On Friday, a judge ruled that the singer Kesha could not be let go from her contract with Sony in light of an ongoing lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke (real name: Lukasz Gottwald), who she says has subjected her to physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse. He has denied the accusations.
The outpouring of support demonstrates that this case is not just about one woman. It touches on the experiences of millions of women across America and further afield.
We are seeing victim-blaming, disbelief and public shaming.
We are seeing the enormous lack of understanding of the long-term impact abuse can have.
We are seeing the automatic privilege of a man’s word implicitly being taken as more important and trustworthy than a woman’s.
We are seeing the devastating impact of a legal system that forces women to confront their abusers in court and fails to protect them.
And we are seeing the heart-breaking response of a general public that is enormously misinformed about sexual violence and openly biased against its victims.
There has been a huge outpouring of support for Kesha, with a #FreeKesha hashtag trending and celebrities including Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson speaking out in solidarity, Taylor Swift giving her $250,000, and Lena Dunham writing an open letter. But the negative responses have also come thick and fast. They range from tweets calling Kesha a “slut,” “hoe,” “bitch,” “whore” and “liar,” to talk show host Wendy Williams, who said: “If everybody complained because somebody allegedly sexually abused them… then contracts would be broken all the time.” She went on to ask: “Why weren’t they rolling camera on it?” suggesting that Kesha and her mother should have attempted to film the alleged abuse to prove it happened.
These kind of narratives, which immediately call into doubt the truthfulness of abuse allegations and leap to interrogating the victim’s behavior, are excruciatingly common, as thousands of ordinary women’s testimonies shared with the Everyday Sexism Project, of which I’m the founder, demonstrate.
One woman, who was raped and abused by a partner over a period of several years, wrote:
Another account reads: “I was raped at a party after being drugged… When I had the courage to tell what happened I was blamed by everyone. I had to do a lot of tests, including HIV and no one supported me. My family and friends abandoned me saying it was all my fault because I acted like a whore.”
These accounts are not isolated incidents. The stories go on and on and on. Children who were abused by family members and shamed into silence by other relatives when they disclosed what had happened. Teenage girls who were raped and then asked why they’d been flirting and what they were wearing instead of anybody focusing on their rapists. Women who finally left abusive relationships only to be asked by friends what they had done to “provoke” the attacks, or whether it was all just a “misunderstanding.”
It’s little wonder, in a society that teaches us from childhood that “boys will be boys” but girls must take care not to provoke them. That girls shouldn’t wear short skirts or low-cut tops, that sex is something that happens to us when we let our guard down, that it is our responsibility to say no, that all guys want it, that there’s something macho and honorable and manly about that. That it’s romantic for a man to pursue a woman who has clearly told him “no,” that it is complimentary to shout at a woman in the street, that a wolf-whistle is all good, clean fun. That men can be themselves, but there are “types” of women. That anyone who doesn’t fit into the category of mother or pure, innocent virgin is essentially “asking for it,” just a little bit.
We learn it from our fairytales, where Little Red Riding Hood teaches us to beware of the inevitable, animalistic Big Bad Wolf just waiting in the shadows to gobble us up if we dare to stray off the good girl’s path. We see it in our romantic comedies, where time and again the stalker gets the girl. We have spread it like wildfire across the Internet, with pictures of rape victims shared online to be ridiculed and even imitated. We see it in our hopelessly inaccurate societal idea of a rapist being a stranger in a dark alleyway, waiting to prey on a “perfect” victim. And we internalize it, every time we hear those timeless, inevitable questions: “What was she wearing?” “What was she doing there?” “Was she drunk?” “Was she flirting?” Too often the man doesn’t feature in the narrative at all.
That’s what makes this such an important case—it is playing out, on the international stage, many other women’s silent struggles. And, of course, if even a woman as relatively privileged and high-profile as Kesha is subject to such treatment and responses, what hope is there for the millions of unknown women facing these issues, not to mention those bearing the brunt of other forms of prejudice at the same time? Women like the victims of rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, a white police officer who deliberately targeted black women who he thought were marginalized and vulnerable and therefore less likely to feel able to report what had happened. Or members of the transgender community, who are disproportionately likely to experience violence and sexual assault, and face high levels of victim-blaming.
What happens to Kesha matters to us all. Her treatment at the hands of the legal system, commentators and the general public gives sharp focus to the bombardment facing those who speak out about sexual violence. It sends a message to thousands of victims who may be wondering whether or not to tell anybody about what happened to them. And we wonder why so few women come forward. It’s a wonder that any do at all.