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Kesha, Slut Shaming, and the Tyranny of Pop Music Patriarchy

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By Kat George

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Power, for women in pop, is an illusion. At least that’s the case for unruly, disruptive women like Kesha, who last October, filed a lawsuit for sexual harassment against her producer Dr. Luke, and who has since reached what might be an insurmountable impasse in her career. Following Kesha’s initial suit, Dr. Luke counter sued for extortion. Earlier this week it was revealed in an affidavit that Kesha can’t tour, record, or pursue her career interests in any capacity because of her ongoing contractual obligations to Dr. Luke and Sony (who aren’t actively doing anything to progress her career while the conflict continues), and is suffering “irreparable harm” as a result. This, it appears, is what happens when a woman alleges forcible sexual conduct against one of the most powerful men in the music industry.

If you’re not sure who Dr. Luke is, here’s an easy way to think about it: You know that number one hit pop banger you love? He probably produced it. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and “I Kissed A Girl.” Miley’s “Party In The U.S.A.” and “Wrecking Ball.” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Britney’s “Til The World Ends.” And of course Kesha’s “Tik Tok.” Kesha and Dr. Luke have had what seemed like a mutually beneficial longstanding professional relationship (he produced her hits, she sold them) until 2014 when she alleged he had “forced himself” on her. Moreover, she alleged that he used his sexual abuse as a bargaining chip to essentially control their working relationship and manipulate her contractually. She implicated Sony as a co-defendant.

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Dr. Luke and Sony were quick to counterclaim, alleging extortion on Kesha’s part. Their suit alleged that in an effort to get out of her contract, "Kesha and Pebe [Kesha’s mother] have also orchestrated a campaign of publishing false and shocking accusations against [Dr. Luke] Gottwald to extort Plaintiffs into letting Kesha out of the Gottwald Recording Agreement." They also complicated the case by seeking judgement from a New York jurisdiction based on a clause in Kesha’s contract, which was made in California where her initial suit was filed. Sound like bureaucratic nonsense? That’s pretty much because it is, and as a result, Kesha’s case has been mired in red tape that’s taken precedence over the initial allegations: that Dr. Luke raped her. That conversation has somehow been silenced amongst Dr. Luke and Sony’s grandstanding which is the sad and sorry state of a legal system that reliably cultivates a solid culture of victim blaming.

Of course, Dr. Luke has not yet been found guilty. But somehow the onerous nature of the competing lawsuits is such that Kesha has fallen into purgatory, while Dr. Luke, miraculously, continues to thrive in his profession. Since the suit was filed against him, since October 2014 he has produced Billboard charting songs released by Nicki Minaj, Usher, Pitbull, Maroon 5, Ciara, Fifth Harmony, Chris Porter, Flo Rida, and the forthcoming Azealia Banks track “Treasure Island”. Dr. Luke and Sony, instead of releasing Kesha from her contract in light of the conflict, have not only held her to its terms, but are actively precluding her from working, even for them. So who is extorting who here? This is the undue burden for women to bear: By alleging rape, they implicate themselves as guilty until proven innocent, and suffer as such. Except that in this case (as in most cases) it appears Kesha, of inferior standing, resources, and backed into a corner, is the only one suffering. Which is why on Friday, Kesha’s attorney filed an injunction for her to be released from her contractual obligations to Dr. Luke and Sony, although it’s yet to be seen how the court will rule.

Currently, Twitter is awash with supporters tweeting #FreedomForKesha, but hashtag justice does not a viable reality make. The hashtag, however, calls to light an issue that is all too real for any woman when reporting a rape: They lose their freedom. Whether Dr. Luke is inevitably found guilty or not is not the predominant issue here. The issue is that by merely reporting a sexual assault, a woman has been completely defanged in the public, stripped of her autonomy, and forced into a position where she can’t exercise her basic right to her livelihood. For other women, unruly or not, this can play out with different consequences, but which at the crux, are all the same. Women are alienated, ostracised, and demobilized by a vicious, powerful white male patriarchy when they attempt to speak up against their aggressors.

Kesha is the quintessential unruly woman. She wears her sexuality on her sleeve, and indeed, Dr. Luke and Sony have profited greatly from her bold image. They’ve also used that same image to implicitly slut shame her into submission. Kesha is a woman who, until now, acted and didn’t simply appear as songwriter and performer in her own right. She has repeatedly challenged traditional notions of a woman’s relationship to sex with her image, public activism, and lyricism. In 2013 Kesha released “Dirty Love” as an ode to women openly enjoying sex for the simple act of sex. Her lyrics have a general sentiment of either “I’m going to fuck” or “throw some glitter around”, like in “Who’s Next?” where she sings, “You know I just can't get enough/ Who’s next/ Who’s next fun time n sex.” She’s been noted by GLAAD for embracing her own bi-sexuality when she stated in an interview, "I don’t love just men. I love people. It’s not about a gender,” and for her activism for LGBTQ rights. She has spoken openly about depression, rehab, and her eating disorder (which allegedly was promoted by Dr. Luke who had told her she looked “like a refrigerator”).

Kesha, throughout her career, has threatened the balance of power between genders and contorted the boundaries of feminine propriety in ways that have been both fearless and inspiring. And then Kesha dared to stand up to the patriarchy, she dared to be hurt and to say so, and she was duly punished for it. Wonderful, isn’t it, how you can use a woman’s sexuality to make a fortune, and then use it against her to violently and completely diminish her when it suits you? I can’t help but wonder how differently this might have played out if Kesha was a chaste character, or if Dr. Luke weren’t white.

Kesha’s case should strike fear in the hearts of all women. It certainly does in mine. It promotes the toxic idea that a woman who just wants “dirty love”—who is promiscuous and wears short skirts—is as implicitly more guilty in her assault than her aggressor. While none of this has been explicitly articulated by Dr. Luke and Sony, the message is clear: If you disrupt the status quo, you will be destroyed. Let’s not forget that Dr. Luke’s ability to enjoy his life freely, make money, and produce music has not been hampered in any way. Kesha’s case is a powerful icon for the pervasiveness of rape culture and victim blaming that still persists and suffocates us socially and culturally. It tells victims one thing, without exception, and that is if you dare to speak out, you will be punished in kind. Dr. Luke, for all I know, is innocent. But he retains the right to be tried as such. Kesha has not been so lucky, and without so much as a cross-examination, is already serving her sentence.

Kat George is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.

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