In case you missed it on Friday, Kesha (a major pop star) had a very public breakdown. She cried in despair, in front of tons of paparazzi and fans. Why? Because she felt powerless trying to disentangle herself from her rapist.
Kesha accused her producer of slipping her GHB and sexually assaulting her in 2014, and said that she feared for her personal safety if she continued working with him. The problem? She’s under contract with Sony for six more albums, so her only choice was to take to the courts. Since, unsurprisingly, there’s no sexual abuse escape clause in music contracts, it’s been a painful, drawn-out process (and it’s not done yet). And while lots of people are complaining that the courts are failing Kesha, I think it’s bigger than that: everything is failing Kesha. Because our culture is designed to fail anyone who speaks up.
I have no idea what it’s like to be a pop star with my own TV show and millions of Instagram followers. I’ve even had issues with some of Kesha’s… less culturally respectful videos in the past. But those tears? I’ve seen ’em before. Her situation is uncomfortably familiar: at this very moment, there are three girls on my Facebook feed publicly calling out their abusers. They’re getting death threats, being told they’re dramatic, fielding suggestions like, “You should have called the cops,” or if they did, “What did you except the cops to do?” or “But did you have proof?” and the super-extra-invalidating “Well that’s just one side of the story.”
Publicly admitting to being abused makes you a target for further harassment. It’s a catch-22. It’s exhausting and rarely, if ever, is justice served. The past year was huge for women stepping forward in public ways. Porn star, Stoya (along with a slew of other women in the industry), called out her ex and scene partner, James Deen. Jackie Fuchs of the ’70s all-female rock band The Runaways told the story of her rape, at age sixteen, by her manager Kim Fowley. Lady Gaga admitted she’s still traumatized by her rape ten years ago at the hands of an older man in the music industry (and released a song about sexual abuse called “Till It Happens to You”). And then there were the women who spoke out about Bill Cosby (which I really don’t have to explain, do I?).
And so maybe, somewhere in my head I thought, “We’re finally making progress.” I started thinking maybe the stigma was lifting. Maybe society would start to support the survivors more, if they were already public figures. But then Friday happened. And I’m reminded yet again how impossible it is to prove rape and how nauseatingly easy it is to get away with. If being a major pop star with lots of money can’t prevent you from being taking advantage of and abused, what are the regular people supposed to do? Considering how often authority figures abuse power, why isn’t there a system for accountability with managers, producers, photographers (looking at you, Terry Richardson), and anyone else who holds an entire entertainment career in their hands? Why do we have so many systems in place to protect money and so few in place to protect people?
I’d venture to guess it’s no coincidence that the system is devoid of something important: women in positions of power. Because of course a system created by men, and run by powerful men, would protect those men at the expense of vulnerable young women. In other words, patriarchy works in tandem with rape culture.
Where do we go from here? How do I support traumatized women in their efforts to step up and call out their abusers, to volunteer for that ugly emotional gauntlet, when there’s basically no hope of actually making a difference? If Kesha, who has multiple supportive hashtags trending and diehard fans and every major media outlet on her side, has to choose between doing her job and her safety, then how do we, as feminists, protect those with smaller platforms: the transwomen, the women of color, the indigenous women, the poor women? How do we protect ourselves?
Yesterday, Taylor Swift donated $250,00 to support Kesha, but she did not publicly attack Sony. Hell, did she feel she could? And if Taylor Swift can’t—who can? How powerful do you have to be before you can call out a sexual abuser and not fear for your contract or your career or your education or your community? That is the multi-million dollar question. In our culture you can be rich and famous, but—if you go after your boss for rape, or sexual harassment, or assault, you could lose everything you ever worked for.
And so, in the way the world is utterly bizarre, I am in awe of Kesha. Because this blonde pop star, with her upbeat party anthems and glitter guns, chose to publicly take on the hush-hush world of sexual assault and serve as a visible reminder than no matter how shiny your life looks, no matter how much money, power, or fame you get, women are always vulnerable.
And if we don’t have each other’s backs, nobody does.