Out of Options

Illustrator: Helen Teague

Illustrator: Helen Teague

There was widespread outrage and disbelief when the news broke that pop star Kesha would not be let out of her contract with Sony subsidiary Kemosabe Records. The grueling case began back in October 2014 with Kesha’s allegations of rape and sexual assault against producer Luke Gottwald, known professionally as Dr. Luke. New York Supreme Court Judge Shirley Kornreich ruled that the contract with Kemosabe would be upheld despite the allegations and Kesha’s plea to be released on the grounds of feeling unsafe. Though she has been allowed the concession of working with a different producer, her work will remain tied to Gottwald’s label for the duration of her contract—a minimum of four more albums.

In the aftermath of the trial results, Kesha released a statement on Facebook thanking her fans for their support. But in her comments on the case, she emphasized a key point of her perspective on the outcome: “This issue is bigger than just about me.” Her words certainly hold truth. Though her case has garnered more than the usual amount of attention due to her star status, the complications and failings it presents are in no way unique or unheard of. On the contrary, the results of the trial illustrate the failings of the criminal justice system in protecting individuals from corporate interest and rape culture.

Some have pointed out the weak nature of the compromise to allow Kesha to produce music without Gottwald’s physical presence, though still with his label. Though she wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the same room as him, everything she produced would benefit him financially. And this is the uncontested point in the case. Judge Kornreich admitted to Kesha’s lawyer that her inclination is to “do the commercially reasonable thing.” But in this case, the commercially reasonable thing is to allow a person to continue paying dues to their own alleged abuser. Unfortunately, there is a long history of corporations being treated as people in legal matters. The trouble is that corporate interests will always hold more sway than individuals because there is more money at stake and because their contracts are well documented and, in many cases, indisputable.

Kornreich pointed to this in her statement to Kesha’s lawyer: “You’re asking the court to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry.”  But that description, “typical for the industry,” underlines the problem here. To view these contracts and corporate interests as solid and irrefutable precludes any discussion on ways that cases like this can consider the needs of individuals. How is Kesha, or anyone for that matter, supposed to see a legal option as a viable chance if corporate contracts are held to such a high level of infallibility?

But Kesha’s case was not a mere contract dispute. This was an effort to escape the influence of the physical and emotional abuse that Kesha alleges to have experienced at the hands of Gottwald. Unfortunately, the legal history for sexual abuse cases does not set an encouraging precedent. One analysis of data from the American Justice Department showed that for every 100 cases of rape, only an estimated five cases lead to felony convictions. A key reason for this? Rape is a crime that is often committed with no other witnesses. In addition to that complication, the stigma of sexual assault causes many to hide the crime for a period of time, making evidence for a prosecution more difficult to find.

How is Kesha, or anyone for that matter, supposed to see a legal option as a viable chance if corporate contracts are held to such a high level of infallibility?

And this is where the criminal justice system fails yet again. We make efforts to empower victims to speak up about their sexual assault so their abuser doesn’t get off, yet are unable in most cases to prosecute. This inability to meet the victim’s courage with the promised conviction perpetuates the normalcy of rape culture and the fear of speaking out against it. Of course the law has to respect evidence and the concept of assumed innocence; however, it does not follow that we should be content with such inadequacy in response.

For every 100 cases of rape, only an estimated five cases lead to felony convictions.

Maybe Kesha’s case followed the letter of the law in its proceedings, and maybe the contract was “typical for the industry.” Maybe there is no hard evidence of sexual assault against Kesha by Gottwald. But the inability for any other outcomes to be expected is why the system has failed her. If there is to be trust in the legal system to deliver justice fairly, even in cases against powerful institutions and common practices, a conversation needs to be had about how to protect and promote the voices of individuals.