Today’s guests: Mary Elizabeth Williams, writer at Salon.com and author of “A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles”; Ashley Ford, writer at Elle Magazine, Lenny Letter, The Guardian and BuzzFeed, columnist at Design Sponge; Mattie Kahn, news writer at Elle.com and MR contributor
To catch you up: In 2014, the singer Kesha filed a lawsuit against her former producer, Dr. Luke (whose real name is Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald). She claimed that he physically and sexually assaulted her, and that it began “soon after she signed with him, when she was 18,” according to The Guardian. During the court case, Kesha requested release from her recording contract with Dr. Luke and Kemosabe Records. (Kemosabe Records is owned by Sony). On Friday, February 19, 2016, Kesha’s request was denied by a New York judge. The Internet erupted in her defense with the movement #FreeKesha.
Leandra Medine: In thinking through everything Kesha is going through, I can’t help but feel helpless, and I hate that feeling. How can I behave proactively? If Kesha were my best friend, or your best friend, how would you or I support her? What would we do? And how can we apply what happens in this conversation to the relationships that we’re already part of? Because we’re around abuse all the time — for every public incident, there are thousands that go unacknowledged. How do we use not just our voices, but our hands, bodies and minds to support one another?
Mattie Kahn, political writer for Elle.com and frequent Man Repeller contributor: We still are in a culture where we subtly tell women to keep things like this to themselves. We reinforce ways to let them keep it to themselves and not tell their friends and feel like they can deal with it on their own. How can we be the kinds of friends and the kind of community where women feel able to open up in the way that Kesha has before you get to court, and if you’re not a famous pop star? I feel like that’s what’s hardest for me here. I think to myself, “Who do I know that’s going through something like this and I have no idea?”
Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon.com writer, mother of two: Right. Another thing this case sheds light on is that abuse and your career are treated as separate things, that being sexually assaulted or sexually abused or emotionally abused is something that happens in your relationships and it doesn’t have any impact on your work life or your career — and that’s completely not true.
We don’t talk about the fact that this happens in your academic career, your professional career. The fact that it’s not brought up, that women aren’t taught that this could be part of your job, that this could be part of your work experience, is shocking.
Mattie: Sexual assault: not just in your free time.
Mary Elizabeth: Exactly! It’s not just in your off-hours; it doesn’t just happen on the weekend. It’s where you go every day and have to face the person who’s doing these things to you.
Ashley Ford, freelancer writer: It’s also a matter of the people who employ you, because part of the problem here is Sony. Clearly there’s a big issue between Dr. Luke and Kesha, but Sony is who she’s in court with — it’s not really Dr. Luke at this point, at least not the court case that we’re talking about.
There’s something to be said about employers, or the people who hold the contracts and how they react to women’s safety and how they react to a woman’s agency.
The first year that I moved here, I was assaulted on the train coming home late from work. At first I didn’t know how to deal with it and I didn’t know what I should do and I didn’t feel okay. I had just moved to New York. I had just gotten off crutches so I could barely walk. But at my job — I was at BuzzFeed at the time — once I let them know what was happening, my job provided me time to not come to work for a little while so that I could, like, work on myself and be okay. They also let me know, “If you have trouble getting on the train, if you need to take a car, we can reimburse you for that.” That was something…
Mary Elizabeth: That’s phenomenal.
Ashley: Yeah, it was phenomenal. I was telling friends and family how BuzzFeed did this for me and they were like, wow that’s insane, that’s crazy! But then there were other people who were like, imagine what it would be like if that wasn’t crazy and if that wasn’t insane and if every woman knew that her job would take her seriously in a situation like this. Not just take what she says seriously, but take her well-being seriously. Because the biggest problem right now is that, no matter what the contract says, her well-being is at stake and Sony, in my opinion, is not taking her well-being seriously.
Mary Elizabeth: The idea that well-being is a default that we don’t think about is just incredible. Emotional well-being, freedom from harassment, freedom from abuse are human rights issues. When we move toward a workplace that protects women, we’re protecting everybody. And I feel like part of getting people to get this through their thick sculls is by saying, “This is not just a women’s issue. This is for the 18-year-old boy who just got signed, too.”
Mattie: I do find it upsetting that for the most part, the responsibility is so heavily put upon women to be supportive in this situation. I’ve seen so many articles like, “Will so-and-so speak out because she’s also signed by Sony, or by Dr.Luke?” What about all of the men who are signed by Sony and have nothing to say? It should be everyone’s job, whether you have any affiliation or not. And I feel like, yes, the sisterhood is powerful and I’m awed by it all the time, but I want humanity to be part of this.
Ashley: Absolutely. What bothers me most about this tendency to call out women, specifically — especially when people were calling out Taylor Swift to say something or do something about it — is that you don’t know Taylor Swift’s story; you don’t know if Taylor Swift has had a situation similar to Kesha. You have no idea. You have no idea what’s triggering for her, or what could be.
I’m obviously not saying anything has ever happened to Taylor Swift, but when I think about the group of women I know and the group of women I’ve grown up with, or the group of women I talk to online, in my opinion, there’s no reason to ever interact with a women and assume that never in a million years could something like that have happened to her.
So I try to be careful about what I say to women and what I ask of women in these situations. I try to think about their well-being and their safety and how I can’t make another woman feel unsafe just because I want to assume that she’s the right person to say something or the right person to do something. So yeah, it’s one thing to say, “I think more women should come out and talk about this,” or, “These are some of the women who I think it would be great if they said something.” It’s another thing to target particular women and come at them over and over, basically telling them, “Until you say something, you ain’t shit.”
Amelia Diamond: When abuse is involved, any time someone does feel comfortable coming forward, I think that that’s a good thing and a healthy thing. But there has to be another message that lets women know, “You do not have to come forward if you don’t want to. You don’t have to participate in this conversation. Do what is most comfortable for you.”
When we talk about taking care of anyone who’s endured some sort of trauma, that includes saying, “Part of you taking care of yourself means that you get to choose speaking out or not.”
Mary Elizabeth: There are very real consequences that still exist for women when they do speak out. I see it all the time with the kind of abuse that writers on this subject matter receive. Any woman who doesn’t want to say something, you have my full support on that, whatever it is, because these assholes will come at you with everything that they’ve got.
The reality is that most of us don’t have the privilege of being protected when we make more public actions or statements.
Leandra: These huge media frenzies remind me a little bit of when Jewish people sit shiva, because during that week-long period, when the wound is still so fresh, you’re overwhelmed and distracted by the support. It’s when the dust settles and you’re left to reconcile the pieces of the loss that you need the most help. So Kesha might be feeling fiercely overwhelmed and supported by the women like Lena Dunham who have publicly pledged their allegiance to her. But what happens when the Internet moves on? Who’s there for her? What do we do? Does she continue creating? How can she continue creating?
Ashley: When I think about that, I think about the before. The before this moment, before she came out with these allegations. Sometimes I wonder how many of the people who are supporting her now — and I’m not saying they’re wrong to support her now and I’m absolutely not saying that what you’ve done before affects whether or not you should support her now, but I’m saying that it’s important to think about what kind of things were being said about her before she came forward versus the kinds of things being said about her now. I wonder how many of those people before had called her a slut and called her a whore.
I wonder if anybody recognizes how the things we say about women, or the things we call women, or the words we associate with them really do affect women.
Why can we only be civil with a women who makes music if we find out she’s been abused, if we find out she’s been hurt in some way? Why does that suddenly humanize her in a way that she wasn’t before? Like why are we so hungry for her pain and for her suffering?
Leandra: We start to see ourselves in the pain and suffering.
Mattie: Yeah but more than that, aren’t we complicit, then, in creating a culture that feeds into…
Ashley: Yeah, that’s rape culture. We’re all complicit in rape culture.
Mattie: So after the dust settles from this and whatever Kesha does next, are we going to say we’ve learned something from this? That we’re going to take some kind of stand and not talk about women that way?
Ashley: Most people won’t. Most people will refuse to see the connection between their behavior and what’s happening in that court room. And it’ll seem really foreign. They’re not thinking about, like you said before, women at work, or women who are in situations every day that require them to deal with a lot of the same things Kesha dealt with or is dealing with, but there’s no star label and no media frenzy around what’s happening to them. We’ll see something happen to somebody in the office and not make the connection between what’s happening to Rose the Receptionist and Kesha’s court case with Dr. Luke.
Leandra: What do you feel like you needed from your support system after you’d been assaulted?
Ashley: I guess, mostly what I needed was for people to listen to me when I said what I wanted. That was a big deal because people will thrust upon you their idea of the way to be there for you right now, even if it’s something you don’t want. I was more scared of that. Before I talked about what happened to me, I was more scared of that than I was scared of people abandoning me. I wasn’t scared of people being like, “She got assaulted on the train, I’m never talking to her again.” That wasn’t the fear. The fear was: somebody would decide that they knew what I needed without conferring with me and I would feel even more powerless and I would feel like I lost even more agency. That’s not what I wanted.
In my opinion, the thing Kesha probably wants more than anything is the same thing you would want from any kind of ally: I want you to listen to me and have my back. And when I tell you what I need and want, I need you to trust me, and I need you to give me some of my power back by trusting me and by allowing me to decide what healing looks like, what fighting looks like.
Leandra: What if you don’t know what healing looks like? What fighting looks like?
Ashley: Sometimes you just need people to be there for you, with you.
Leandra: Right, so you’re looking for empathy. In the wake of tragedy or loss or anything deeply painful and personal, all you want is empathy. But you don’t actually know what healing looks like. You don’t know what’s going to make you happy. You don’t know what it’s going to take to get you out of bed in the morning with that spring in your step. You don’t know if you’ll feel happiness again!
Ashley: What I found is that when you’re having a tough time, you do want to try things. Even if trying things means, “I just want to see if I’ll feel better if I lay in bed by myself for a few days.” You know what I mean? There’s some drive. You do want to feel better, you do want to try things. And I think that’s when that trust comes in with your friends. When you tell them, “I just need to do this for two days. And you can text me, you can call me, whatever. Sometimes I’m not going to pick up the phone. Sometimes I’m not going to return the text because I can’t. And I need you to know that has nothing to do with you. I need that to not be the end of our friendship. I need you to trust right now that I’m doing my best to take care of me and if I don’t know what that looks like, maybe I’m trying a bunch of shit and I don’t know what’s going to stick. And I just need you to have my back.”
Truly having someone’s back and truly being kind enough to have someone’s back when they’re going through something hard, it doesn’t always feel comfortable. People like directions! They want you to say, “If you bring me dinner that would be the best thing you could do for me.”
Mary Elizabeth: “That will fix it!”
Ashley: “That will fix it.” That’s what people want to hear. And they have to be able to sit in that uncomfortable place of hearing someone that they love say, “I don’t know how you can help me but I love you and I just need you to have my back.”
Amelia: No unsolicited, “You should’s.” No, “You should do this; you should do that.”
Leandra: Which totally minimizes the feeling.
Mary Elizabeth: I’ve been in situations where people would say to me, “Just take it easy today.” And I want to be like, “Telling me to ‘take it easy’ is just giving me one more thing to do today.” People want to help, but it’s about saying, “I’m just going to sit with you. And I hear you, and I don’t need to fix you and I don’t need to change you and I don’t need to make this better because this is a shitty situation that is not going to get better by any magical thing that I do. So I’m just here with you.”
Amelia: I’ve seen so much support online. So much. But I once read something that really struck me — something along the lines of how society is so trained in “innocent until proven guilty” that we forget that this assumes the victim who came forward is lying. There’s a very heavy inclination for everyone to doubt someone who comes forward as abused or assaulted. Society is much more likely to respond with doubt. With, “I know you feel that way, but are you sure that’s what really happened?” It’s way less likely to hear, “You’re right. If you feel that way, you’re right. Now let’s investigate.”
That’s what’s dangerous and what’s scary about coming forward: you’re much more likely to be assumed wrong or lying.
Ashley: And you get accused of wanting attention or trying to fuel your career. I think that a big part of it is that people don’t understand what a woman goes through, especially in a really public arena, when you decide to say, “Someone raped me.” They don’t understand how your life implodes the minute you publicly say something like that. If people really understood what happens to women when they stand up and say something, I think they would never again accuse a woman of doing it for some sort of monetary or attention-seeking reason.
Mattie: What I’m always struck by is that your whole life becomes evidence in the pro or con list toward whether you’re telling the truth. Did you once cheat on a test? Are you the kind of person who drinks a lot? Every life decision you’ve made now becomes a factor in your telling of what happened. Your whole life becomes proof on one column or another. No one would ever choose to have their life looked at like that.
Leandra: I guess then the question becomes: what does media do to these situations? Is it a good thing that they publicize them so acutely?
Ashley: Umm, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think how we report on it is important.
Mary Elizabeth: And who’s telling the story.
Ashley: Yes, who’s telling the story. And publications should think about the story that they’re choosing to tell. What may get the clicks is not always the most responsible angle to take. For publications, it’s more about how they report than how much they report on it.
I want more people to know that this is happening. And I want more people to understand that this can happen to women in shitty contracts and situations. I want people to understand that part of the problem with thinking, “She’s rich, so why can’t she just X?,” is that for every rich woman, there are a hundred men who are ten times richer in this country.
Mary Elizabeth: And behind her there are a hundred thousand women who don’t have her agency and who don’t have her voice. I feel like in the past year, with the accusations made against Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi and James Deen, there is some momentum happening where we’re creating a culture that allows women to come forward and say, “We are not going to shut up.”
Ashley: Men are still, especially in creative industries, in control. My friend Rachel Syme was just tweeting about how important it is to pay women to make the culture and to pay women as well as men for their creative endeavors. (She wrote an article about it in December, too.) And that goes for people of color, that goes for queer people, that goes for differently-abled people. It’s important to do that because the people who have the money, especially in creative industries, are absolutely in control.
So it’s not just a matter of a man being my producer or being my boss and me being his artist, it’s also about the fact that if I have issues with him, and I need to talk to the person above him, those are all men who also don’t understand why I wouldn’t feel safe in this situation or why I can’t just put “personal” on the back burner and focus on business when I’m in the studio. But if a woman was funding this project, if this were a woman’s label, in my opinion, I think it would be a lot easier. I think there’s a much higher chance that if you come to a woman and say, “I don’t feel safe because of these things,” she’d be like, “We need to figure something out.” Not necessarily, “Oh, well fuck that, scrap your contract,” but, “Let’s figure out something that works for you.”
Mattie: Well one would hope. When I read that the judge on Kesha’s case was a woman, I was extra offended. I felt like, “How could you do this to us?” I don’t even know if that’s at all an appropriate response, but it definitely was my knee-jerk reaction.
Mary Elizabeth: There is a small population of evil people doing evil and getting away with it and being in a protective culture of evil. But around that, there is incompetence and insensitivity and laziness. I think laziness is a huge motive. Like, “We don’t want to rock the boat, we don’t want to change things,” because changing things is hard. That is one of the biggest evils in our world: a lack of thought, and masculine as the default. You see it everywhere. You see it in work, design, medicine, education, movies…everything. We assume that this world is for men.
Leandra: You spoke about your 16-year-old daughter before we were recording, Mary Beth. And you noted that when Kesha was signed, she was 18. What would you do if your daughter were in this situation?
Mary Elizabeth: There are so many things that I look at in my life and think to myself, “I can’t believe that my daughters are coming into this world with all this bullshit that my mother’s generation was fighting to change.” However, I do get really hopeful when I see the teenagers in my life because there is a lot of shit that they’re just not going to take.
Still, we have to teach them how to negotiate and how to build their own brands in a way that’s more independent.
Mattie: Whenever I have weighed any professional decision, I often ask people who I think know more about it than I do, and often that defaults — because of the way the professional landscape looks right now — to men. I wish there were a resource where you could say, “Listen. Woman to woman: I need you to read this contract or help make this decision with us in mind.” Is that an option?
Ashley: It should be.
Mary Elizabeth: It should be!
Ashley: It would be a great organization. When I start thinking solutions, I also start thinking services. What kinds of services do we offer women — paid or unpaid — to help them deal with stuff like this?” And I know women who are working on projects like that.
Because I live in New York City and I am involved in media, I get to meet women who are like, “I created something specifically for women to talk about finances and investments and contracts.” But when I was a receptionist in Indiana, I wouldn’t have known that this service was available to me. When I signed my contract with BuzzFeed, and thank god it wasn’t a terrible contract, but when I signed it, I didn’t know half of what was in it. I read it, and I knew it was important to read, but I wouldn’t say I understood half. And there were things that came up later where I was like, “Oh! Is that what I agreed to?”
It’s important that women have the opportunity to hand something over. I think part of the fear is that if we make too much trouble about a contract, for example, they are going to rescind the offer. Or that they are going to say, “I don’t know if she’s worth this.” I think women pay a different price for negotiation.
Mary Elizabeth: And the words that people use to describe women who ask questions are different.
Ashley: “She’s difficult.” I think maybe part of it is figuring out what it looks like to offer women a certain amount of legal safety.
Mary Elizabeth: I think that comes like 10 steps before — and that’s because I see it now not just through my own eyes, but also through my kids’ — where it’s like, you can’t get to a position of power when negotiating with a company like Sony music unless you have already built a foundation where you feel like you are allowed to ask questions. And you are allowed to be skeptical and ask questions and be confident enough in yourself that someone is not going to emotionally and financially manipulate you. That is ground work that has to be laid for years and years. That starts with not just teaching girls, but also teaching boys. It’s about teaching boys how to talk to women. Teaching everybody what is okay for everybody.
Mattie: I graduated college in May, so I have tons of friends who have just started really demanding jobs. The first thing asked when everyone gets together is, “How’s work? How hard is it? How late are you staying? How miserable are you? Let’s have a contest.” But what I feel I should be asking my friends is if they feel comfortable and safe at work. Are you doing well? Is anyone making you feel like you’re not doing well? Especially when you move to New York, there is a really competitive atmosphere and people pride themselves on what they can withstand.
Mary Elizabeth: There’s this expectation, especially when you are young, that your work place will be shitty and you will be abused.
Mattie: Right. “My boss is a nightmare. You’re not going to believe the thing he said to me.” And you trade on that. And part of what we all can do is change the way in which we react to those statements. Instead of saying, “Oh my god, me too, it’s such a nightmare,” ask, “How does that make you feel? Do you feel unprotected?”
Ashley: Or, “That’s not okay.”
Mattie: And that’s small but…
Leandra: It’s not that small.
Ashley: It’s not that small at all! Our first thought as women, especially in a situation that’s really messed up with a man who has any sort of authority over us, is to immediately think that we got something wrong. That we misunderstood or that we put ourselves in that position.
Mary Elizabeth: Or sent the wrong signal.
Ashley: It’s powerful to have somebody say, “That’s not okay.” A lot of times, we try to hide it. Like, “Oh, my boss grabbed my ass again, whatever,” and we all laugh. But if you have one person in that group who goes, “What? That’s not okay. He can’t do that to you,” then all of the sudden, you’re like, “Oh shit.”
Leandra: That shifts it.
Ashley: It shifts it to where it’s not the humorous, normal thing anymore. Somebody has hit the breaks on that joke and turned it into something real. You have to decide in that moment how ready you are to reckon with the reality that they just dropped on you. And it’s hard. But it feels good.
And if you do decide to reckon with it seriously, you can go back to that person who pointed it out and say, “Remember when I told you that thing? What should I do about it? I was thinking about talking to HR. Do you think that’s a good idea?” Just having somebody in your corner is so powerful.
Leandra: Think about every public case that comes out and ends in an unfortunate ruling and how many people are relegated back to, “I am not speaking up, because there is no version of reality where I feel comfortable speaking up after what I just saw happen.”
It’s probably more important than ever to be those woman having those conversations with their friends saying, “That’s not normal. It’s not cool that your boss made a comment about your chest.” We have to be those people, right?
Ashley: We do. It’s important to be those people. And it’s also important if, for no other reason, that you want somebody to be that person for you if you end up in the same situation.
Mary Elizabeth: Right, if you are too close to it to see. Everything I have read about Kesha’s narrative is that, I think, for years she didn’t even see it; she didn’t even know how bad it was.
Ashley: That’s how abuse works.
Mary Elizabeth: Right? Like, “How come you didn’t say anything 5 years ago? How come you said this in your deposition in 2011?” Because I don’t think she knew how bad it was, because no one was saying to her, “This is fucked up.”
Ashley: All you need is one friend to say, “I have the same job you have. Nobody does that to me.”
Mattie: Right. Because it is tempting to be like, “You don’t work in the same business. This is just the culture.”
Amelia: I think that part of what empathy also requires in these situations is that you the listener don’t put yourself too into someone else’s shoes, which means avoiding saying things like, “I would’ve kicked his ass. I would’ve immediately told someone or asked for help.” You never know until it’s you, and so what I think is most important is the listening, not assuming you know best, and asking how you can best support your friend.
There are so many bad things about the Internet, but one good thing is that it can offer an endless amount of support.
Leandra: And support from unlikely places. Unlikely, but very welcome places.
Mary Elizabeth: What concerns me is that I don’t want this to just be a week of hashtags where we all feel really good about ourselves for supporting somebody. I have been waiting for so long for things to change. And a lot of things have; a lot of amazing things have happened in my time that I would not have believed when I had just graduated from college. But sometimes I feel like we are moving backwards. And that concerns and scares me. I don’t want to feel like it is easy to have this public moment where we feel like, “We did it! We freed Kesha!” And it’s like, we didn’t.
Leandra: Well, there’s a passivity inferred by waiting and I think the digital moment makes us feel like we are not waiting, we are doing. But it goes away.
Mary Elizabeth: Right, but it’s not doing.
Leandra: It’s not. It’s like complaining: you feel like you’re getting things done by complaining about them, but once it’s been all aired out you still have to do all the stuff.
Ashley: It’s passive empathy versus active empathy.
Mary Elizabeth: You have to actually stay on the story — and our attention spans are all so short and pulled in one thousand different directions. What scares me is next week, who is going to care about Kesha? Or a year from now, if she’s able to produce something new, are we going to show up for her and listen to her then?
Amelia: It’s probably super naive of me to think this way, but when there’s a conversation like this one being shared, or an article like the one Lena Dunham wrote for Lenny Letter, the one thing that gives me some semblance of hope is seeing all the people who pass it on, tag a friend, post it to their Facebook. Speaking and reading about it these issues has to help change the narrative. Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone spends their life online in the same way that all of us do. But you just, on some level, have to hope that if someone shares a story, and because of that share, someone’s brother reads it and thinks, “That’s really messed up,” there is one more person affected, one more person who understands the difference between right and wrong.
Leandra: And celebrate those small victories.
Ashley: You have to! You will burn out if you don’t. The bad things are big and they are pervasive and they are not gone. We are still fighting them and we will be fighting them for a really long time. The only way to keep your energy is to recognize those little wins in your own way — and then get back to work.
Photograph via Charley Gallay/Getty Images North America; edited by Emily Zirimis.