By ALICIA WALLACE
Surviving R. Kelly, a docu-series on the R&B singer’s alleged abuse of women, aired on Lifetime over the past two weeks and, as expected, sparked heated debate. Some people are having a hard time reconciling the person behind popular songs with the one accused of various acts of abuse. The conversation has, in many ways, been derailed by people raising other issues that, while valid, do not detract from the gravity of this one.
The series is not an introduction to claims against R. Kelly. Stories have been shared over the years, he has been tried on child abuse image charges and Buzzfeed’s Jim DeRogatis reported in 2017 on what was called an “abusive cult” when parents spoke out about their 19-year-old daughter believed to be living with R. Kelly against her will. At that time people close to him confirmed six women were living In Atlanta and Chicago properties with their lives — including what they ate, electronic device use and when they could have a shower — completely dictated by him. It appears to be his practice to engage young women when they are 18 or 19-years old, refer to them as his babies and make them call him “Daddy”. The young women often have aspirations to enter the music industry and are made to believe Kelly CAN help them. Attorney Susan Loggans has confirmed numerous settlements have been made, but would not provide details.
Even hearing heartbreaking stories from those affected by Kelly’s abuse, some find it easy to make someone else the villain. Where were the parents? Did they really think he would fly her to another city so soon after meeting her? Why did she give up her phone? What kept the women from leaving? Aren’t they at the age of consent? The questions do not call for answers. They are asked to cast a shadow on the innocent and make them look guilty, if only naive.
Society has very stringent rules for young women. Most of them point toward virginity and suppression of all sexual desire. Young women are not to enjoy sex and should, at the very least, have the decency to hide it if they do. We are supposed to move through the world like asexual beings and ignore male pursuit. Girls learn at an early age they are responsible for their bodies and whatever happens to them. It’s their job to make themselves as undesirable as possible if they fail at invisibility. Anything outside of this can be seen as being “fast,” and no girl wants that.
Fast girls like boys. Sometimes they are on the receiving end of men’s attraction. In school uniforms, in church dresses, wearing pigtails in the mall and at family parties, fast girls are seen by men and boys who are not expected to control themselves. Parents warn their children about leaving bathrooms wrapped in towels, and insist they wear more clothes than usual when visitors come. That anyone would welcome questionable characters into their homes is mind-boggling. How much more perplexing is it that children are made to fear the unnamed events that might take place and are taught they must prevent it?
As girls enter the teenage years, adults become suspicious of them. They imagine what the girls might be doing, who they might be doing it with, and how it could make them — the adults — look bad. They are closely monitored and some of their clothes are given away because some shorts were suitable last year, but not now. They are scolded in advance for things they have never done. Their recreation is restricted, if only because parents do not want them to be seen at too many events. Girls lose freedom before they truly know what it is because the prisons of “safety” adults build for them are better than being seen as “fast”.
The truth is “fast” girls are just girls. They go to school, they have friends, they have crushes, they beg to go to parties their friends are going to and their crush might also attend, they have changing bodies, they are learning to navigate a world that has people in it who are not girls. Excessive restrictions do not help. What they do, however, is prove we know there is a problem. At what point will we all agree the problem is not “fast” girls?
This has been said many times over the past two weeks, and we cannot say it enough: The age of consent is 16 (and 18 for same-sex), and any girls “with big man” before 16 is not fast, but a victim. The “big man” is wrong, criminal and needs to be reported.
In the case of R. Kelly, “fast” girls believed he would take care of them. They thought he had a genuine interest in them, in helping to them to build careers and in making a life with them. In some cases, their parents believed some of these lies too. Their motivations varied, but they ended up in the same prison.
Throughout this conversation, like many others, people bring up every other case they can dig up. R. Kelly is in the USA where race is central to everything, so it is not surprising his supporters are trying to deflect by asking, “What about Weinstein?” “Woody Allen?” What about all of the other white men who have been accused, but did not get what they deserved, or whose names are not in popular discourse at the moment.
In two words - them too. They are manipulative, abusive men too. They, too, should be exposed for what they are and what they have done to people. We need to know how they abused their positions of power, explicitly or implicitly convincing women their cooperation or their silence would guarantee their success. There is, indeed, an issue with the justice system, and the way race impacts the progress in cases, stories, and discussions. That does not change where we are right now, looking at the evidence of R. Kelly’s behaviour. It is telling that so many people needed to see women on-screen, see their pain and hear specific details to believe them. It is also telling some could watch the docu-series and still leave with “what about” questions, as if the stories, the specific case of R. Kelly and the harm he has caused numerous women and their families do not deserve attention and substantive response on their own.
We talk about sexual violence in ways that blame survivors, question their testimony and suggest there are more important issues to address. This happens with every case, regardless of familiarity with the people involved. Some people think it is their job to pick apart stories and come up with an alternate version or zero in on one component to raise suspicions and shift blame to survivors.
Going back and forth in conversations with people who insist on doing this can feel futile. Writing about these cases and talking, over and over again, about the dangers of victim blaming and the need to hold rapists and abusers accountable for their actions can also feel unproductive. It is not. We may not change every mind, or win every argument, but what we do with our steadfastness is interrupt. We stand between them in the survivors silently watching the conversation. We let survivors know we believe and stand with them. We let those who have never thought about know there is another point of view worth considering. We let the people with problematic comments know they are not stating facts, and they will not be allowed to pretend they are experts. We interrupt what could become an echo chamber of victim-blaming, infantilization of men and distraction from the real issue.
R. Kelly has built prisons for the women he lured in. They are treated more like inmates than children and have little access to the outside world, often unable to even speak with their families. He has been strategic, targeting fans and young women hoping to start singing careers, inviting them to join him very early in their adulthood. He grooms them with the help of other women and immerses them in a different world. It is an extreme version of what men do to girls we like to call “fast’. They prey on the young, find areas of weakness or need, isolate and dominate.
Yes, we need to protect girls from these predators. One challenge is doing that while acknowledging their personhood and fighting the impulse to make them prisoners in the name of safety. Another is doing that while creating a world where predators are not excused, celebrated, or funded — yes, through the purchase of albums and playing their music too — but are exposed, charged and prevented from hurting anyone else. The wrong people are in prison.