When I was in first year in college, I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew, a fourth year student, at a small party. Seeing him around college for the remainder of his final year was difficult. I didn't make a complaint about him. I didn't contact the police. I didn't realise that what he had done was an actual crime, such is how sexual violence is woven into the tapestry of our culture. When I did tell a few friends about it, none of them mentioned reporting him either. Their reaction was a shrug and a "he's done that to loads of girls" and "they're all like that". No-one was too bothered. It's just what happened in college. I wanted to shrug it off too but I didn't have the privilege of being able to.
Seven years later and I walked into my part time job one morning. There he was, sitting at a desk in the tiny staff room. My stomach immediately flipped and I stood frozen, doubting my reality. I thought he lived abroad. I thought I was safe. I scurried to my spot and dumped my folders on the desk with shaking hands. I got on with my work, staring hard at the words on the page, filling my mind with preparations for the day, repeating gibberish so as not give any mental space to him, over there, at the desk, five feet away.
It was not unusual to have extra staff in for a few days for cover, and I was hoped this was the case. The thought of telling my boss what happened, what he did, what it felt like for me to work alongside him, was unthinkable. The embarrassment of it. Causing a fuss. Creating a scene. Attention-seeking. Whinging. Thinking I deserved special treatment. A victim. I told myself that I was competent at my job. I told myself that I was not weak. I couldn't let myself or my colleagues down by bringing such grimness into our lovely workplace. I loved the job, and I loved my colleagues. I didn't want anything to change. I had been happy that morning, looking forward to my day. Now I was anxious, afraid, and disoriented, and felt totally and utterly powerless. It was happening again. He held the power, I had none. I was stuck, couldn't move. It was happening again. I had to deal with the consequences privately, while he could do whatever he liked. It was happening again.
What followed was a few days of intense tension. I gave myself motivational talks on the walk to work. I imagined all sorts of potential scenarios and figured out what I could do and say and how I could do and say it in each one. My work suffered, particularly as the clock ticked towards break and lunch times. His location in the building consumed my thoughts. He was only rostered for a couple of days and then left, never to be seen in that particular institution again. The impact of having to work alongside him, even for a few days, was enormous.
Sony won't let US pop singer Kesha negotiate a new contract to avoid working under Dr Luke, the producer who she complains drugged and raped her over a period of ten years. She has to make another six albums with him. She can't escape, she can't quit, she can't call in sick. The judge said that he didn't see evidence of "irreparable harm".
This is a sad indictment of a society that would place an alleged rapist's entitlements at a higher priority than the rape victim's right to feel safe, to thrive, to live free from fear, and to work in an environment conducive to good mental health. It's another nudge and a wink to those among us who sexually offend. Don't worry, the nudge says, if you have money and power you won't lose out. It's another message to rape survivors and future rape victims that their needs will likely never come first, and will certainly never take priority over money and status. Sony could be the hero and make all of this better for Kesha, but they won't. The judge could have been the bastion of compassion, as Kesha sobbed in the courtroom, and made it just and right, but she didn't. Because emotional safety doesn't matter. The vicious impact of trauma doesn't matter. People's mental health doesn't matter. Dr Luke owns Kesha's creative product. He will make money on every record she makes She has a long horrific road ahead before being able to move on and be free from him. And every single person of decision-making capabilities in this case knows it.
We can put the whole Kesha thing over there in the US, separate from us, but what it comes down to is familiar and simple: a woman not wanting to work with someone who she says sexually abused her. She is not alone. So many people continue working with someone who has sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped them. We go to college with them, sit next to them in class, nurse them, teach them, clean for them, assist them. We remain silent, scared that if we don't, we will lose our jobs, the professional respect we have earned, our friendships, promotions, our social life, our partners, our status. So we don't say a word and we try to cope as best as we can. We normalise it for each other to make it manageable. We shrug and shake our heads. It's just what happens.
I am done with this. I am done. Kesha has received the most cruel of all imagined conclusions, and her courtroom sobs are a warrior cry to all who suffer quietly, swallowing their trauma back down their throats on the bus journey into work and feel the heat of indignant fury in their chests for the journey home. We can't be what we can't see. When one speaks out, she inadvertently gives permission to the rest of us. Let's speak out. We are stronger together. We have to shout, and we have to fight, we have to kick up a fuss and make scene, because our psychological and physical safety, and our future, is more important than keeping other people comfortable, than not rocking the boat, than a job, or a contract, or whether our boss likes us or not. We have to be unafraid of losing everything, because as soon as we have reached the point of having nothing to lose and nothing to prove, we are at our most fearless, and we are most feared by those who dare to hurt us, and those who think they'll get away with it.
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