The world watched on with disgust as R&B singer R. Kelly was found guilty of sex trafficking and racketeering women, girls and boys. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Kelly’s calculated and carefully planned crimes were regularly executed for almost 25 years, subjecting underage victims to perverse and sadistic whims, enslavement and violence.
Kelly follows powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and other prominent abusers in being sentenced to time in prison (although Cosby was acquitted on appeal on a technicality). It is a sickening tale, what but good can be gained from this prolific serial predator?
Here are 10 lessons we can learn from R. Kelly.
1. HURTING PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE
Kelly was sexually abused as a child by a family member. This is somewhat unsurprising, as it is common for people who were sexually abused during their formative ages to later replicate their experiences on others. As the anonymous quote says, “beware the unloved.” This is by no means an excuse for Kelly’s conduct , but we’d like to suggest that it’s possible to feel sorry for six-year-old Robert being abused by a relative who should have been taking care of him, protecting him and loving him… while at the same time being livid about Kelly’s own abuse to others.
2. POVERTY & CAPITALISM
Poverty creates a cycle of oppression. Kelly grew up in a poor neighbourhood that exposed him to much hurt. His mother was constantly away because she had to work. His brother Carey, who was also abused as a child, has talked about once begging his single mother to stay home so he wouldn’t be alone and susceptible to abuse, but she just couldn’t.
Poverty and inequality breed so much harm. Various vulnerabilities and risk factors contribute to sexual violence victimisation and perpetration; poverty is among those factors. Kelly convinced most of the girls to keep his company by promising to help them with their careers. These were mostly girls from his old neighbourhood. Poor girls trying to get out of a bad situation. They believed him and proceeded to put up with all manner of abuse maintaining the hope that he would help them ‘make it’ in the music industry. This is what poverty can do to you; creating a degree of desperation that means you’ll put up with anything to get out of it.
It’s not just the young victims who were desperate; Kelly’s entire staff was made up of people who conspired with him, aided and abetted him in the abuse. This included bodyguards, friends, industry professionals, record labels, producers, musicians and lawyers. A sentencing memorandum filed by the federal prosecutors in the eastern district of New York, said, in part: “With the aid of his inner circle and over a period of decades, the defendant preyed upon children and young women for his own sexual gratification.
“In order to carry out his many crimes, the defendant relied upon his fame, money and popularity as an R&B recording star and used the large network of people his status afforded him – including his business managers, security guards and bouncers, runners, lawyers, accountants, and assistants – to both carry out and conceal his crimes.”
These people knew exactly what Kelly was doing but said nothing. Poverty can breed vulnerability and victims. Capitalism can breed greed and perpetrators. It’s unfortunate, but it’s fact.
3. ALL ARE IMPLICATED AND BEAR RESPONSIBILITY
Kelly had naked women at his parties, reportedly groping them right there in the presence of guests. This means that, while Kelly may be the only one who’s directly guilty, all who knew are implicated and bear a measure of responsibility in the abuse of those boys, girls and women. It poses the question; what abuse around us are we implicated in by our silence?
Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” It’s not enough for us to be good, we have to actively refuse to cooperate with evil around us and that includes everything from ignoring the fact that our neighbour is violent towards his/her partner, to laughing at a sexist joke in a WhatsApp group. In the words of Brené Brown, “If you want to make a difference, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally. Take it personally because it is personal!”
See something, say something. It’s not enough to feel bad; you have to act. In the words of Jane Addams, “Action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics.”
4. ART & SELF EXPRESSION
Oprah once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them”, later adding, “Believe them the first time.”
A person’s art typically explores life from the artists perspective, and often tells us exactly who they are. Now, if you have a male artist with a music video full of women in different stages of undress being used by the artist and his friends as they see fit, believe what that artist is telling you about what he thinks about women.
Kelly’s songs (and particularly his music videos) don’t deviate from the current narrative of him being abusive to women. He had a woman dancing in a cage in one of his very explicit music videos. A cage. He produced 15-year-old Aaliyah’s song, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number which was his declaration about what he thought about marrying that 15-year-old. Think about the music you listen to, think about the music videos, what do they say about women? When people show you who they are, believe them and believe them the first time.
5. RACE IS A FACTOR
Wherever you stand in terms of equality movements, it is undeniable that racism exists and black people are over-represented as victims across a broad (and far too large) range of crimes and injustices. It isn’t nice to admit, but the fact that most of Kelly’s victims were black girls DID affect the perceived veracity of their claims, the credibility the victims were given and the significance attributed to the crimes. It shouldn’t have, of course, but it did. It still would. We simply haven’t come far enough as a race of people for widespread equality. We hope one day we can.
Sadly, in the first instance and for far too long, these young black girls were simply not believed or were completely ignored. When it comes to victimisation, sadly, race matters.
6. WHY DON’T VICTIMS JUST COME OUT AND SAY IT?
When a person comes out and says they were abused, the questions begin. One of the main questions usually is, why didn’t you say it then? Another way of phrasing the question is, why didn’t you rush to share this violation on your person, this incredibly heartbreaking, traumatic experience with us as soon as it happened? The victim is often interrogated on their own actions leading up to the abuse, under some sort of an implication that their own behaviour, words, state of dress or otherwise in fact beckoned for acts of violence of non-consensual sexual acts.
We have watched Kelly’s victims share painful, shameful aspects of their lives with the world, demonstrating extreme bravery. Until the trial, some of the young girls had not even told their own mothers they’d been sexually abused.
This is because, as a victim, there’s pain that is incredibly difficult to face and to deal with. Often the words get stuck in your throat even when you want to share it. The pain of sexual abuse is this kind of pain and then some. How eager would you be to share if it were you? Then there’s the added layer of people not believing you. How are you - a nobody - going to come out of nowhere and accuse a beloved, powerful and wealthy black musician of heinous acts?
The simple fact is that abuse (and in particular, sexual abuse) goes unreported most of the time. It is not easy to speak out, and most victims don’t.
7. LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
We live in a pornified culture in which sex is all around us, used to sell everything from the News at 9 to soft drink, yet many families refuse to talk about sex outside of “don’t do it” and/or bragging about conquests. We know a dad who still changes the TV station when an advertisement for sanitary towels or condoms comes on.
We need to start talking to our children, younger friends and relatives about sex and about sexual abuse. The R Kelly story is a great place to start, providing an opportunity to talk about why those women put up with Kelly, why all those people helped him perpetuate this wickedness and perhaps in what ways are his actions all around us? Are we ourselves silent in the presence of grave injustice?
Talk to your children about what to do should someone ever touch them in their private parts. A woman at one of our courses recently told us she was sexually abused as a child but didn’t tell her parents because her abuser said he’d kill anyone she told. This is, sadly, very common. When this woman had her own children, she told them nobody should ever touch them in the private parts and if they did, they should tell her and no-one was going to kill her or them. Kelly also threatened his victims, saying to one of the girls, ‘if you do anything, my boys will let me know.’ Let’s have those tough conversations with our kids.
8. IT’S JUST HIS PREFERENCE, HE’S INTO YOUNG GIRLS
We’ll just say this in response to that defence of Kelly’s paedophilia, when you urinate into a 12-year-old’s mouth, you’re not being into young girls, you are being an abuser. You’re getting off on exerting power over another person and degrading them while at it. That’s not a preference, that’s a pathology. There are NO EXCUSES. EVER.
9. ABUSE IS ALL AROUND US
We’ve heard people say Kelly is demonic and must be possessed by something otherworldly. This feels like an easy ‘out’, that does not force us to examine all the factors that led us here. It also makes us helpless to act. If he’s under the control of the devil what can we do but pray? And if there are others like him all we can do is impotently bow our knees? No.
Abuse is all around us. It’s in the guy who slaps his wife around (Kelly did that, too). It’s in the guy who controls all the family’s finances (Kelly did that, too). It’s in the partner who tells you what to wear. The one who’s super jealous and won’t let you speak to other men or women. Abuse is all around us, it’s not localised to Kelly and his admittedly extreme actions. Abuse is not only that extreme. If we put up with ‘small’ abuse, we become more susceptible to putting up with even greater abuse. Leave at the first sign of control and abuse, don’t forgive that because it’s small. Abuse only moves in one direction, incremental. Unforgiveable. Unacceptable.
10. ANYBODY CAN BE A VICTIM OF ABUSE
This one is an incredibly difficult pill to swallow and one that truly has our hearts racing with fear. It is why we do what we do here at COBRA Self Defence. At first look into the Kelly case, it’s easy to conclude that the girls were teenagers, young and foolish and that’s why it happened to them. However a closer look and the long term reality is that while Kelly preferred targeting teenagers, he also preyed on older women. Sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, income level, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and education level. It can happen to anyone, and it DOES happen. Too much, too often, to too many. But as we always say, one is too many. Don’t let the next victim be YOU, or someone you love.
We all have wounds left over from bad childhood experiences or even experiences as adults. All an abuser needs to know is exactly what your weakness is and where your pain lies, and they can capitalise on that to prey on you. Perhaps if we can stop classifying victims as stupid or naive, and begin to see ourselves as potential victims, our responses will be different. Maybe we’ll care more about the victims. Maybe we’ll try to help the victims more. Maybe we’ll be quicker to stop the perpetrators. Maybe we’ll empower ourselves and those around us with the safety and self defence skills needed to fight this sort of abuse.
We have to begin to value an individual’s story about their experiences, be that a man, a woman, a black girl, an Asian boy or any marginalised group or class. Or perhaps, be that YOU. Let’s begin to value OURSELVES enough to take action for self empowerment. Because one victim is too many.
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