On Privilege, Power, and Survivor Narratives

KeshaBy Kira Rakova

When Sony announced that they might be dropping Dr.Luke following Kesha’s allegations against him, I was ecstatic.  Despite the fact that Kesha had previously lost in the Sony contract case, Sony’s potential decision to drop Dr. Luke seems to be indicative of the fact that Kesha might get justice after all. Given the extensive reaches of rape culture in the United States, this is huge. By all means, #IStandWithKesha (and all other survivors of sexual and domestic violence). I want her to see justice. I want her to be given space to heal. I want her to get support in the forms that she wants it.

Yet I cannot help but question what her narrative would have looked like if she were not a white, young, able-bodied, rich, famous, cis-woman.
Often, the dominating discourse about sexual and domestic violence is one that is representative of those like Kesha (although perhaps not as wealthy or famous). In response to victim-blaming and rape-culture-infused backlash, the survivor-centric discourse, understandably, takes the position of unity. Unsurprisingly, the support individuals like Kesha receive comes from other white, able-bodied, privileged women, such as the numerous celebrities that have spoken up in her defense. Thus, the overall conversation becomes one of rape culture versus survivors as a group.

This position of unity, while understandable and important in terms of solidarity, support and healing, is also uncomfortably non-intersectional and homogenous.

Yes, all survivor narratives are valid. Yes, we should believe all survivors. Yes, there really is no way (nor need) to compare trauma. Yes, individuals like Kesha deserve our support.

But if we are to expand the discourse on the subject to include the rates of reporting, the forms of reporting, service provision, and the like, then we need to use an intersectional lens.

To some degree, privilege did not protect Kesha. Her whiteness, fame, money, and other privileges did not protect her. Not when she experienced violence at the hands of an older, white, wealthy man. And not when she sought institutional justice by asking to terminate her contract with him.

On the other hand, she has received enormous support from fans and others. #IStandWithKesha and #FreeKesha have trended on social media. Of course, this is partially indicative of the importance of activism and the power of social media, but more so it can be seen as a direct result of her particular positioning within society. Her fame has garnered her extensive support that most survivors cannot even imagine having.

Following the end of her case regarding her contract, Kesha issued a public statement. In it, she tells survivors to not “be afraid to speak out.” Although her intention was clearly to support other survivors, it still made me uncomfortable. What does it mean for someone as privileged as Kesha to tell other survivors to not be afraid to speak out? What does this suggest to survivors who cannot speak out in the traditional sense because of their financial situation, their family situation, their age, or any other number of circumstances? What about the survivors who have not yet reached the point where they want to speak about their experiences? What about survivors whose healing is not about being public about their narratives? In the end, reporting or speaking up about one’s rape is not the right decision for everyone.

Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality, wrote in the ‘90s about how the conflation within identity politics and feminism has led to erasure of narratives of women of color who have experienced violence. In her piece, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” she writes about how women of color’s identity overlaps in race and gender, making their experience with sexual and domestic violence different from that of white women.

She also notes how advocates from both the feminist and racial justice movements marginalize women of color who are survivors. For example, she explains how cultural and language barriers have discouraged immigrant women of color from reporting or reaching out to services. She also notes how communities of color are defined as being violent and thus reporting often upholds stereotypes and justifies police violence. Because of this, many Black and Brown women have been conditioned not to speak up about violence. When people with a significant amount of privilege advocate for survivors speaking out and especially when they advocate for reporting to police enforcement, they are ignoring these types of narratives.

More recently, the Violence Against Women Act has allowed for tribes to prosecute non-native perpetrators of violence. Not until 2015 were non-native perpetrators able to be persecuted by tribal justice systems. How many cases have been “lost” or prematurely closed prior to this? How many survivors have been discouraged from seeking justice? These survivors’ experiences are also erased from the mainstream discourse.

There are of course so many other nuances to this conversation. While increasing the number of police reports and public narratives is certainly important, it does little to address the underlying causes of rape and rape culture. With nearly a third of surveyed cis-men saying they would force a woman to have sex if there were no consequences, the need for consent education is blaringly obvious. The earlier we can start educating children about bodily autonomy and boundaries, the earlier we can start addressing the roots of sexual violence.

At the same time, the importance of alternative forms of justice, including restorative justice, cannot be minimized. For marginalized folks, these types of setting may be of particular importance because they are grounded in support systems that are often non-existent in the legal setting. Moreover, community accountability has been shown to be effective in not only calling out perpetrators of violence, but also supporting their transformation and education. In other words, community-based interventions are often more effective than the legal system in reducing cycles of violence (although I certainly do support all individuals who want to report).

All of these considerations must also be part of the larger discussion on privilege and power within the larger discourse on sexual and domestic violence. We cannot be supportive of survivors if we are not inclusive. If we are not addressing the particular needs of certain survivors by actively including the diverse experiences of survivors in our writing, community organizing, and policymaking, we are further marginalizing certain survivors. While narratives like Kesha’s are important and valid, we need to go beyond them and interrogate how we can create an affirmative-consent culture and survivor-centric spaces. We need spaces for survivors that focus on the specific, individual needs of each survivor, and that provide various alternatives for justice and healing, instead of just promoting institutional justice.