Boots

This is the second of a series about Kesha’s new album Rainbow. For the first post, click here.

Boots seems to be out of place in Rainbow. It doesn’t address the past, pain, or moving forward. But listening to Boots feels delightfully powerful to me. After sexual assault, it’s easy to feel like your sexuality, and especially your joy in your own body and sexuality has been stolen. I’ve known too many people who before sexual assault were joyfully, intensely sexual, and their sex life was a major part of their identity. Following assault, they have described the experience as “I don’t know how to do it anymore.” There’s insecurity, fear, and a sense that the ability to enjoy their own body has been taken away.

Which is why I love Boots.

Kesha has always been an artist who is unabashedly hedonistic. Her earlier albums were about drinking, partying, and sexing. Typically these topics have been reserved for male artists, and one of the reasons I love Kesha is that she isn’t afraid to say “yes I party and I have a good time, and you still need my consent.” Boots feels like a return to some essential parts of Kesha. I’m glad that Rainbow is a more mature album overall, and I think it’s got a lot more depth, but Kesha also strikes me as a simply joyful and fun loving human being (check out little Kesha’s dance moves in the Learn to Let Go video for reference). One of the hardest things about depression and trauma is finding things that make you joyful, reclaiming things in an untainted way.

Boots to me is that anthem. It’s the recognition that Kesha is still a sexual being and someone who is happily so. It feels so wonderfully joyful to have a song on this album about healing in which she reclaims her sexuality. When assault can rob someone of their connection to their body, can leave them with PTSD, can mean that sex more often than not ends in tears or flashbacks, a song that finds joy again is so powerful.

Even more importantly, when she made her accusations there were some folks who decided to make a big deal out of the fact that she sang about partying and sex. That doesn’t fucking matter. She can love sex and still be assaulted. She does not have to be some kind of “gold star” victim to be a victim, and this song in context shows that she is not willing to give up her open, loud sexuality just to get people on her side.

In this respect, one line sticks out to me: “If you can’t handle these claws you don’t get this kitty.” I’ve seen friends criticize this kind of sentiment as a way for excusing bad behavior, but in this particular album it doesn’t read that way. Claws are associated with aggression, fighting back, defending yourself, and the kitty language has some obvious parallels to pussy and sex. To me this line reads as a message to people who want to ignore her boundaries; you do not get her body if you are not willing to respect her boundaries. I hear Kesha saying “I will fight back if you try to take what’s not yours.” In the middle of a song about reclaiming sexuality, that is a fucking anthem. It’s a slap in the face to Dr. Buttface.

My final impression of Boots is the recognition that not all of healing is painful or difficult. Some days you feel joyful. You find people that make you feel better. It might be simply be a distraction, and that’s ok. Feeling good sometimes is HUGE, and it doesn’t invalidate that you might be depressed or that you’re really struggling. It feels so good within this album to have a moment of unabashed sensuality. It’s a good reminder to all of us who have been hurt that our bodies don’t have to be dangerous or feel broken. It’s possible to reclaim them. And that is fucking awesome.

Kesha’s Rainbow is Life

I don’t know that I’ve mentioned this here on the blog before, but I adore Kesha. Her music was something my husband and I bonded over right away, and she’s held a special place in my heart since then. During the shit show with Dr. Assface (I refuse to write or say his real name), I grew to feel a particular kind of fondness for her. I was proud of her for standing up for herself and fighting for herself. And I was beyond sad when I thought that she might never release music again.

Last week Kesha released her first new album in 5 years. It’s almost unbelievable that she still has a career after that long away. And while I loved Kesha’s music before, her new album has brought something new and much deeper to the table, so much so that I have found the album as a whole to be completely transformative, an anthem for survivors, and honestly my favorite piece of media to come out in years. Beyond the album itself, Kesha has been releasing essays that go with many of her songs. She also has taken an interesting approach to the release itself, putting out 4 singles with videos before the album dropped, which totals a full third of the album available before the official release date.

As an intertextual piece of media, Kesha has created an amazing summation of the experience of healing from abuse. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really dug into a text and I am 100% obsessed with this album, so for this week, hopefully as a small spot of light in an otherwise dumpster fire trash pile of a time, I’m going to be breaking down the album, analyzing some of the lyrics, and talking about how it exemplifies the experience of a survivor.

Today I’m going to start by talking about some elements of the album as a whole, and for the next week or so I’m going to delve into specific songs. Let’s do it!

The thing that strikes me first and most intensely about Rainbow and the accompanying essays are not what Kesha says, but what she doesn’t say. Kesha’s album comes after a very long and very public trial with Dr. Douchecanoe, but nowhere in her album does she mention him, sexual assault, a trial, or anything else that could be seen as a particular that points towards the whole business. She doesn’t even reference the experience in anything that could be considered a “direct” way. The two places that stand out the most to me as Kesha pointing towards Dr. Luke are the entirely of “Praying” (which lyrically is simply a song about one person who feels another person has wronged them), and in the essay about “Woman”, when she writes “I really have to thank Stephen Wrabel and Drew Pearson for helping me through the past few years and making writing songs a beautiful thing again. Both of those men made my art/work safe and fun, and every session with the two of them was so healing.”

I’ll dig into deeper depth on that last comment when I write about woman, but what strikes me about all this is how careful Kesha is being. Perhaps it’s unintentional, but the whole business reads like a manual on how to avoid charges of libel, and that to me is such a deep part of the modern woman’s experience of sexual assault. The ways that Kesha talks around her assault are just as telling as what she says. Women today have more freedom to talk about sexual assault, but they are only allowed to do so in an abstract way. “I was sexually assaulted,” is an acceptable, poignant, personal story. “He sexually assaulted me,” is cause for a lawsuit. Within the context that we ALL know who Kesha is talking about, and the subject matter of much of the album makes it less a capitulation to these pressures and more an in-joke in which we are all aware what she’s really saying, but she’s playing by the “rules”. And for those women who have not been able to speak up about their abuse or assault, it feels to me like an affirmation: you still deserve your healing. There are still ways to heal. There are ways to move forward and those of us who have been there will support you.

This odd tension in the album exemplifies to me the expectations of how women are supposed to deal with sexual assault, and the challenges it can present.

Which brings me to the overall theme of the album: healing. It’s named after a song whose lyrics say that you will find a rainbow. By itself, that message seems trite and almost dismissive of the real pain of sufferers. But the reason this album is so successful to me is its diversity. Rainbow covers a surprising array of musical styles, from horns heavy “Woman”, to the simple and indie feeling “Dinosaur,” all the way through a country duet with Dolly Parton. Each of these songs alone does not paint a full picture of trauma and recovery. However that seems like an important recognition to me: no single emotion or reaction is enough to encapsulate someone’s experience of trauma. That’s why Kesha required a full album plus essays. Each piece is a very real experience, whether that’s forgiving the person who hurt you, hating the person who hurt you, feeling proud of yourself, or fulfilling childhood dreams. An individual person can feel all of these things, or different people could experience their trauma in all of these different ways, and nothing about any of these experiences in invalid or incorrect.

Everyone reacts to trauma or assault differently. It would have been easy for Kesha to create an album that spoke only about her experiences. However she created something that made space for all the reactions someone could have, and beyond that, it recognized the long path its taken for her to get to where she is. By opening up about the variety of her experiences, and not creating a pretty picture for us all to see now that she’s healthy again, she opened the door to validating thousands of other experiences.

The format and styling of the album overall give an important picture of sexual assault, but there’s one additional element that I think is important, and that’s Kesha’s choice to write and publish essays about four of her singles as well as short paragraphs on every track. I’m going to do a longer post just on how fascinating that is as a medium choice, but for now I want to point out how that experience of feeling, then stepping back and analyzing your feelings, is so common for people who are struggling with trauma, depression, or anxiety. The sense of distance from yourself, combined with the need to question everything and provide evidence for everything feels so familiar to me, especially when I think about my own experiences with sexual assault.

Again, I’m not sure that Kesha did that intentionally, but her choice of a dual medium is a brilliant mirror of what the experience of recovery can feel like. Interacting with an album that validates my experiences, talks openly about emotions, engages in a realistic way with assault and trauma, and ends feeling uplifting is so powerful to me. Seeing a woman who was supposed to shut up and go away come back and create amazing art that not only blows everyone away but also quietly thumbs its nose at her abuser is truly amazing. I can’t say enough about how powerful Rainbow is for me. I suggest you give it a listen.

Do I Get to Be Queer?

I am on the asexual spectrum. I’m not sure if there’s a great word for me. I’ve slipped in and out of demisexual, but it’s never felt 100% correct. My sexuality is a flitting thing: it comes and goes as it pleases, often with no rhyme or reason. One day I’ll feel sexual attraction to my fiance in a perfectly normal fashion, the next it will disappear for a month, two months, six months.

It’s stressful, and I have yet to encounter a community that describes quite this experience or gives a name to it. I find that particularly difficult. It makes it feel as if my sexuality isn’t real. I still have not entirely convinced myself that I get to claim the word asexual, even though it’s fairly clear when I look at my life and my patterns, I am definitely not allosexual.

Which makes it even harder to talk about the word queer, or about being in the LGBTQIA+ community.

I consider myself an ally. I don’t like to use that word very often because if I have to tell someone I’m an ally I’m really not doing it right, but I think it’s important in this context to recognize that I explicitly think of myself as an outsider when it comes to queer spaces. When I go to gay clubs or pride, I only go with queer friends, and actively identify myself as a straight, cis person: I try not to talk too much, and to be in the background. I think of myself as a guest.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have a sexuality that fits into the norm. My sexuality has very directly impacted my life in ways that led to sexual assault, breakups, and dismissal by the people I love most. I very much struggle with the idea that oppression is what makes someone queer: if a gay person grew up in an accepting family and never experienced bullying, harassment, or cruelty because of their sexuality, they would still be gay. They would still be a part of the queer community. So I struggle to understand what exactly defines queerness, and who gets to decide what groups are part of that umbrella.

The best I can understand is that queerness has to do with disrupting the status quo. And as far as that is concerned, my sexuality certainly fits. It fits enough that it has disrupted every relationship I have ever been in. It disrupts enough that I have had a therapist ask me if it was maybe actually just my mental illness not my sexuality.

So why do I not feel comfortable identifying as such? Why do I still feel like an outsider at Pride, or other gay/queer spaces?

The question of whether or not asexuality fits under the queer umbrella is fairly hotly debated, with some people suggesting that aces don’t experience enough oppression to count and ace people suggesting that they feel alienated by mainstream conceptions of sexuality and would like a safe space to come together, just as other LGBT folks do.

I see a few reasons why aces SHOULD fit in queer spaces, as well as a few reasons why many queer spaces aren’t a good fit. Because I am constitutionally incapable of letting any question about my identity be until I’ve driven it into the dirt, I’m going to spend some time detailing those reasons, and the best definitions of “queer” as I understand them, to better get to the bottom of why I feel like I don’t get to claim that label and to understand if I should.

Let’s start at the end and work our way back: what IS queer?

There isn’t a single, great definition of queerness. But most definitions are explicit in saying that queerness is political. Nadia Cho suggests “Being queer is first and foremost a state of mind. It is a worldview characterized by acceptance, through which one embraces and validates all the unique, unconventional ways that individuals express themselves, particularly with respect to gender and sexual orientation.” Under this definition, anyone who actively embraces alternative genders and sexualities or who identifies as an outside the mainstream gender or sexuality, could be queer.

The Unitarian Universalist Association gives a breakdown of quite a few potential definitions:

-being attracted to more than one gender
-not fitting cultural norms with regard to sexuality/gender
-non-heterosexual
-transgressive or challenging the status quo

Pflag suggests that “queer” means a nonbinary gender or sexuality.

Historically, queer was a slur, which means that for many people using it as an identifier today is all about reclamation. Some people focus on that element: on the oppression of it. I see three major definitions of “queer”: outside the norm (which some people define as heterosexual and cis), challenging the status quo, and oppressed with regards to sexuality or gender.

There are certainly some of these that don’t make sense with asexuality. Asexuality has nothing to do with being nonbinary, or with being attracted to more than one gender (although someone might experience romantic attraction or a gender identity in these ways and be asexual). I will suggest that these definitions don’t encompass all the identities we typically consider “queer”: for example we often include trans individuals under the queer umbrella, and that does not necessarily make someone nonbinary or attracted to more than one gender. However if we really do want to define queer by either of these definitions, then it would make sense for asexuality not to fall under that label.

Another reason that aces often don’t fit in queer spaces is that queer spaces can often be incredibly sexualized: Pride is often all about embracing sex and sexiness, queer people tend to gather in clubs, or at drag events. What aces need from their safe spaces isn’t always what gay, lesbian, bi, and pan folks need. Instead of wanting a place to express their sexuality, they often want somewhere that they can feel safe from sexuality. I’m not sure that this means aces aren’t queer, but it does mean that we need our own unique spaces.

The definition where the rubber seems to meet the road for many people is “oppressed with regards to gender or sexuality.” Many people who use the word queer have expressed frustration with the idea that aces could be part of their community when asexual people don’t experience the same oppression that trans, gay, bi, and lesbian folks do. And this is where we can talk facts instead of just debating which meaning seems or feels best to us.

Asexual people have and do experience oppression. Our identities are invalidated, called fake, mocked, and ignored, often by people who claim to be progressive. More often than not, asexual people are told they’re broken, sick, or need therapy (and yes, saying that someone’s sexuality is an illness is definitely oppressive). We’re erased from media, from sex education, from discussions of diversity. We’re told we’ll never be happy and that no one will want us if we won’t have sex. If you believe that oppression is only when someone’s rights are taken away, then I suppose aces aren’t oppressed, but if you think the systematic erasure and dehumanization of a group isn’t oppression I don’t really know what to do with you.

Worse, it’s absolutely an ace experience to receive threats, abuse, rape, or violence because of our sexual orientation. Saying no to sex can be dangerous, especially if someone thinks that your reason for saying no isn’t good enough. I know very few aces who haven’t experienced some form of violence or abuse because of their orientation.

Beyond all of this, no personal individual has to experience oppression in order to be queer. There are white, rich, cis, gay men who have never encountered discrimination in their personal lives but no one is denying their right to be a part of the community. Oppression simply doesn’t make sense as a litmus test.

So how DO aces fit into the queer community?

Well I’d say the biggest and most obvious way is that they’re a sexual minority, and just as non hetero or cis identities challenge the status quo, so do non allo identities. Compulsory sexuality is a huge part of how society today understands relationships and sexuality, and it is deeply tied to heteronormativity and monosexuality. When you live an identity that questions whether sex is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life, you challenge the status quo. Asexuality certainly fits outside the mainstream understanding of sex and sexual identities, I would suggest even more than gay or lesbian identities (many people still don’t even know what asexuality is or believe it exists). If queerness is about being different, well asexuality DEFINITELY fits.

And as an ace, the most important reason that I want to be a part of the queer community is because I want a community where I don’t feel like an outsider, where I don’t feel judged, or where I don’t feel that others think I’m broken. Obviously queer communities aren’t perfect and may still act negatively towards aces, but the idea of having a connection with other people who feel that their sexuality is different sounds very important and positive to me. Aces, as a minority community have said that they want to feel that sense of belonging, and that sounds important to me.

At the end of all this, I still don’t feel as if I should make a strong statement about whether asexuality fits within the queer spectrum, because I am cis and hetero. What I will say is that I can’t fully understand arguments against it, and I do see a benefit to including it. If the queer community wants me, I’d be happy to be a part of it.