I still remember my innocent and wannabe middle-school self watching Kesha’s notorious “Tik Tok” music video; to me, she seemed confident and brazenly sexual—an unstoppable party animal. But in 2014, when the news broke that Kesha was a victim of sexual assault, that image was shattered. As it turned out, this overly sexualized persona was not an image the pop star had freely chosen.
In fact, her image had been forced on her by a predatory producer, Lukasz Sebastian, with the rapacious music industry behind him. After a long battle with Sebastian, whom she had accused of emotional and sexual abuse, Kesha learned that her request for an injunction—an order that would free her from him and allow her to make music with other producers—had been denied.
The judge who denied the injunction, Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich of the New York Supreme Court, noted that Sony Corporation had already agreed that Kesha could produce her music with other producers under the Sony umbrella, and that the court was being asked “to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry.” While there may be some technical legal merit to this conclusion, the answer minimizes and ignores the sexual and emotional assaults that were at play.
The contract was not the only thing that was typical, as Kesha’s case reflects a wider and more disturbing problem with the way both the music industry and our legal system deny the prevalence and trauma of sexual assault. Kesha may be a young female celebrity in the spotlight, but her situation is no different from the devastating reality that most women face when dealing with sexual abuse. And for many victims, Kesha’s story is a disturbing illustration of how the legal system may discourage victims of sexual assault from stepping forward and telling the truth about their trauma. If a court deems that asking for a separation from a producer who is powerful enough to rape an artist and avoid the consequences would “decimate” “typical” commercial contracts in the music industry, maybe there is a serious problem with these “typical” contracts. When there are allegations of rape, a judge could grant a symbolic injunction formally permitting the artist to be free of her contractual obligations, but require her to pay damages if, at the end of the case, it turns out she had fabricated her story.
While neither Kesha’s struggle nor her case won in the legal world, the judge’s decision created an uproar against Sebastian, with both fans and celebrities flocking to her support. By turning to social media, her story was taken to a virtual “court” where the hashtag #freekesha has gone viral. On social media, the 21st century’s most powerful platform for civil and political advocacy, celebrities and fans alike have gathered to show support for Kesha in the form of retweets, likes, and shares. In the grander scheme of things, when our courts fail, when our employers silence us, when corporate greed stifles us, this virtual stage is the fastest and the loudest stage for individuals from all walks of life—from the rarified celebrity to everyday teenage girl—to find common ground.
Today, to raise awareness for any cause, the best way to focus public attention to a wider social movement seems clear: Get a hashtag going. From the hashtags #blacklivesmatter to #prayforparis to #lovewins, we are finding that our message speaks loudest and clearest when we distill it in the fewest of words. Hashtags also usually encapsulate a larger movement for the invisible victims who don’t have their own personal hashtags for the battles they are dealing with. While some argue that the instant global reach of digital media just triggers an avalanche of automatic likes and mindless support, others claim that this is the digital age’s vehicle for people to express solidarity or outrage with the world.
Kesha’s case is both singular and universal in terms of how today’s society deals with all public and private issues. She received attention because of her fame, but with the attention she received, a light was shed on the situation of all sexual abuse victims. And because of the spotlight her issue has received, a new message is clear: Regardless of what happens in the courts, public opinion—magnified by social media—will speak louder and spread the message faster every time, helping victims claim victory over the injustices they face. And because of this, maybe future silent victims, future innocent middle-schoolers, and all the future Keshas will come together and win the right to speak out against injustices.