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Models and sexual abuse

I recently came across this article about supermodel Karen Mulder. I used to do fashion shows with Karen back in the late 80s/early 90s, although I’m not sure I ever spoke with her. I remember a friend telling me that she had roomed with Karen when Karen was just an ordinary model like the rest of us and that Karen had made up her mind that she was going to “make it.” She was determined, and it took that kind of determination to make it as a model (like it does to get published and become a successful author). The article above describes her suicide attempt, the multiple times she claimed that she had been raped by bookers and other men in the modeling industry, her subsequent recantation of those claims, and her recent arrest for making death threats against her plastic surgeon. What really got me was the comments.

LAmonkeygirl said, “my husband has noted that almost every woman he’s ever been friends with or dated has ultimately admitted to having been sexually abused in one way or another.”

J Na Na said, “When I came out to almost all of my female friends, they admitted to me that they’d been sexually abused as well. My own sisters and female nieces have been molested by our grandfather. It’s so sickeningly prevalent.”

KiddyKat said, “Almost every woman I know (my sister and I were molested by the same cousin) has been molested, harassed, or raped.”

colormeroutine said, “My boyfriend once said he thought the 1/10 statistic sounded “too high” to him and he thought it must be inflated. In response I had him list by name all of our female friends and think if he had either heard about or witnessed them being assaulted. By the time he was halfway down the list he looked stunned. This is a normally sensitive boy who has many close female friends, and yet had never made the connections.”

kaiwhakamarie said, “My husband and I have had this same discussion. He can’t think of a single girlfriend he’s had that wasn’t sexually abused and/or raped. It horrifies him.”

I found these statistics shocking. It is true—could it be true—that nearly all of my women friends have been sexually abused at some point in their lives? Off the top of my head I can count four that have told me they’ve suffered from some type of abuse/rape. The rest? I can’t say because I’ve never asked them. I’ve never taken a survey of my friends to find out who has and has not been sexually abused/raped/molested. I know that every fashion model who has worked in Europe has been sexually harassed many many times (I can’t count the number of times men in metro stations masturbated against me or in front of me while I lived in Paris.) But abuse is a different story. Was I ever abused? Sort of. Twice. In the first instance, a stranger lay on top of me in a hotel room and grabbed my breasts, but I fought him off and escaped. In the second, I drank so much in a Zurich bar that I vomited and passed out in the bathroom (this was 22 years ago, mind you). A male friend of a friend offered to drive me home because I was too drunk to get home myself. The minute I hit the pillow, I passed out again, only to wake up to find this friend of a friend performing oral sex on me. Although I was disgusted with him, I partly blamed myself. If I hadn’t drunk so much Amaretto, I never would have gotten myself into that situation. Yet New York Times bestselling author Laura Fraser warns of this tendency to blame the independent woman for the trouble she gets into.

Fraser wrote a poignant Letter to the Editor last year in response to the Times review of her memoir, All Over The Map. The reviewer wrote, “Unattached and lonely, Fraser jets off to Samoa on assignment for a women’s magazine, but an alcohol-fueled flirtation with a surfer on a beach ends in rape.” And Fraser responded: “Joshua Hammer’s review of my book “All Over the Map” (Dec. 5) contains a grave misrepresentation. He describes a scene in which “an alcohol-fueled flirtation with a surfer on a beach ends in rape.” Nowhere in the text is there an indication that I flirted with the man who raped me; that is an assumption, and a wildly inaccurate one. One of the themes of my book is about how, worldwide, women who either desire to be independent or who are compelled to strike out on their own are punished by members of their cultures who are still vastly ambivalent about changing women’s roles. Sadly, Hammer’s review proves that point by insinuating that because I was out drinking with some Samoan fa’afafine (men who dress and act like women), I must have been flirting with the rapist who joined us, and therefore to blame for the ensuing rape. Aren’t we past the notion that “she had it coming to her”?

After reading about Karen Mulder’s sexual abuse, I watched the Danish versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, both fabulous movies and both in which sexual abuse is a central theme. The following morning I received an e-mail from a writing colleague warning about the 24th St. rapist in San Francisco. Sexual abuse is everywhere. Someone you know has been abused and/or raped, whether you know it or not. Fashion models are no more susceptible to sexual assaults than other women, but they are not immune, either. Next week I’ll take a look at what role advertising plays in the prevalence of the sexual abuse of women.

Until then, what do you think? Is sexual abuse as common as suggested by the comments above? Has “every woman you know” been sexually abused? Have you ever experienced sexual harassment or abuse?

30 comments to Models and sexual abuse

  • Kari Phillips

    Our neighborhood in Castro Valley was shook up by news of the brutal rape of a 41-year-old woman walking alone at night in October. The crime remains unsolved.

    I bring up this incident because of how much it affected our neighborhood. We tied teal ribbons along the fence of the park where the incident occurred. This is the same park where we have held birthday parties and play dates. It is a three minute walk from my house. Very few people jog or walk now. There is a reward. To call a neighborhood “safe” feels like a fallacy now. There are neighborhoods safer than others to certain crimes, but sexual abuse occurs everywhere in every form.

    Sexual abuse is so prevalent that I chose to talk with my children about it very, very early. We talk about it a lot–not to create anxiety, of course. (Though it may ease my anxiety as a parent.) I tell my children that most of the world and the people in it are good. There are damaged people who prey on children, and they don’t look like scary monsters. They are in every role of life (and often in roles that attract children). These damaged people try to make the child feel good with a bad touch (and we go on to describe where the touches could occur), and often the child doesn’t know that they have the right to say NO and become confused because the touch might feel good. We talk about how it is not okay to play “doctor”.

    This is why I work so hard to avoid raising compliant children. I want them to be polite, but not at the expense of being victimized. Question everything that doesn’t sound or feel right!

    What’s sad to me is that I am never surprised when someone admits that they have been sexually abused. I surprised at the people who admit they haven’t. Sexual abuse is that prevalent–though the type of rape I described above is actually quite rare. We have to be honest with ourselves and our children about the fact that the victimizer is often someone we know.

    • Kari – So sad for that woman and so impossible to catch the guys when it was too dark to see them (and 10 p.m. isn't even that late. It could have happened to anyone.)

      That's great that you teach your children about abuse. I tell my four-year-old son that no one is allowed to touch him, but I haven't gone into it in the detail that you have. I will as he (and my daughter) get a little older.

      What you said about the bad touch feeling good makes it particularly difficult because the child may actually like what they feel and not know there is anything wrong with it, so therefore may not think to report it. At this point my kids tell me everything, which is reassuring, but as they get older, I know they won't share every experience with us.

      And thank GOD that violent rape like described above is rare, but like you said, there are many types of sexual abuse and most of them are never reported. Good for you guys for tying teal ribbons. I hope they catch those motherf—ers.

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  • That ("The minute I hit the pillow, I passed out again, only to wake up to find this friend of a friend performing oral sex on me.") is sexual assault… (Did you watch "Kids?") and it makes me very sad that you put the blame on yourself. I don't feel free to discuss who I know has been sexually assaulted/abused or if I have ever been sexually assaulted/abused here in the comments, but more women than you know sadly fall into that category.

    Have you heard about Terry Richardson and the allegations of sexual misconduct? I can look it up for you. People either worship the guy or find him disgusting. He has a photoblog here:

    • meghancward

      Hi Christine, I agree 100% that it was sexual assault, and I should have made that clear in the post. My point was AT THE TIME I was disgusted with the man but also felt partly responsible (I was 19). I received a lot of unwanted attention as a model, and a lot of sexual harassment on the streets. The result was that I became very careful about what I wore and how I conducted myself in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations. Here's another example – as you know, my diamond wedding ring was stolen recently from my car. Of course, I wasn't at fault, the thief was. But I could have avoided the situation by not leaving my ring in my car. It was careless. I'm not saying women who get drunk or wear suggestive clothing are in any way to blame for the sexual harassment inflicted upon them. I'm just saying that, as a woman who received a lot of unwanted attention, I learned to protect myself by wearing long coats over my short skirts when on the metro and by not getting dead drunk around strange men. Feminists may argue, "You should be able to wear whatever you want," etc. That's nice in theory, but not in reality. In reality, there are a lot of bad people out there.

      And thanks for the link to terrysdiary. I'l take a look at it. I have seen Kids, and I know the scene you're referencing. Although the technical definition of rape is any type of unwanted sexual contact, I would have felt much more violated if this friend of a friend had had intercourse with me. What strikes me most about this conversation is that I bet there are a lot of other young girls out there who don't know what is and what isn't sexual assault – who make excuses for the men who abuse them, and who partly (or entirely) blame themselves.

  • mainecharacter

    For those women I've been close enough to talk to about it, one was drugged and raped by a friend, another was drugged and raped by her father's friend, and another's husband was sexually abused as a child.

    The numbers are shocking, but it's the fact that it continues, this great unspoken crime and the shame and fear it renders, that is the real tragedy.

  • To everything: yes. Nothing bothers me more than this notion that the blame should fall on the victim for "putting herself in that situation." In that instance you described, you were sexually assaulted, and like christine, I'm sad that you blame yourself. You should be allowed to have fun and do whatever you want (within the law) without worrying about some jerk deciding he has the right to touch you.

    • meghancward

      I agree, Lori. I wonder how many other young girls get into situations like I did and blame themselves – because they are ignorant about the definition of sexual assault, about their rights, etc. Girls and women need to be educated.

  • Yes, sexual abuse is common, especially when you include not just blatant rape or sexual abuse, but also harassment or some other violent/scary encounter of a sexual nature. In some ways, I think that guys have a better chance of seeing the prevalence – if they’ve dated a lot and were sensitive enough that the woman could tell him, as those guys said, all their girlfriends had some bad experience. I don’t know how many of the women I know in-real-life have been raped or had some bad experience, because I keep my relationships with women too light to discuss such things, partly (mostly) because I wouldn’t want to share my own experiences.

    • meghancward

      Amber – I'm sorry about whatever bad experiences you've had. Sexual assault/abuse/harassment really is shockingly common. And you're right, women are probably more likely to talk about their experiences with boyfriends than girlfriends. I think it's important we tell our stories so others know they're not alone and so girls and women are more aware of how to protect themselves.

  • I think sex abuse is common. Sadly, the stories are all too frequent. Education is the key to this. I think the Penn State story is a sad teaching moment, but it can happen to boys too. (I'm sorry to hear about your story, too.)

    • meghancward

      So agree that education is the key, Stacy. And yes, the stories about any childre are especially heartbreaking. The Penn State story was horrible.

  • I saw the statistics in the paper this AM about sexual assault (1/4 of all women have been raped.) People expressed shock. But I'm only surprised that the figure is so low. When I was a college freshman, a group of us were discussing what constituted rape, and we discovered that every single one of us had been forced to commit some kind of sex act before we were 16 (I was five) This was by neighbors, friends of siblings, stepfathers, and caretakers–all people we knew. None of us looked like models. We were studious geeks. Most of us had been small children who didn't even understand what was happening. Rape is everywhere. The #1 reason it persists at that level is the "blame the victim" mentality you're having to deal with in those comments.

    • meghancward

      Ugh. Anne. That's so much higher than I would have guessed. What paper was it? I'd love to read the article. And that's so sad that every one of you and your friends had experienced some sort of sexual violation before the age of 16. Like Stacy said, I think it's all about education. And of children, too. I tell my four-year-old son, "No one is allowed to touch you besides mommy and daddy and the doctor. If anyone ever touches you, you tell me." And then there are kids abused by their own parents, which we're telling them is okay. So so sad.

      • Meghan, I told my 5 year old son the same thing–and then my mom thought of something really good to add: tell him to tell you if anyone touches him ESPECIALLY if someone tells him NOT to tell you.

        • meghancward

          Sierra – I had that same conversation with my son after posting this. I told him, "And if someone tells you not to tell your mom or dad, you come and tell me anyway." And he said, "Why would someone tell me not to tell my mom or dad?" And I said, "Because there are bad people in the world." Next time I'll add "especially." And I think Kari's point about bad touches that feels good is important, too. Kids need to know that just because it feels good doesn't mean it is good.

  • Kristan

    A) I'm sure you know this now, but it's worth saying again (and every time): What happened in Zurich was not your fault. There's a significant difference between bad decisions and blame.

    B) After serving as a Sexual Assault Advisor in college, I know that incidents of sexual harassment and assault, among both genders, is much higher than actually reported. It breaks my heart and is an issue that deserves much more attention and action. I applaud any survivor who decides to speak out.

    • meghancward

      Thanks, Kristan, for your comment. I love to hear from people who have had training/experience with sexual harassment and assault because I feel like I'm so ignorant myself about these things. And I think the French have a different take on it sex altogether, which influenced my own view of it as I was coming of age.

  • Danielle

    My best friend studied abroad in Tanzania. She was raped while there. It happened one night when she went out to a bar, alone. She blames herself and said that the second she got in the "cab" (really a covered seat hitched to a bicycle) knew what was about to happen but couldn't stop it. She reported it, went to the hospital, and took all the proper precautions post-abuse. The police took her statement but the never made an arrest. The worst part is, she knows him indirectly. A friend of a friend's boyfriend. She could track down the guy on her own, but the police won't bother.
    It's not her fault. But, as she claims, it's rare for a white woman to return from East African not having been sexually assaulted. As if it's part of the travel experience.
    There are so many things wrong with her experience, I don't know where to begin.

    • meghancward

      "it's rare for a white woman to return from East African not having been sexually assaulted. As if it's part of the travel experience."

      Wow. That's so shocking and yet, I can imagine how it could be true. In other countries Western women often wear Western clothes – short sleeves, shorts, etc – which are considered very suggestive to the native citizens of that country. When I was in India, I wore long pants and long sleeves everywhere I went (until I went to Goa, then you could find me in a thong on the beach).

      I'm so sorry to hear about your friend and, like you said, "There are so many things wrong with her experience, I don't know where to begin."

  • Stephen Bonzak

    When I was in seminary studying for my MA in religious studies, I took a course called "Violence & Violation." The topic of the course was violence against women and children. My project for the class was to document the work of a group of women who taught self-defense for women in Chicago. I was surprised and shocked at the extent of violence that goes on against women, and especially the absurdity of the things that women have to put up with on a daily basis. ("I can’t count the number of times men in metro stations masturbated against me or in front of me while I lived in Paris." – what man has ever had that happen to him??) The stories were, and continue to be, incredible.

    As a male, much of this had been invisible to me. The instructor for the class at seminary told everyone that if you have been the victim of any type of sexual violence you should "Always tell." Much of the behavior that goes on can continue to go on because it is largely invisible. That should not be. Thanks for writing this article and linking it to your facebook page. Everyone who has ever suffered any kind of injustice or invasion like this should "Always tell" and not be ashamed of it – it is the person who perpetrated the act that should be ashamed.

  • Steve – It's so great to get a male's point of view on this. I guess men tend to hear about these stories from their girlfriends but don't know what it's like to walk down a street in New York City with a tight dress on. I did this once – it was a nice dress from Barney's, not low-cut, not see-through, not short (it came down to my calves), but it was form-fitting. I got so much unwanted attention the first day I wore it that I took it back to Barney's. I loved that dress, but it wasn't worth the harassment.

    And thanks for the advice that women (and men, and boys, and girls) should always tell. Tell someone, even a girlfriend, who will have a clearer perspective on the situation than you who is feeling guilty and shameful and yucky and just wants to pretend it never happened.

  • I once read a statistic that 1 out of every 4 women had been sexually assaulted in some way. I thought at the time, no way! I took three of my friends and looked at each one of us–and one had been. I couldn't believe it.

    Then I realized that two of us had been–and one was ME! I repressed what happened to me when I was 10 years old for about 12 years. I had been molested by a family friend. One of the reasons I repressed it was because I thought I was to blame! I thought I, a 10 year old girl, had led him on!

    This is a great post and thanks for bringing up a subject so eloquently.

    • meghancward

      Sierra – Thanks so much for posting this, and I'm so sorry you had to go through that. The more we talk about this the better, as uncomfortable as it is (I felt a little depressed after posting this because it brought up a lot of bad memories from the years I lived in Europe, but I'm glad now that I did.)

  • Meghan – thank you so much for your courage in addressing this topic. That sexual abuse happens, and happens so often, is heartbreaking. I worry each day for my two little sisters. I think it is so important to teach the children in our lives how to protect themselves, but also to teach them to have absolute respect for other people. Perhaps if we can remove the silence and shame that surrounds this topic we can help prevent and protect against sexual abuse in the future.

    • meghancward

      I love that there are two Sierra G's commenting here 🙂 And I agree that 100% about removing the silence and shame. I worry about my kids, too – my son and my daughter. I hope neither of them will ever have to experience anything like this.

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