cw: sexual assualt
On the morning of Friday the 13th, I woke up to the Internet. This is a bad idea on a good day, but, on this particular day, it was poison. I am surrounded by some pretty decent people, blokes included, so I will forget, sometimes, the nasty thoughts people hold in their hearts.
What I watched was a video of American Indian women talking about their experiences with rape and sexual assault. What I read were the comments. All of them. Every single one, even the threads that had replies in the hundreds. It was like falling down the stairs in the dark. Suddenly the floor disappears beneath your feet. As you tumble into the void, each step rears up and beats your body. You cannot stop it, and the end comes just as unexpectedly as the beginning. You sit at the bottom, bruised and throbbing, wondering how you got there, knowing there is no good reason; and, yet, here you are…
Man after man (and yes, men, this is endemic in your gender–don’t blind yourself with #NotAllMen–do something about it) questioned their stories, suggested the women should have murdered the perps, placed blame on “illegals,” argued against the statistics, wondered if they had been asking for it, demanded to know why they hadn’t reported the crimes immediately, &c., &c.
This frequent digest is not new for me. Over the years, I have sought out and processed dozens of narratives of assault (not least because they have come up so frequently in the recent news). The truth is, I have been struggling to come to terms with events that happened to me years ago–struggling to define it, to contextualize it, to put a name to it and move on. I remember every single detail, and, yet, I still grapple with the question: What actually happened?
Was it assault? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not.
Was it nothing? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not.
Should I tell people? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not.
The statute of limitations for feeling bad about this is up.
– Christina Tesoro, “Not So Bad”: On Consent, Non-Consent, and Trauma, The Toast
After unsuccessfully relating these experiences to two friends–coincidentally (or not) these friends were both men–I decided to wait to speak up again until I knew the answers, until I could look back and be sure. Rather than talk it out with other people, I scanned article after article, my face a bright moon in the dark of my apartment, reflecting the blue light of my computer screen. Some of these articles were written by people I knew. Still, I lurked, always silent. I did not want to cheapen their narratives with my not knowing.
It has been exactly four years and five days since the first incident. I still haven’t found the right words, but I did find a very unexpected rainbow amidst the bewilderment and confusion.
I don’t remember when, exactly, I stumbled across Kesha’s story. I never downloaded or streamed any of her music. It was fun to bop around to in the bowling alley or processing film in the darkroom, but I preferred tunes of the acoustic variety. I sought lyrics that told stories and used words like “gloaming.” I was neither hot nor dangerous. I was, honestly, quite dowdy and very safe. The wildest thing I ever did in college was steal toilet paper and pizza from the dining hall.
That said, I noticed her absence.
When I learned that she was embroiled in a legal battle against her producer, Dr. Luke, over alleged sexual assault and verbal abuse, that she had sought treatment for an eating disorder, I immediately felt connected to her. I read article after article about power dynamics in the entertainment industry, the gaslighting and shaming of strong and vibrant women. I devoured any new information about the case that leaked. I cried (softly, briefly) alone when she lost.
The first single from Kesha’s new album dropped a few months ago, and I hesitated to click. While I had identified strongly with her struggle, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to say the same about her music. Weeks went by before I finally took the plunge.
I was at my parents’ house. It was late and everyone had already gone to bed. I was reveling in the experience of surfing the net from the comforts of home. I clicked. I listened. Time stopped.
Praying is not just a song. It is a powerful declaration of agency in the midst of uncertainty, an unequivocal proclamation of self. Stripped of the usual, often robotic trappings of pop music, Kesha belts out her strength and endurance in such a raw and human way that I was taken off guard. My eyes watered as she quietly sang of pride; a chill shot down my spine when she screamed the high note at the dramatic climax of the ballad; but my favorite moment by far was the sigh at the very end, so soft yet alive. I heard that sigh, and I felt relief.
If the morning of Friday the 13th started badly, it ended sweetly.
I had purchased tickets to see Kesha in Lakewood because I wanted to support her attempts to reinvent herself after her trial. When I received a complimentary copy of her new album, Rainbow, in the mail, I was even more jazzed to see her live. Unlike many young artists who transform their image, Kesha does not throw herself fully into a sober, white-clad purity. While she experiments with new sounds on the album, she doesn’t abandon the poppy beats that defined her earlier career. Rainbow confronts some heavy topics, but it is also infused with joy, irony, and reckless abandon. It is a very human album that deals as much with love, lust, and levity as it does with pain and redemption.
What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that Rainbow belies the typical narrative we demand of women who experience trauma. A woman should not have to bear the burden of perpetual seriousness to prove themselves. Having been hurt does not mean a woman can’t still boogie.
I arrived at the concert venue by bike, as I had planned to do ever since I purchased my ticket. As I stood in line, sandwiched between a group of chatty highschoolers in matching white bandeaus and men with more glitter in their beards than beard hairs, I realized that I may be the only person in the entire auditorium that was new to this. Unlike everyone else, I didn’t know the lyrics to the Kesha classics. I could sort of fumble my way through Tik Tok, but Take it Off was beyond my capabilities. None of that mattered. I could have arrived in a business suit and still have fit in. Everyone came dressed as themselves. That was the magic of it.
Sadly, some people were not as generous as others. The opening band was objectively terrible, but having to hear the kids behind me complaining about it for an hour and booing loudly was really not cool. When, halfway through their set, the audience began chanting for Kesha to come on, I had to wonder if anyone in the building had ever been to a concert before. It’s one thing to be excited to see your pop idol perform live. It’s another to let that enthusiasm crush the spirit of someone else. Unfortunately, I witnessed this a million times over as the teenagers behind me disparaged the woman next to me for screaming too loudly, and the woman retaliated by calling them bitches (rinse and repeat the entire concert–Kesha’s urging us to love one another was clearly lost on them).
Despite the pettiness of my particular row, the concert was amazing. Held in the auditorium of a high school, all the proceeds from the concessions went to benefit the school’s arts program. There was no alcohol served, and I was the most sober I’d ever been for live music. The backdrop was simple–a rainbow curtain and two large, glittering gold stars, accented at various moments by showers of glitter and confetti, and–to Kesha’s teary-eyed surprise–a sea of paper-cut hearts held up at just the right moment. Exactly like the album, the concert was the perfect mix of revelry and realness.
I loved it.
While I was standing in the audience, a glitterless void, I questioned why I had come. Was I a real fan if I didn’t like her older music? Did my understated outfit and serious demeanor preclude me from the ranks of her dedicated fanbase? I was on the verge of having no fun at all when I realized that it didn’t matter when her music had touched me. Regardless of when it first happened, everyone in the audience was there, like me, because Kesha had empowered them, had offered them a safe place to belong. Whether it was in 2010 or 2017, for all of us, Kesha had been a rainbow during dark times. We were all there to thank her.
As I biked home, the headlamp attached to my handlebars lighting my way, I let myself coast downhill. For the first time in a while, I waited to use my breaks and let my speed lift my hair from the back of my neck as cool air filled my lungs. When the road finally leveled and my bike slowed to a stop, I sighed, so softly it was barely audible.
The world is a tough place, but some things, many things, are a-okay.