Free Kesha: Rape Culture and the Failure of our Justice System

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(Originally published on Medium)

This past week, Kesha lost her injunction against Sony, a legal bid to be released from her contract with producer Dr. Luke. The injunction was filed after a formal complaint against Dr. Luke in October 2014. The complaint charged Dr. Luke with physical, sexual and emotional abuse against Kesha over a duration of nearly ten years, violations of her integrity, dignity and safety that his record label, Kemosabe, and Sony were aware of. Two testimonials particularly stand out: Kesha was twice forced to ingest substances that incapacitated her, only to wake up and discover that she had been raped. Dr. Luke’s sexual exploitation was coupled with an emotional abuse and a controlling supervisory style. Based off of the depiction in the complaint, their relationship had all the characteristics of intimate partner violence.

Kesha, after hearing the verdict of her injunction

Kesha, after hearing the verdict of her injunction

The condition of fear in a household of domestic violence often renders victims silent. Just as mothers may be fearful of the safety of their children, Kesha was “threatened that if she ever mentioned the rape to anyone, he [Dr. Luke] would shut her career down, take away all her publishing and recording rights, and otherwise destroy not only her life but her entire family’s lives as well” (7). Beyond the personal and familial peril that Kesha likely experienced, media and public response has not been especially kind to women who stayed in abusive relationships. The emotional, physical and sexual coercion that occur within such relationships are “private traps,” snares rendered only more dangerous by the lack of empathy for women who stay.

Kesha’s bravery to come forward, and her willingness to abandon her music career in an effort to liberate herself from Dr. Luke and sound the alarm within the music industry, is incredible. Despite the fact that the judge threw out Dr. Luke’s countersuit against Kesha’s mother and manager earlier in February, however, the judge’s decision to hold Kesha to her contract is emblematic of the larger problem of how the justice system handles sexual violence. Criminal courts have historically been unkind to survivors of gender-based violence, in part because the onus is placed upon the survivor to produce evidence that would “substantiate” their claims. The procurement of evidence is complicated by the very nature of sexual violence and the ongoing contestation over the notion of consent. Women who are inebriated, under the influence of substances, or incapacitated are legally incapable of giving consent, yet their incapacitation may also make it difficult to provide a “reliable” account of the event. Sexual violence can also be a traumatizing experience, one that has psychological consequences like short term memory loss, dissociation, lack of affect, and poor episodic memory, meaning that testimony may seem contradictory and therefore fictitious. The criminal justice system, often reliant upon police intake reports, tends to script the sexual violence encounter, a narrative that rarely affords legitimacy to survivors’ stories that deviate from “the truth.” Police officers may also harbor rape myths that survivors are lying or trying to get attention by making rape accusations. The archetype of “the perfect victim” continues to plague the survivors who decide to report.

Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula on NPR

Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula on NPR

Other evidence can be collected through Forensic Nurse Exams conducted by trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE). Because these exams are usually conducted with the purpose of filing a report against a perpetrator, the survivor’s body is treated as a field of evidence, one that must be prodded and scraped for data. Hospitals may not be properly equipped to sensitively handle the intake of sexual violence survivors. The exam itself can also be re-victimizing, including some painful procedures that medically invade survivor’s bodies. Nurse examiners can also demonstrate the same callous attitudes as police officers, believing that some women were “asking for it.”

That is, if a survivor can even get to a hospital or a police station. Abusive partners will do everything within their power to keep the victim from seeking help. Since fabrics like clothes or bed sheets may contain incriminating evidence, perpetrators will often wash or dispose of any materials that would link them to possible allegations of violence. Abusers often monitor the movements of their partners and prevent any personal time or freedom that would provide an opportunity to report or seek treatment. If a survivor finally decides to break their silence days, weeks, or months after the most recent physical altercation, however, there may be no evidence left to collect. Even lasting physical injuries are difficult to convincingly attribute to alleged perpetrators.

If a survivor manages to make it to court, she will be forced to relive her violation day after day, cross-examined by lawyers and impelled to recount her experience. If she is unable to provide evidence from a forensic nurse exam, then her only evidence is testimony, which, as discussed, may be disoriented by the psychological trauma of sexual violence. Lawyers and judges are likely to ask why they didn’t come forward earlier, why they didn’t scream out, why they didn’t fight back; all questions that fail to understand at the most fundamental level the gendered powered dynamics inherent in sexual violence or the neurological consequences of trauma, the body and mind’s fight to survive under life-threatening circumstances.

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The justice system is not set up to support survivors. The judge who denied Kesha’s injunction for emancipation from her abuser employed the kind of logic endemic of rape culture, stating that the dismissal was the “commercially reasonable thing to do.” When profit and corporate contracts are more important than the human rights of men and women, that is rape culture. When a survivor simply wants separation from the very person who has violated them, and that desire elicits a poll on Billboard about whether or not music executives believe her, that is rape culture. When Newsweek decides that responsible journalism is a story about the “other side of the college sexual assault crisis,” that is rape culture. When an alleged perpetrator’s word is taken as more convincing evidence as a matter of fact than a survivor’s and a woman’s, that is rape culture. We don’t only need to free Kesha. We need to address the chains that keep survivors shackled to their abusers and a system that tacitly condones such abuse.

Crying Rape: The Sexual Politics of Gone Girl

I admire Gillian Flynn for her craft, her narrative agility, and her audacity to write such a dynamic, unscrupulous yet stunning female character as Amy Elliot Dunne in Gone Girl (2012). I think it’s important that complicated, flawed female characters are written. I would prefer contemptible, dislikable characters to be written as long as they encompass the panoply of personality types a person can exhibit, the human foibles and idiosyncrasies that persist in real life, rather than airbrushed, idealized stereotyped versions of women. I am glad that Rosamund Pike was given a character worth her acting talent in David Fincher’s adaptation (2014), a character with more verve and cunning than anyone else in the movie. A woman that ultimately ensnares her husband in the superficial trappings of toxic domesticity. Amy manipulates everyone in the novel and the power of Gillian Flynn’s ending lies in the cutting commentary on American marriages—the unrealistic expectations; the elevation of artifice over substances; the pernicious illusion of the perfect happy couple; the expectations we place upon our spouses and partners that aspire toward greatness yet ultimately undermine any attempt at genuine human connection or the possibility of failure; and the cycles of violence that occur behind closed doors, hidden behind the veneer of parts we think we should play as man and wife.

Yet I am concerned. I am concerned because, while Amy’s sociopathic tendencies are a departure in cinematic representations of women, she also plays out the modern problematic tropes of rape culture. Zerlina Maxwell at Time, described rape culture as, “a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults” (2014), but rape culture also involves the pernicious belief that sexual violence is unavoidable, or that women make up stories of rape to gain publicity. Rape culture also means that the onus of guilt is, more often than not, placed upon the woman, and that accused perpetrators are often exonerated as innocent by the media. Rape culture is a much larger, more systemic and pernicious social condition, but Fincher’s depiction of Amy plays upon the elements of rape culture I have just outlined.

When Amy’s boyfriend in New York before Nick, Tommy O’Hara, starts to disengage from the relationship, Amy frames him for rape, seducing him in order to collect evidence she can use against him as a criminal sex offender. Amy uses her sexuality to manipulate Desi Collings, another ex-boyfriend, into giving her shelter. She lulls Desi into a false sense of security before staging another rape scene, a rape she will use to secure her safety from police investigation after his death. We even watch as she callously uses a wine bottle to induce the physical wounds typical of forced entry. Nick, however, is Amy’s consummate puppet, trapping him through his reckless masculinity, the knowledge that a woman in his life is a necessity to his public image and career, a public image he resents yet is programmed to seek out as innately as his habitual “politeness.”

My concern is that story emerges contemporaneously with Billy Cosby’s rape allegations, a time when female survivors are not believed when they say they have been drugged and sexually assaulted or raped. We have a legal system that places the responsibility of evidence on the survivor and a criminal justice system often ill-equipped to handle cases of sexual assault or rape. We also live in a society that blames the survivor, that excuses male behaviors of entitlement and predatory possession. Some have even argued that survivors come forward with their cases to get publicity or a hefty settlement. What seems ironic is that our society can pillory survivors, secondarily victimizing them for their suffering, while simultaneously claiming that allegations lead to positive publicity. In such a hateful, virulent environment, why would anyone want to come forward with their stories? It’s an enormous, unfathomable act of courage to divulge your own victimization, especially when the odds are almost never in the survivors’ favor. What survivor of violence wants to be decried as a liar or a publicity-monger after already having suffered so much physical and emotional trauma? As Joan Smith at The Guardian stresses, “The characters live in a parallel universe where the immediate reaction to a woman who says she’s been assaulted is one of chivalrous concern. Tell that to all the victims, here and in the US, who have had their claims dismissed by sceptical police officers” (2014).

Jamilah Lemieux on The Nightly Show

Jamilah Lemieux on The Nightly Show

The sexual assault and rape cases that do go to trial rarely result in adequate remuneration for the survivor and have historically absolved the perpetrator. We wouldn’t want to ruin the promising football career of a young male scholar, but it’s acceptable if he devastates the life of a young girl because he has been socialized to believe that he deserves sex whenever and from whomever her wants. There is rarely financial recompense for survivors. The idea of “rape money” is largely a myth, one that once again instantiates and legitimizes rape culture, a culture that permits the systematic violation of men and women’s bodies and refuses to acknowledge responsibility for the fact that rape is an act that violates our most basic of human rights.

So my concern with Gone Girl is that Amy becomes the poster girl for these rape myths. That women will do anything for male attention. That women blow incidences out of proportion and fabricate stories of rape just to get behind the camera. That women are nothing but manipulative, conniving spiders spinning webs to entrap perfectly innocent men who were just being good guys. I want to believe that the American public, and that the wider international audience, can discriminate between fiction and reality. But, so far, we have a tendency to mistrust the veracity of the survivors seeking justice and instead defend the attacker. The fiction that rape is bound to happen, that lack of consent means yes, that women imagine elaborate stories as a marketing ploy–these delusions have all been taken as truth by the justice system, popular media and the wider public. Perhaps, on the other hand, Amy’s characterization as a sociopath shatters these myths, suggesting that only someone psychologically unstable would act the way Amy does. That the very rape myths she enacts are criminally atypical and erroneous, thereby demonstrating their inauthenticity and sheer ludicrousness. As Nikki Gloudeman points out, “It’s hard to tell if Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book and now the screenplay, is trafficking in stereotypes or trying to subvert them, as her male protagonist is just as flawed in stereotypically male ways, and her work is so dark and gloomy it’s hard not to perceive the whole thing as a sardonic finger-flip to the world and its gender conventions” (2014).

My hope is that while Gone Girl gains more publicity and acclaim, we think carefully about who is telling the story and who gets caught in the crossfire, the damage that can be wrought with so many dangerous assumptions about the female body, the uncontrollability of human desire, and the ease with which lies can be transformed into truths.

Works Cited

Fincher, David (2014). Gone Girl. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Flynn, Gillian (2012). Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishers.

Gloudeman, Nikki (2014). “Gone Girl’s Rape Problem.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nikki-gloudeman/gone-girls-rape-problem_b_5942510.html

Maxwell, Zerlina (2014). “Rape Culture is Real.” Time. http://time.com/40110/rape-culture-is-real/

Smith, Joan (2014). “Gone Girl’s recycling of rape myths is a disgusting distortion.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/06/gone-girl-rape-domestic-violence-ben-affleck