When I saw the outcome of Kesha's court case last Friday, I felt sick. Actually sick — I wanted to ask my Uber to pull over so I could throw up in a New York City trash can. The photos of her beautiful face crumpled with tears, the legally necessary but sickening use of the word "alleged" over and over in reference to the assault she says she remembers so vividly — it all created a special brand of nausea that comes when public events intersect with your most private triggers. I last experienced this when Rolling Stone botched a campus-assault narrative and as a result left millions of women exposed to doubt. I cried in a mini-mall in Brussels, imagining all the college-age girls suddenly changing their minds about coming forward against their rapists.
If you haven't been following the case: for the last year and a half, Kesha has been trying to get out of a contract with her former collaborator and producer Lukasz Gottwald, known professionally as Dr. Luke (not a professional doctor). She has been shackled by a ten-year-old contract to Gottwald's company Kemosabe, a subsidiary of Sony that controls both her recording and publishing — her entire livelihood as an artist and businesswoman. Here's the reason she wants out: Kesha says that for ten years Gottwald drugged, raped, and emotionally abused her and controlled her creatively and emotionally through threats and manipulations. She explained that her dealings with Gottwald ultimately exacerbated a life-threatening eating disorder, which required rehab. When she concluded that continuing to work with Gottwald would kill her, she came forward and asserted herself.
Now Kesha has requested an immediate injunction that would allow her to begin to record without Dr. Luke. I think this seems like a pretty reasonable request. While the allegations of sexual assault and emotional abuse cannot be proven definitively, I think Kesha's words speak for themselves: "I know I cannot work with Dr. Luke. I physically cannot. I don't feel safe in any way."
Sony could make this go away. But instead the company has chosen to engage in a protracted legal battle to protect Gottwald's stake in Kesha's future. Although the company insists that Kesha and Gottwald never need to be in a room together and that he will allow her to record without his direct involvement, they are minimizing what Kesha says regarding how Gottwald's continued involvement in her career would affect her physical well-being and psychological safety.
So let me spell it out for them. Imagine someone really hurt you, physically and emotionally. Scared you and abused you, threatened your family. The judge says that you don't have to see them again, BUT they still own your house. So they can decide when to turn the heat on and off, whether they'll pay the telephone bill or fix the roof when it leaks. After everything you've been through, do you feel safe living in that house? Do you trust them to protect you?
That explanation is really for the judge, Shirley Kornreich, who questioned why — if they could be physically separated as Sony has promised — Kesha could not continue to work for Gottwald. After all, she said, it's not appropriate to "decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated." Guess what else is heavily negotiated? The human contract that says we will not hurt one another physically and emotionally. In fact, it's so obvious that we usually don't add it to our corporate documents.
To be clear, Kesha's case is about more than a pop star fighting for her freedom, or a $60 million investment in a shiny commercial career. It's about more than whether Kesha can strap on her cool leotards and make another album, free from a man who she says terrifies her. It's even about more than the systemic misogyny of the entertainment industry, or the way that women in music and film have long been controlled and coerced by abusive Svengalis and entities larger than themselves. (Think: the studio system of the '40s and '50s, when starlets were essentially chattel. Think: Ike and Tina Turner.) What's happening to Kesha highlights the way that the American legal system continues to hurt women by failing to protect them from the men they identify as their abusers.
For example: 19 states in America still allow rapists to assert parental rights over children conceived through rape, yoking women (and their children) to their attackers for a lifetime, an unimaginable cycle of revictimization. But it's real. The same man who violently assaulted you could get the right to cuddle the baby that resulted from that assault.