Would Criminalizing The Music Industry Protect Women?

By Noah Berlatsky

(Credit: Wikimedia)

Should young women be allowed to enter the music industry?

That seems like a preposterous question. But consider: Kesha, the successful and critically acclaimed artist behind hits like “Tik Tok” and “Die Young,” filed a lawsuit against her former producer Dr. Luke in October 2014, alleging that he had sexually, physically, and mentally abused her for a decade. Among many other charges, Kesha says Dr. Luke (real name Lukasz Gottwald) gave her pills that knocked her out; she later woke up in his bed with no recollection of how she’d gotten there. According to her lawyer, who on Friday sought a court injunction that would allow the singer to record new music without Dr. Luke or his label, “Kesha now faces an abysmal decision: work with her alleged abuser . . . or idly and passively wait as her career tick-tocks away.”

Luke is a hugely successful producer with an extensive roster of celebrities, including Britney Spears, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry. Kesha’s lawsuit also alleges that Sony music refused to take steps to stop the abuse, and even covered up for it. An allegation like this highlights a pervasive system of abuse and inequity that puts not just Kesha, but potentially a whole range of young stars in danger of violence at the hands of the very men who would help propel their careers. The situation is not rare; producers and managers like Phil Spector and Ike Turner have physically and mentally abused their artists for years. Their “commercial successes . . . bred an environment where their violent, abusive behavior was accepted,” writes Britt Julius in the Guardian. Shouldn’t there be laws in place to prevent women from entering an industry such as this where they can be abused and harmed?

It should be clear why this is a bad idea. Heavy-handed restrictions on women would hurt women, not protect them. To make it illegal for women to be musicians and pop stars would be abusive and unfair in itself.

And yet, when it comes to sex work, restricting women’s options in the name of “protecting” them is suddenly seen as reasonable, logical, and necessary.

Observer columnist Catherine Bennett, for example, argues that “hostility to women . . . is intrinsic to the sex trade” and that the U.K. should have no “tolerance of a market in which women are routinely physically abused.” Psychologist Melissa Farley, a longtime anti-prostitution activist, insists that prostitution “is not a job like any other job.” She adds: “Prostitution is sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, often worse.” Writers like Bennett and Farley often advocate for the criminalization of johns and managers — they want to make prostitution illegal without (in theory) putting prostitutes themselves in prison.

It’s true that sex work can be exploitative. But sexual harassment and worse has often been a part of the music industry, too. So has sexual exploitation, if that means using scantily clad forms of women (and for that matter, men) to sell music. But does anyone think it would be a good idea to make it illegal to buy music from young women, or to make it illegal for producers to produce music by young female artists?

Reducing violence against women shouldn’t come at the expense of cutting women off from professional opportunities and potential income. Certainly, this wouldn’t benefit Kesha, whose lawsuit against her producer is in no small part about how his abuse restricted her professional opportunities. Kesha’s contract prevents her from recording and releasing new material; without relief soon, she told a judge, her career is “effectively over.”

Let’s draw this parallel of criminalizing the buying of sexual services that exists in Nordic countries, to a theoretical system implemented in the music industry to protect young singers from exploitation.

Say it’s illegal for producers to work with young women to make music. So a female musician would have to go to the black market. She would be compelled to pay a premium to producers, who could be arrested for working with her. She would have to charge less than she otherwise would for her music, since consumers risk jail time. Of course, the illegal nature would mean there would be fewer customers, which means less money. And what would happen if a producer or manager or customer ripped her off, or physically abused her? If she went to the police, she would have to reveal that she was engaged in illegal activity, and potentially put her career at risk. If she’s ever helped another recording artist — by making downloads available on her website or doing a remix — she could go to jail herself. Criminalizing those who work with women, even if you don’t criminalize women themselves, puts singers more at risk of violence, and puts them at odds with law enforcement.

This example illustrates the unintended consequences of criminalizing johns and third parties engaged in sex work. Laws against johns and madams, which are supposed to protect women, actually push sex workers into a shadow economy where they can’t access legal and health services, and don’t have the resources to protect themselves. Researcher Tara Burns discusses the case of Amber Batts, the owner of an escort service in Alaska who was known for doing careful background checks on clients to protect her workers. Those background checks became evidence against her in court. Her efforts to follow good, safe business practices were ironically used to convict her. She has been sentenced to five years in prison.

As call girl Maggie McNeil documents, violence and exploitation in sex work are routinely overstated, often on the basis of misleading and dubious studies and statistics. Still, sex workers are sometimes abused, just as women, and people of every gender and in any profession, can face exploitation. Sexual abuse is certainly rampant in the entertainment industry — as the litany of accusations against Bill Cosby demonstrates.

But to criminalize the whole music industry because some artists are exploited and mistreated would be to punish the abused for being abused. Tina Turner didn’t use poor judgement in deciding to be a pop singer; she didn’t make a bad choice to be a performer. Her abuser was at fault, not her, and not her choice of career. The existence of bad people in the music industry should be a spur to root out those people, not an excuse to close options for women. It’s easy to see why that’s true when we’re talking about music. But sustained prejudices and stigma against sex workers prevent us from seeing that the same is true when talking about sex work.

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