The Music Industry Did a Shit Job at Dealing with Sexual Assault This Year

What Kesha's situation has taught us and what we can anticipate in the age of Trump.

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Dec 29 2016, 5:52pm

Show don't tell, but do so correctly is a deafening and defeating line of thought. Earlier this month, British television personality and stale scone Piers Morgan took to Twitter to question Lady Gaga's revelation that she suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming, in part, from a rape she endured several years ago. Morgan initially took issue with a seemingly cavalier diagnosis of PTSD: he claims this illness is exclusive to people who served in the military, something that is factually wrong. But then Morgan took aim at Gaga's claim of assault (Madonna, too, who Gaga supported with a tweet, revealed in 2013 she was raped at age 19) arguing that because there is no court or police records to back up her claim, it's merely a thin allegation and he will not "automatically believe" it. This isn't the first time Morgan has questioned a woman's integrity—nevertheless, he does so not for any productive reason, but simply because he can.

Men correct, gaslight, or simply ignore any assertion put forth by women in any setting, especially when it comes to misogyny, sexual assault, and rape. Whatever the online world's legacy may eventually be, it will inevitably include the scores of men hidden behind their computer screens pulling their Twitter fingers to argue against the existence and legitimacy of sexual assault toward women. In that vein, it is glaringly clear that public opinion and legal systems are still stuck in defense of men rather than women, even in the midst of so-called progress. In 2016, during what was an already bleak year, a dated set of patriarchal vows were reinforced in the way society handles and discusses sexual assault and women.

via Getty Images

Consider how this year began in music and pop culture: in February, after Kesha had sued her producer and alleged sexual assaulter Dr. Luke in 2014, the court ultimately rejected a pre-injunction, meaning she still had to fulfill her recording contract with Sony. Kesha claimed Sony knew of Dr. Luke's egregious behaviour (alleged emotional manipulation, drugging her, and more) but the court ruled that she "failed to make the necessary allegations." Kesha failed in being the right kind of victim. The right kind of victim—a problematic term to begin with—is usually one who produces precise evidence (photos of assault at the time, texts, for example) of the crime committed from the time it happened, which, in sexual assault or emotionally abusive situations, is rarely ever timely. In April, Kesha's rape and abuse claims were dismissed. She dropped a case in California but is still pursuing charges in New York, still managing to deliver dozens of new tracks, in the hope of being able to release a new album soon. The catch with Kesha's case is that she cannot produce music without Dr. Luke—her flagrant and restrictive contract prohibits her from doing so. After the rejection, the usually vibrant pop star openly wept about the possibility of being stuck in a contract that forces her to work with her abuser.

We should be better than this by now; we should be working toward openly and vocally believing women. Kesha's case is a disheartening one to watch unfold because it's a real-time example of how hard it is to move in the music industry as a woman. Last year, then senior editor at Pitchfork and current editorial director of music at MTV Jessica Hopper compiled what is a book's worth of personal histories from women about how they cope with misogyny, abuse, and gaslighting in the industry. It was a much-needed catalyst and gave a large platform for necessary stories and experiences to be told. But with every instance of progress we see, there is a Piers Morgan to undermine it. Perhaps Kesha's case will become an example of the very precise and calculated ways men seek to control women, how they will protect their brands; Sony is in the interest of protecting itself and whatever the company's assets may be.

Running sharply parallel to Kesha's story this year was America's decision to further support a problematic patriarchal system that refuses transparency or basic decency with respect to women by electing Donald Trump—an alleged sexual assaulter—for president. During the election campaign, Trump's sexual misconduct was a prominent talking point. A Google search of "Donald Trump" and "sexual assault" yields 18 million results that range from his discussion of grabbing a woman's genitalia to numerous rape allegations to the generally misogynistic views on women he's publicly revealed over decades. The news cycle was dominated by this dialogue—by the implicit and urgent need to believe women—and still an overwhelming amount of men and women (53% of white women, to be exact) voted in favour of a man who, on paper, treats women as literal objects if they're lucky or nothing if they are not. In Canada, too, a similar situation unfolded that would have a disappointing outcome: former CBC arts and entertainment journalist and host of Q Jian Ghomeshi finally went to trial for the abundant sexual assault claims that began to trickle out into the public at the end of 2014. The former musician was found not guilty this year on any of the charges. His other trial, which would have begun in June, did not come to fruition because Ghomeshi signed a peace bond, which does not indicate guilt, rather that the prosecution may not be able to convict. Looking to Trump's rape case, which the charges were dropped, doesn't erase the years of misogynistic vitriol he has espoused or been guilty of.

Sexual assault cases are complicated, and the laws for it are different in any given state or country. That complication is also pronounced because it is largely a flawed system that relies on facts in a way that reduces necessary emotional and psychological impressions to afterthoughts or irrelevant. That Ghomeshi's accusers would send flirtatious text messages or continue contact him then saying that he committed these assaults doesn't necessarily negate that assault. It distorts the experience in favour of a paper trail and facts and that makes it uncomfortable for women to ever come forward. The Globe and Mail produced a video during the Ghomeshi trial on one woman's steps to report her assault and it became clear that victims needed to follow a specific order for the case to be picked up. But also, sometimes, police don't actually care enough to follow-up on assault claims. Madonna said last year when discussing her rape that she was too humiliated to report it; that she had already been violated and "it wasn't worth it." A woman's internal dialogue is to at once minimize such an experience because someone else—a man, usually—defined its lack of worth. Women who speak publicly about their sexual assault experiences, by a wide margin, endure far worse ridicule and skepticism.

Yet some moves toward a more open and positive reception of women's experiences happened this year, too. Canadian musician Kinley Dowling wrote and released a record this year about her sexual assault that occurred more than 15 years ago. While no court or police record exists of this assault, at least that she hasn't claimed publicly, Dowling's debut still serves as a testimonial of the assault's existence. It is a more positive view of a victim's experiences, and documents the steps she took to process and recover from it. Similarly this year, Amber Coffman's call out of abuse and subsequent support was an optimistic start. When the Dirty Projectors guitarist took to social media to expose music publicist Heathcliff Berru of sexually assaulting her, she was met with productive dialogue that called for other women to speak up and support each other (Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast is one such example of support via Twitter.) People did believe her. For what it's worth, Berru attempted to atone, apologizing for causing unduly harm to many women. This was a rare scenario; belief of women doesn't always manifest so easily. But these are incremental steps that mainly reflect healing on the part of the victim instead of finding ways to deter their violators.

This year being bookended now with Gaga and Morgan's Twitter tete-a-tete shows an uncomfortably familiar narrative about women, sexual assault, and facts. Very diplomatically, Gaga responded to Morgan's tweets saying she would be happy to educate him. Women are expected to bear the brunt of education, revelation, and transparency when it comes to sexual assault and rape. Morgan asked Gaga to lessen his reservations about these kinds of allegations and stories, which is a wild and decidedly privileged place to be in. It is emotional labour on the part of a woman to further educate a man on the complexities of assault and how it may manifest thereafter.

Seemingly in the face of progress, women were held to a higher scrutiny of authenticity. Hillary Clinton, for all of her actual flaws as a presidential candidate, was subject to inspection about her work ethic and her health that bore no real purpose on her actual political track record other than that she was a woman running for president. Ariana Grande's note about a fan degrading and objectifying her as someone her boyfriend Mac Miller would "hit" is another recent example of casual sexism and misogyny. No matter the case, people buckled down this year, dug in their heels, and demanded more of women. If recent thought is a guide, we've championed history repeating itself as a great thing so of course the worst systemic values have been given absolute power by the people and allowed to flourish—from now until who knows when.

Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.