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Courtesy of The New York Times

February 28, 2016

O’BRIEN | #FreeKesha: Victim-Blaming and Sexual Assault in the Music Industry

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Last Friday, Kesha lost her legal battle for Sony to release her from her contractual obligation to her producer, Dr. Luke. Kesha claims that Dr. Luke drugged and raped her when she was 18 years old, and that he sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused her over a period of 10 years. New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich ruled that she was going to do the “commercially reasonable thing” and uphold the contract, telling Kesha that Doctor Luke’s $60 million investment in her career “decimates your argument.” The judge’s denial of Kesha’s request to obtain an injunction to break her contract was a devastating blow not only to Kesha’s emotional well-being — not to mention her career — but to the ability for other people who have been victims of sexual abuse in the music industry to come forward.

Sony has argued that it should be enough for Kesha that they will allow her to record music without ever having to interact with Dr. Luke. But, as her music would still be under the control of Dr. Luke’s imprint, this leaves him in a position of power over Kesha — allowing him to profit from her sales or, alternatively, to take any number of actions to use his power to continue his abuse or enact revenge. Not having to personally interact with him does not free Kesha from the trauma and violence of being contractually under her longtime abuser’s control.

Per our society’s culture of finding every way to blame a victim for their own abuse, in the aftermath of the court case, much scrutiny has been directed toward Kesha and how she handled her assault — feeding into the myth that there is one ideal way for a victim to act in the aftermath of their sexual assault in order to be worthy of justice. For example, people — including talk show host Wendy Williams and many a comment-section scumbag — have questioned why Kesha did not speak out sooner or why she denied that Dr. Luke raped her in 2011. Victims of sexual violence deal with their trauma in any number of equally valid ways, and even if they do not call the police, do not immediately speak out, do not remember all the details, interact with their assailant post-assault or were inebriated at the time of the assault, it does not mean that they are lying or that they were “asking for it” — all these behaviors are in fact classic signs and symptoms of trauma. According to her lawyer, Kesha was coerced and intimidated into remaining silent: “Dr. Luke repeatedly threatened that if she ever told anyone about these abusive incidents, he would destroy both Ms. Sebert and her entire family… Ms. Sebert wholly believed that Dr. Luke had the power and money to carry out his threats.”

Furthermore, Kesha’s case is not an isolated incident; her case is indicative of a larger, structural sickness in the music industry that does not punish men for sexual harassment and assault, but punishes victims for speaking out. Despite the visibility of women as the faces of pop music, men occupy 95 percent of production jobs in the music industry, and a culture among executives of silence and complicity toward sexism and abuse leaves women vulnerable. In January, Vice compiled 11 stories of women who have experienced sexual abuse in the dance music industry. In a December article, Lina Lecaro detailed the sexism and harassment she has faced in her decades as a female music journalist, and her realization that “many times … I’ve accepted inappropriate behavior from male subjects and disregard from male editors because I was just grateful to be there in the first place.”

And when venues have been provided for women to speak out, the response speaks volumes: Last year, Pitchfork Senior Editor Jessica Hopper tweeted: “Gals/other marginalized folks: what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn’t ‘count’?” Hundreds of people tweeted stories in response. And an anonymous female Los Angeles-based record label employee — who says she has been “a victim of sexual harassment and assault on multiple occasions” — recently created a Tumblr, called “The Industry Ain’t Safe,” for women to anonymously share their stories of sexual harassment and assault in the music industry, and it has dozens of posts. It is imperative that we as a public believe and support women who do come forward with their stories of sexual violence to combat this culture of victim-blaming and inaction. In appropriately dark humor, some have suggested that women’s recording contracts apparently need to have a “rape clause” that invalidates their contract in the case of sexual abuse.

The support Kesha has received from other musicians, including Lorde, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, Lily Allen and the trend of #FreeKesha is heartening, especially if you avoid reading the comment sections of articles or the responses to these statements of support on Twitter. But while Kesha completely deserves to have the spotlight on her now, we need to not limit our discussion of sexual assault in the music industry to just discussing Kesha’s individual case and not stop talking about it when the buzz around her case fades.

Kesha was extremely brave for speaking out and refusing to record while she is under the power of her abuser. Unfortunately, after the court’s ruling, her ability to record music now remains in limbo. But Kesha still hopes that other victims will speak out: In her first public statement since the court case, Kesha wrote, “At this point, this issue is bigger than just about me. Unfortunately, I don’t think my case is giving people who have been abused confidence that they can speak out, and that’s a problem. But I just wanted to say that if you have been abused, please don’t be afraid to speak out. There are places that will make you feel safe. There are people who will help you. I for one, will stand beside you and behind you. I know now how this all feels and will forever fight for you the way perfect strangers have been fighting for me.”

Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kro22@cornellsun.com. 

One thought on “O’BRIEN | #FreeKesha: Victim-Blaming and Sexual Assault in the Music Industry

  1. This ruling was made on the basis of the contract Kesha signed. Sony has made a huge investment into Kesha under the assumption that she’d produce albums with them. The fact that she’s claiming rape (as opposed to some other abuse) isn’t relevant here. Sony has said that she doesn’t have to work with him

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