When Lady Gaga sang The Hunting Ground anthem, “’Til It Happens to You,” at the Oscars—flanked by sexual assault survivors onstage who had words such as “unbreakable” written on their arms—it was a seminal moment for anyone whose life has been touched by sexual violence. The song (and Gaga’s own story of sexual assault) has been a powerful source of solidarity for fellow survivors and a cultural touchstone on which to build the foundation of a meaningful dialogue about our society’s continued silence about rape.
It was a powerful moment. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t the only story about rape in our collective consciousness in recent weeks.
On February 19, New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich ruled that pop star Kesha Rose Sebert would have to fulfill her contract with her alleged rapist and producer Dr. Luke, born Lukasz Gottwald. In her ruling, the judge said, “You’re asking the court to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry.” This means that Kesha will have to complete her contract with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records—working directly with him as he produces her music.
In a social media heartbeat, millions of Kesha fans, rape survivors and feminists rallied behind the #FreeKesha hashtag in solidarity and righteous indignation. Even Lady Gaga said she’d be thinking of Kesha during her Oscar performance. How can a business deal be worth more than a person getting raped, people demanded to know. Remember, kids, the first rule of Rape Club is that nobody talks about getting raped. The second rule, apparently, is that snitches get forced to work with their rapist—or end their careers.
Public sympathy for Kesha’s situation has echoed across social media and there has been an equal and opposite reaction to Gottwald. He has done little to help himself in the wake of the ruling, especially in making a classic sexist blunder in a Tweet on February 22: “I have three sisters, a daughter, and a son with my girlfriend, and a feminist mom who raised me right.” (Welp, that settles it. No rapist in the history of the world has had a mom.) And in a far more sinister turn, Teen Vogue published Gottwald’s deleted tweets dating back to 2009, when Kesha alleges the sexual abuse began. They include a photo of an unconscious Kesha with the caption text, “Damn my artists work hard!!!!!!!!”
Worse still, this is not the first time in the age of social media that our collective anger has been stoked by the complete failure of the criminal justice system to hold rapists accountable. When Hannibal Buress’ bit about Bill Cosby’s long history of alleged rapes went viral, it launched a wave of more than 50 alleged victims–spanning decades–to come forward.
While it has been cathartic to rape victims everywhere to see mainstream comedians such as Larry Wilmore and Judd Apatow launch spirited, relentless campaigns against Cosby, an even more surprising turn is that rather than it blowing over and fading away like so many rape stories, this one has taken root in a way that could actually bring justice for at least a few of the victims. Not only have we now learned about a 2005 deposition in which Cosby admits to drugging alleged rape victims–with absolutely no action taken by prosecutors–it has caused some jurisdictions to investigate potential charges. Cosby faces sexual assault charges in Pennsylvania and an ongoing investigation and case in Massachusetts.
After decades of Cosby’s alleged victims trying to get justice, it would be a little joke going viral on social media that topples one of America’s most beloved entertainers. And it might just bring justice for women who have been waiting for years, even decades, to be believed.
Nonetheless, as the social media war between Kesha and Gottwald escalates, she still has to go back to work with him. If millionaire pop stars can’t get justice, what hope is there for the rest of us? And the hardest question of all: When will we begin seeing rape victims as people who deserve not only to be heard, but to get the justice they deserve?