By Sebastien Vante
January 10, 2018
I spent this past weekend at home watching the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly.” It didn’t take long before tears filled my eyes and anger bubbled to the surface as women of color shared their stories of sexual assault, abuse, and manipulation allegedly at the hands of R & B star R. Kelly.
Every day I work with young people who are homeless. Many of them are survivors of sexual assault, and I recognized the same trauma in the survivors in the docuseries. Thinking about my work, and the work that Safe Horizon does to support victims of sexual assault, I had five big takeaways.
1. We Have to Stop Dismissing and Disbelieving Women of Color
I’m talking to black men, too.
Immediately after the series aired I noticed many of my friends on social media blamed the young women who shared their stories.
“They should have known better”
“Where were their parents”
“They’re just bitter”
“These women just looking for a come up”
“Couldn’t have been me”
Over and over again, the trauma these women had to endure was discredited. Predatory behavior was justified and excused.
Throughout the docuseries and the dialogue that followed, these young survivors were reduced to their appearance and their perceived promiscuity of “being fast.” Instead of focusing on the problem – the abuse – people focused on what these young women wore or whether they went to the hotel willingly or whether they “asked for it” as an easy excuse for dismissing their stories. A prime example of how harmful this narrative can be is in the docuseries. An older white male juror on the R. Kelly trial of 2008 states “the way that they talked, the way that they dressed, I didn’t like them.” Effectively, he was saying “he doesn’t trust black women.”
I hear this from clients who are young women of color all of the time. I see how these dismissals compound their trauma and let abusers get away with crimes.
2. We Have to Start Valuing Black Women as Much as We Value White Women
As I watched “Surviving R. Kelly,” I couldn’t help but think what the results would have been if the survivors were white women. I am sure the outcome – and society’s reactions — would have been different. I’m not a legal expert, but I can’t help but wonder if R. Kelly would have been acquitted if a white woman had been on the witness stand. Or, even if acquitted, the public outrage on behalf of young white women would have surely surfaced.
Black women and girls deserve to love freely and be loved, to be protected from abuse, and to be taken seriously. They deserve recognition of the full scope of their humanity.
That means both believing their stories and allowing them to be children like young white teenagers are allowed to be. These young women were sexualized before true physical and emotional maturity and then punished for it.
According to Color of Change, 60% of Black girls are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18 in part because adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. This is especially in the age range of 5–14, where adults perceive black girls as needing less nurturing, protection, support and comfort, and as more sexual, at an earlier age.
We don’t put these assumptions on white girls, and these assumptions place women of color at greater risk of violence. We have to move past them.
3. Predators Should Not Find Refuge in Their Communities
If we want to stop sexual assault, we need to create a culture where women are priorities and not casualties. That means taking a hard look in the mirror and deciding we are done with protecting predators and forgoing justice for the sake of salvaging reputation. People who hurt children, which is what many of these young survivors were, shouldn’t be able to find refuge anywhere, especially within their own communities; communities they continuously destroy.
If we expect these young women who have experienced this trauma to eventually grow and serve the community, then that community owes it to them to end its silence. So many individuals around R. Kelly ignored warning signs because it made them so uncomfortable or because of R. Kelly’s talent. It’s time we start choosing our women and girls over the men we have been protecting.
4. We Have to Make it Easier for Black Boys to Come Forward
Sexual assault can happen to anyone, no matter your age, sexual orientation, or gender identity. However, boys face additional challenges coming forward and seeking treatment because of societal attitudes around men and masculinity.
In the docuseries, we hear allegations that R Kelly and his brother were molested by a family member when they were children. Similar to R. Kelly, many men who have experienced sexual assault rarely tell anyone.
In my role as supervising sexual health coordinator, I often conduct sexual health workshops in which young men talk about their experience with intercourse. Many of them tell that their first experiences were at an early age with individuals much older than themselves. The perception is that these events signify a rite of passage when the reality is that its sexual assault and molestation. These young boys were taken advantage of by adults. Boys are socialized that to be a man you must not be a victim. If a 15-year-old girl has sex with a 32-year-old man, many can see that as rape or abuse. (This isn’t always true for black girls as there is a racial dynamic which I cited out in point 2.) Reverse the gender and suddenly the boy is lucky to be initiated. However, we know that these early experiences of sexual violence can have lasting negative impacts on young boys, contributing to aggressive behaviors and low self-esteem.
In the docuseries, we hear accounts from R. Kelly’s high school music teacher who describes R. Kelly as being sexually aggressive and explicit while in school. We chalk that kind behavior up to “boys being boys.”
I wonder how R. Kelly’s life might have been different if he’d gotten support and healing for his trauma. We need to be better and create a culture that encourages young men to express themselves in healthy ways and open up about their experiences we must make them priorities rather than allow them to be casualties.
5. Abuse Doesn’t Excuse Abuse
I want to be really clear on this, as someone who supports victims of childhood sexual abuse every day: R. Kelly’s childhood trauma does not excuse his adult violence.
R. Kelly is responsible for the interactions R. Kelly had with underage girls, and for any abuse he perpetuated, and he’s the one who should be held accountable.