The ‘Free Kesha’ movement could be a landmark for abuse survivors everywhere

I’m going to guess that most Disclaimer readers aren’t overly familiar with pop singer/songwriter Kesha. They might recognise some of her songs, which were radio staples in the early part of this decade, but they certainly won’t have heard new music from her recently. Even her most hardcore fans haven’t. That is because Kesha has spent months in a protracted legal battle with record label Sony. On the surface, it’s a common enough case: an artist wishing to terminate their contract versus a record label refusing to let them go.

Or at least, it would be a common case if it weren’t for one troubling aspect. Kesha isn’t attempting to end her contract because of pay disputes or creative differences. She’s attempting to end her contract due to the mental, physical and sexual abuse she alleges to have suffered from mentor and producer, Lukasz ‘Dr Luke’ Gottwald. This isn’t simply another diva throwing a tantrum. It’s a potential watershed moment, which highlights the cracked way our societies responds to abuse.

Two weeks ago, the case went to court. Judge Shirley Kornreich ruled against Kesha, stating ‘my instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing’, adding that it would be ‘inappropriate to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated’. Yes, Kesha’s contract doubtlessly was heavily negotiated, and Sony are contractually entitled to further albums in return for their investment in her. But when abuse enters the picture, surely financial concerns take a backseat? For any judge to react to severe abuse allegations by focusing on what is ‘commercially reasonable’ indicates a mind-boggling confusion of priorities.

32% of victims report rape or sexual assault, with only 7% of offenders being arrested and just 2% being convicted

Sony claim to have attempted compromise, telling Kesha she is free to work with other producers besides Gottwald. However, being signed to Kemosabe Records (a subsidiary of Sony owned by Gottwald) means that everything she creates will bear his name and earn him money. He retains full control over what music she releases and how well it is promoted (if at all). This places the future of Kesha’s career very much in Gottwald’s hands, ensuring that every day she spends trapped in her current contract is another day spent bound to her alleged abuser.

As I said, many readers of this will not be fans of Kesha. But that is beside the point. Her case speaks to wider concerns which affect us all. Let’s take the US as a case-in-point: it is estimated that only 32% of victims report rape or sexual assault, with only 7% of offenders being arrested and just 2% being convicted. Survivors are often reluctant to come forward, out of shame or fear of repercussions. Too often (particularly when women allege assault) the immediate response is to ask ‘had she been drinking?’ or ‘what was she wearing?’ Survivors are made to doubt themselves - did the incident count as abuse? If they’d flirted with their attacker or given them their phone number, were to blame? And even if they decide they weren’t to blame, is the risk of coming forward worth taking if they’ll only be undermined and vilified?

Because make no mistake about it, reporting abuse is a risk. Kesha is a prime example. Speaking out after ten years of physical abuse and emotional manipulation would have required an unimaginable amount of courage, yet that courage has been met with a gruelling legal fight and her career being thrown into freefall. Unable to move to another label but scared for her wellbeing around Gottwald, she is creatively debilitated, while Gottwald continues to work freely. The law is, in effect, playing straight into Gottwald’s hands. He allegedly threatened that he would ‘shut down’ Kesha’s career and ‘destroy her life’ if she reported him. The courts are helping him to do this by keeping Kesha shackled to her contract, perpetuating the total control that perpetrators of abuse crave over their victims.

Much is being done to combat rape culture, and this particular case has become something of a sensation (fans are holding daily protests outside Sony HQ, and #FreeKesha is among the year’s highest ‘trending topics’ on Twitter). However, telling survivors that abuse is never acceptable - that they aren’t at fault, and shouldn’t be afraid to come forward - will only achieve so much if they see a fellow survivor calling out her powerful abuser and being punished for it. The implied message is that the law is still overwhelmingly weighted against victims of abuse.

As Kesha continues her fight for freedom, this justice system has a choice to make

Just as there are many reasons that survivors struggle to report abuse, there are many reasons we – as individuals and societies – struggle to listen. Physical and mental abuse are difficult issues to face, and it’s often easier to ignore claims, to downplay them with euphemisms like ‘sexual misconduct’, or to push the blame onto victims. It’s easier to convince ourselves that abuse isn’t that common, or that drinking sensibly and not showing too much flesh on a night out will keep us safe. The fact is, though, that 11 rapes happen every hour in the UK. They happen to people of all genders and backgrounds, and in all kinds of situations. Ignoring abuse won’t make it go away. Quite the opposite: it allows it to continue.  

Kesha has noted that this case is now about more than just her. It has brought a critical issue kicking and screaming into the light, and given the American justice system an opportunity to speak directly to survivors of abuse. As Kesha continues her fight for freedom, this justice system has a choice to make. Will it carry on telling survivors that they are powerless, and better off not reporting the crimes committed against them? Or will it finally step up and offer them the support they deserve?

It feels as though we are reaching a landmark moment in our collective relationship with sexual violence and abuse. I can only pray that it’s a landmark moment for the right reasons.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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