This post was prompted by a very specific event involving an unexpected post on twitter. I am an obsessive fan of RuPaul's Drag Race and the winner of Season 4, Sharon Needles, is one of the fantastic drag queens I follow. As a member of a community that celebrates sexual diversity, gay rights and the celebration and empowerment (and emulation) of women, I was disappointed to see Sharon post the following:
How many queens can say they were snapped by the legend terry Richardson?? And for @ladygaga book? @Terry_World #
This is a huge issue for me, Terry Richardson is an extremely successful photographer who has continually been accused of sexual assault by an enormous number of young women who have modelled at his studio. One agency went so far as to claim that they wouldn't send young or inexperienced girls on his shoots due to his reputation. Richardson has always denied these claims and insisted that the 'sexual experimentation' was all consensual, despite an overwhelming amount of information to the contrary.
Apparently this is exactly what people want to hear. Richardson has worked with huge stars such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and even Barack Obama, as well as countless fashion houses and every conceivable magazine. You could go so far as to suggest that this predatory reputation has increased his influence. It is extremely scary, and again disappointing, to see individuals who identify with struggles against persecution and exploitation to celebrate yet another personality who at best presents a damaging, reductive and hyper-sexualised view of women and at worst actively and blatantly abuses them, using his own influence and 'edginess' as a shield.
Sharon Needles is only one individual, and she combats the backlash from this post with an expected 'f*ck you' attitude that we all implement when we are attacked online. But isn't it about time we all took a step back and assessed our role in this community? Counterculture is all about subverting accepted norms and combating persecution, so that we can all live in a more tolerant society, so why are people like Terry Richardson allowed to flourish?
This tweet also mentions Lady Gaga, an idol of the LBGT community and beyond, who is a role model whether she likes it or not. Yet despite this international fame, she continues to work with someone who I would like to think completely devalues her self-proclaimed messages of sexual empowerment. As well as collaborating with Richardson on her own documentary, she also got him to direct an unreleased video featuring R. Kelly (also known for allegations of sexual assault and child pornography) which was supposedly pulled because of the explicit content that condones and glorifies rape.
This is exasperating. In a world where the prevalence of inherent sexism, homophobia and transphobia is rife, why would individuals who actively defy these ills insist on continuing and supporting relationships with alleged predators? This is not about denying expression or encouraging censorship, it is about the moral obligation to keep a check on your own ethical compass, and ask questions about why you are choosing to support and glorify the questionable and dangerous acts of your peers. Sexual liberation, ownership and empowerment is fantastically important and should be celebrated. Sexual assault should not. It is not funny, edgy or cool, but a horrifying reality that many face and that far too many ignore, especially when a celebrity is involved.