. It suggests not only that you should tolerate interpersonal violence but that, if there is no violence in your relationship, perhaps you don’t really love one another.  Better go out and find someone who will beat you.

I’ve never been in an abusive relationship of that sort but as a young adult I thought I knew what love felt like.  To me, it felt like fear.  I knew that I was in love when I became deeply frightened that someone would leave me.  It took me until around my 30th birthday to realize that a strong, loving relationship should make me feel secure, not terrified.  These messages are insidious and ubiquitous and I do believe they shape real relationships.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Safa S.-Y., of Naked Lady in a White (Silk) Dress, and K. sent us a link to a story about the recent collaboration between MAC cosmetics and the Rodarte clothing line to create a collection of makeup and clothing the sisters who own and design for Rodarte said was inspired by the city of Juárez and female maquiladora workers:

…the sisters explained that a long drive from El Paso to Marfa, Texas, got them thinking they might like to explore their Mexican roots. From there, they became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night. And that, according to the designers, who certainly know how to romance a pitch, led to this conclusion: They’d build a collection off the idea of sleepwalking. [source]

The cosmetics received names such as Factory, Ghost Town, Juárez, and del Norte. The eyeshadows are meant to give wearers an ashen, tired appearance. After many in the fashion blogsphere criticized the line, both MAC and Rodarte issued apologies, said they will change the names of some of the products, and promised to donate a portion of proceeds to charities working in Juárez.

Just for some context, MAC is a mid-range cosmetics company; a single color of eyeshadow runs about $14.50, lipsticks are generally $13-15 but some are $18-19. This is less than high-end lines like Chanel and Estée Lauder, but more than drugstore brands such as Cover Girl. Rodarte, on the other hand, is a luxury fashion line, selling t-shirts for $120+, sweaters for nearly $3,000, and dresses for $4,000 or more. They do have a much cheaper Rodarte for Target line, however.

Safa argues that it is problematic that these companies, both completely beyond the financial resources of maquiladora workers (and most people in the U.S., for that matter, particularly Rodarte), to use pale White women made even paler with cosmetics to represent low-wage workers in Mexico, none of whom they met or spoke to. Most of the online critics point out that Juárez is quite dangerous, and hundreds of women, many workers at maquiladoras on their way to or from work, have been raped and killed (NPR had a story about the murders in 2003). These numbers don’t include women who simply disappeared, since authorities don’t have proof they were murdered without a body, though most officials and activists believe that at least some of those women were also killed. The vast majority of the crimes are unsolved.

Safa says,

These women [the Rodarte designers], who had never been to Juarez, but nearby Texas towns, entitled themselves and their clothing line to represent the stories of women they never met.

Female factory workers in Juárez thus become exoticized Others for U.S. companies to represent and claim to speak for — that is, they are supposedly concerned about the problems faced by Mexican women workers (or anyway, they said so after all the criticism) and by creating a line in which White women are made up to look like zombies, or as though perhaps they got punched in the eye, they are actually helping women in Juárez by bringing attention to them…in some undefined way that most women who buy their products are unlikely, I think, to pick up and which probably isn’t going to lead to much concrete action to improve these women’s lives.

I think Safa sums it up nicely, so I’ll let her have the last word:

Human suffering became a look of glamour.  They presented social consciousness in the form of consumerism, and with that, female oppression became another commodity that could be measured not in statistics, but in revenue sales.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Julia W. was perusing the website of an Irish car insurance company, Insure.  The website had a special section devoted to “women drivers – driving alone.”  They introduce the topic like this:

It is, unfortunately, a fact of life that a woman on the streets alone, whether as driver, a cyclist or a pedestrian, is vulnerable to attack. If you are driving there are some basic precautions you can take.

And the site continues with a set of instructions (sampled below).  Of course, all drivers are vulnerable to attackers.  Even if women are statistically more vulnerable, both men and women can benefit from taking safety precautions.  Even the big, scary, male people are no match for a gun.  And, yet, vulnerability itself is constructed here as uniquely female and women are seen as categorically at risk.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Stephanie DeH., Cara McC., and our intern, Lauren McGuire, sent in this CPR certification campaign that embraces the idea that sex sells.  I initially added it to our post on using sex to sell unlikely things (e.g., organ donation and sea monkeys), but I changed my mind and decided it deserved its own discussion.

What was interesting to me about this example is the sexualization of the possibility of dying. The fact that a person might die is apparently not serious enough to make it unsexy.  It actually took me a minute to even notice the weirdness of sexualizing the risk of death.  After I noticed I thought “How crazy!”  But then I thought again: in a society that regularly sexualizes violence and murder, the sexualization of near-death is par for the course (which, of course, is why it didn’t strike me as particularly weird in the first place.

NSFW and possibly triggering, so images are after the jump:


These Chilean ads for menstrual pain medication, sent in by Mia A., turn women into symbols of violent aggression: fighters, literally, but also men of color.  They simultaneously affirm, then, the association of violence with both masculinity and non-white skin and the de-association of women with those characteristics.  The message is that men of color are appropriately violent, while women are not.


Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.