What Sexual Harassment Looks Like for Freelance Photographers, and What You Can Do

What Sexual Harassment Looks Like for Freelance Photographers, and What You Can Do

Sexual harassment is headlining news stories across the country in industries where harassers can be held responsible for their actions. Whether by human resources departments or by the court of public opinion, harassers in these circumstances have consequences to deal with. But what do creative freelance professionals, like photographers, do about sexual harassment on the job when they have no HR department to turn to?

What does sexual harassment look like in an industry where there is no human resources department to set clear guidelines and hold perpetrators accountable? HoneyBook, a software company that provides online hosting for creative professionals, ran a survey of their clients to find out, and the numbers are depressing.

Of the over 1,000 creative entrepreneurs — which included photographers, graphic designers, and event planners — who responded to the survey, more than 50 percent had been sexually harassed at least once, and an equal number witnessed the sexual harassment of a colleague, vendor, or event guest.

With harassment so prevalent, what exactly are these creative professionals dealing with?

  • 77 percent of creatives have experienced unprofessional comments on appearance.
  • 73 percent have been called demeaning nicknames.
  • 56 percent have been the victims of physical intimidation.

Image by Lum3n.com used under Creative Commons

Imagine photographing a wedding, only to be sexually harassed by a guest of the bride and groom. It can be incredibly difficult to decide how to handle such a situation when the photographer relies on the goodwill and good opinion of their clients to put food on the table and pay their bills. Since there is no human resources department to alert, and no one wants to stain their client's wedding day by reporting a beloved guest for harassment, creatives are faced with the decision to either keep their mouths shut and keep working, or report the harasser and deal with the consequences. When faced with situations like this, it becomes clear why 72 percent of creative entrepreneurs who responded experienced sexual harassment on the job did not report it. For the brave few who did report their experience to someone other than the police, 34 percent had their complaints ignored. 

Despite experiencing sexual harassment, 80 percent of victims continued working, choosing to finish the job rather than take the potential long-term repercussions of walking off. Thirty-four percent of respondents said that they avoided working with the client again, which means that they not only suffered harassment but lost out on potential income. 

Perhaps worst of all, 18 percent said that they experienced harassment from the same individual more than four times.

Photograph by Kat Smith used under Creative Commons

With no direct safeguards and an income that depends heavily on working on multiple projects where word of mouth means feeding yourself, how are photographers and other creative professionals supposed to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace? 

  1. According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the first thing a victim should do is tell the harasser to stop if they feel comfortable doing so. 
  2. The next step would be to follow sexual harassment protocol and speak to a supervisor. This won't always possible for freelancers who may be working for private clients. 
  3. Check to see if your state has laws that protect independent contractors from discrimination. California is a notable example.
  4. Keep a record. Should any claims be made, the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the victim.
  5. Add a sexual harassment clause to your contracts. HoneyBook has taken this step to provide its members with a sexual harassment clause to add to their contracts.

As a community, photographers have a voice. If the #metoo movement proved anything, it's that people have more power when everyone speaks out together. With an eye toward the future, photographers can also lobby with other freelancers at the state and local level for laws to be added or altered that would provide the protections that are now lacking. Harassment flourishes in the dark, so the best thing creative entrepreneurs can do is continue to make their voices heard, provide supportive environments for victims to speak out, and call out harassment when it happens.

Lead image by Wokandapix via Pixabay.

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Elan Govan's picture

Part of the issue here is, this is an international forum. The idea that all photographers, both male or female, can have equal access to the legal advice, HR support and social protection is still a pipe dream.

From my perspective, both women and men have a role to play in consciously promoting this agenda. I remember two female colleagues confronting and advising a co-worker to button up her blouse at work for showing too much.

If well-informed countries like the United States of America are having difficulties with sexual harassment cases, odds are other countries will have similar or unknown level harassment cases to unearth.

Nicole York's picture

That's part of the issue, isn't it?

Elan Govan's picture

Might be an excellent idea to send a copy of this article to Oprah and to every UN ambassadors.

Elan Govan's picture

Here is an interesting twist on this story. French actress Catherine Deneuve has said that men should be "free to hit on" women.

The letter by French women writers, performers and academics were published in France's Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday.

"Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone's knee or try to steal a kiss," it said.

"Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or clumsily, is not - and nor is men being gentlemanly a chauvinist attack."

Konrad Sarnowski's picture

The rules and definitions of harrasment are very different throught the world, age groups, work groups, etc. It all goes down to an individual. Recently I read a long rant about "watching" someone on the street as a sexual harrasment...

Elan Govan's picture

This discussion should have taken place about 3/4 hundred years ago. But here we are, playing catch up to an age-old issue.

Nicole York's picture

Like Konrad said, the cultural rules of harassment differ, and that's something that needs to be discussed where the laws get made. That being said, humans evolved to have an incredible ability to read expression, tone of voice, inflection, and body language. I think that most people can understand the difference between a compliment, an attempt at flirting, and harassment. Those who can't will always be outliers, and we definitely have to be careful not to let their voices drown out the rest of us.

Elan Govan's picture

Not sure why these comments are directed at me. I think directing these comments to the White House will be better served, don't you think.? Let's see how evolved the situation really is.

Let's be honest here, the reason we are having these articles and discussion points is that not everyone is evolved as much as we would like them to be.

Andrea Dottesi's picture

Ok maybe you can think that someone want to flirt with you, and you don't like it.
"thanks but no." or similar it's a good way to stop him... He just trying to "hit" you and I think it isn't harassment..!

Obviusly if him go on or become rude you can call it harassment.

And yes, if he at the first time say "go on your knee to have a promotion" or other things bad like this, like an Anonymous write below, is a harassment.

LA M's picture

Well done Nicole.

Nicole York's picture

I appreciate that, Leigh.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Love this girl, thank you for sharing it!!

Evan Kane's picture

Great article Nicole. This is something that more people need to be talking about.

Nicole York's picture

Absolutely agree! Hopefully having some statistics to back it up helps make the picture clearer for people.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

“unprofessional comments on appearance” - means “you look great”?

Nicole York's picture

Does it? Interesting that you infer it refers to the least innocuous of comments. In my personal experience, it usually has to do comments that are clearly objectifying, crass or vulgar. "You look great" is a far cry from "your ass looks hot in those pants."

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I don’t know, I’m asking. Never been harrased or may be never felt harrased, so try to understand where may be a limit for others.

Nicole York's picture

There was an embargo on the information and the article was accidentally published too soon.

Anonymous's picture

"By definition harassment is "more than" once." No, it's not:

"Harassment: to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct."

Employee: "My boss slapped my ass and told me to get on my knees for that promotion."
HR Rep: "Well, next time he does that it'll be harassment."

Corey Rive's picture

I've had comments on my looks and had my butt grabbed quite a few times while photographing weddings or events. Thanks for not making this a "poor women, men are bad" only kind of sexual harrasment article.

Lee Morris's picture

So have I. Do you consider this a big deal? I’ve always enjoyed getting hit on by drunk guests. It always made a boring wedding a little more exciting.

Corey Rive's picture

I guess it depends on what it is and how it's said.
Being hit on and having a joke with them can be quite funny, and if you play along a bit it can make guests, not just those doing it but anyone who sees you having fun, a bit more relaxed and open to you taking their photos.
Now, saying that, it can get too much and I don't think you should ever put your hands on someone without either their permission, or an established bond (putting your arm around someone you know sort of thing). No one should have to put up with something they aren't comfortable with, especially in a professional setting.
Being grabbed for me hasn't been that big of a deal, but that may be because I've never felt intimidated by the people doing it and I'm more than happy to tell someone where to go if I've had enough of them.

Nicole York's picture

I think you make a really good point, Corey. So much of how one deals with sexual harassment will depend upon both the harassment itself but also how secure the victim is, and what their history is as well as how they've been socialized.
Margaret Atwood said, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."
While it's not always that severe, the sentiment is true. Men are generally strong enough to physically defend themselves (or feel confident that they can) and women don't always have that luxury.
At the same time, being able to physically defend oneself doesn't remove the discomfort and sense of violation that one feels--man or woman--when someone imposes themselves on you sexually.

Nicole York's picture

This isn't the first time you've mentioned that, Bob, which I find interesting. What/who are women protecting themselves from?
What are the statistics out there for male vs female violent crimes? Have a look at the numbers, here. Women are not wrong for naturally fearing for their safety. The numbers are overwhelmingly against us.

The entire point of articles like this one is to help bring down the numbers of men and women who deal with sexual harassment. Wouldn't it be nice if less women needed to own guns for their safety? As a competent marksman myself, I can also tell you that adrenaline, surprise, and a number of other factors can severely mitigate the effectiveness of a concealed weapon--particularly for less trained shooters (which most, unfortunately, are) which may easily turn into a weapon in the hand of the attacker.

Maybe a better answer is for fewer people to harass others?



Nicole York's picture

Come on, Bob. You're reaching now and you're also avoiding my point. Whether or not women are capable has nothing to do with who is more inclined to violence, as the statistics illustrate.

As far as guns go, you've already proved two of my points. Yes, a man does not need a gun because he is--in general--bigger and stronger than she is. And the fact that you believe a woman needs a gun in the first place only serves to illustrate the point that sexual harassment and assault are real issues for women. You don't get to have it both ways: should women be concerned with their safety, or not? I consider myself both sane and reasonably intelligent, as well as someone trained to use firearms both privately and in the military. This isn't a subject I approach from an armchair.

Because we don't live in heaven on earth, does that mean we should stop trying to make things better? That's illogical, and I think you know it. I said women are afraid, you said they shouldn't be because women are also capable of killing men (even though it's statistically unlikely and we both agree that men are physically more capable of mayhem) but then supported my argument by suggesting all women conceal carry because they will always be harassed, raped and killed.

What confuses me is: why do you still argue?

Nicole York's picture

I was in the Army

Nicole York's picture

Thank you for your service.

Mark Holtze's picture

This is a good read! Thanks for tackling it.

Ken B's picture

Harassment happens frequently and we as society must do our part to call it out and stop it in its tracks. That said, we're in serious danger of going too far.

"77 percent of creatives have experienced unprofessional comments on appearance.
73 percent have been called demeaning nicknames"

This survey appears to very biased and flawed in design. The issue is the concept of "unwanted" behaviors. How is one to know what is wanted or unwanted without testing the barrier? Is a simple compliment (e.g. you're attractive) now considered harassment because it was offered by a drunk wedding guest and therefore unwanted? What if the same compliment was offered by a charming, attractive, and sober guest. Still harassment?

Walking up to a person and flirting is how many relationships begin. It's how I met my spouse. I had no idea if my attention would be wanted or unwanted. Does this mean I was a potential perpetrator of sexual harassment? If so, what's the remedy?

I've also been in circumstances where my attempts to flirt were rejected. Was I guilty of harassment? The only difference between the the first example and the second example was interest level. How can you get to interest (wanted v unwanted) without effort?

If we're telling people that a single verbal action rises to the level of harassment then we just made every interaction between people a mine field.

We need to separate words from actions. We need to allow for flirting, even when done clumsily, as a necessary part of human interaction. We must not allow this movement to gain so much momentum as to ruin people based on a single unwanted comment.

Nicole York's picture

Ken, that's exactly why we have to have this conversation. We need to come to a place where the definitions are clear and agreed upon, which can never happen if we don't tackle the issue.

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