Many social media sites are abuzz this week with news and comments related to Lifetime Network’s 6-part docuseries on R. Kelly, a 51-year old Chicago native with over 3 decades of notoriety as an esteemed music producer, singer, and songwriter. R. Kelly has avoided conviction of crimes such as child pornography, sexual abuse and assault of minors, and continues to deny all accusations of emotional, mental and physical abuse of women.
Part 3 and 4 initially aired on January 4, 2019, taking viewers deeper into the personal accounts of women that had intimate relationships with R. Kelly. Many of us were shocked to hear the details of an illicit sexual relationship that R. Kelly initiated with a 12-year old female; the niece of Sparkle, an adult female recording artist that R. Kelly produced and mentored. A videotape of R. Kelly giving the child money, and then performing sex acts with her in addition to urinating in her face and all over her body was a focal point of an investigation and trial that centered on him. The child was approximately 14 at the time the tape was made. R. Kelly was found not guilty of the charges despite many witnesses confirming both his identity and the child’s identity in the videotape. The initial shock that this sex crime had occurred gave way to disbelief over the fact that the teenager and her parents denied that she appeared in the videotape.
This question plagues the minds of people invested in this series. Why weren’t the parents around to prevent this from happening? Why didn’t the young lady and her parents take ownership for her appearance in the illicit sex videotape? Why is her aunt haunted by the reality of what happened to her niece in R. Kelly’s care? These questions highlight how polarizing crimes such as statutory rape, sexual abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence can be in our culture. People are outraged as they assert their opinions on social media about who is to blame for this tragic situation. As a relationship expert who specializes in working with survivors of sexual abuse and rape, I’d like to provide a bit of clinical insight as we continue to follow this series and try to make sense of it all. More often than not, sex crimes aren’t as black and white as we would make them out to be. In this case, the young girl’s parents seemed to be involved and present from the beginning. They trusted the recommendation of their family member, Sparkle, who from all accounts was not personally endangered and experiencing musical success from her professional relationship with R. Kelly. When the parents visited the studio, it was reported that R. Kelly was always on his “best behavior”, perpetrating to be a wholesome mentor to the young lady. Little did the parents know that predators purposefully demonstrate kindness, competence, and work to earn their victim’s and the family’s trust as a means to lure victims in. They also quickly “groom” young people by acting as parental figures, playing on their emotions, exposing them to sexual material, teaching them their sexual preferences, praising them for being obedient, and threatening them with any power they may have over them should they try to resist. In the absence of this young lady’s personal testimony, we can’t truly understand what she was told, exposed to, or potentially threatened with to foster her participation in those acts. As an adolescent with musical talent and dreams of becoming a known artist, it’s understandable that both she and her parents took a chance on R. Kelly in the absence of concrete information that would imply that she wasn’t safe. Using the power and influence he touted as a successful producer may have been the draw for this family with sincere hopes and big dreams.
The series highlighted her aunt’s knowledge that R. Kelly was controlling, even citing that she witnessed his wife asking for permission to eat while she was around. This was a strong indicator that R. Kelly had some issues in his primary relationship with his wife. However, Sparkle took a chance by introducing her talented 12-year old niece to R. Kelly, perhaps falsely resting on the idea that his relationship with Sparkle would prevent him from projecting his issues onto her family member. It’s not clear if Sparkle ever witnessed R. Kelly’s behavior or sex acts with other underage girls since he purposefully kept many performers and people in his life compartmentalized. Unfortunately this false comfort that people take in leaving young people around specific family members, loved ones, and friends leaves the door open for many cases of sexual abuse to occur.
According to Rainn.org, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Every 11 minutes, that victim is a child between the ages of 12 and 17. Out of the yearly 63,000 sexual abuse cases substantiated by Child Protective Services (CPS), 59% of the perpetrators are acquaintances, and an even higher number are relatives. Meanwhile, only 5 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. Statutory rapists and abusers prey on the trust that friends, family members, and associates place in them. When Sparkle discovered the extent of R. Kelly’s illness, she appeared to feel responsible; a feeling that many adults experience when they learn that they’ve failed to accurately predict the level of danger and protect a young loved one from it.
At the trial, Sparkle and many other friends and mentors of the young lady believed that they were standing up for her by naming her as the victim in the sex tape. By sharing her identity along with R. Kelly’s they hoped that it would render a guilty verdict and steep consequences for Kelly’s behavior. Why would her niece and parents deny that she was in the tape? Many people subscribe to the idea that the family was “paid off” in exchange for their silence. While this could be plausible, it stands to reason that a 14 year-old girl with a promising future simply had more to lose by naming herself than by keeping quiet. This is the decision that every abuse and rape victim will be plagued with. In American culture, when a woman “outs” herself as a victim, she earns the right to be subjected to: Uncomfortable medical examinations by strangers at an extremely vulnerable and confusing time, countless requests for her account of the abuse by police, other strangers, and loved one, which can be traumatizing, embarrassing, and shaming, interrogation by a defense attorney whose sole purpose is to pick apart her experience and her behavior, discredit her as a person, and plant seeds of doubt in the minds of others who will control the verdict, and the permanent label of “victim”, which could get her black-listed or marginalized depending on the level of status and power of her abuser. Despite the fact that living in silence requires a victim to carry a huge burden without legal justice, speaking out strips certain victims of so many other forms of control in a situation where they have already experienced powerlessness. It’s possible that Sparkle’s family exchanged a legal version of justice for the young child’s freedom to live her life outside of the public eye as “that young girl from the videotape that R. Kelly peed on and had sex with.” Many viewers may not ever understand it, but the choices that abuse victims are forced to make with their families, sometimes shortly after they’ve been through an ordeal that can impair their thinking and challenge their mental and emotional maturity level are quite personal and complex.
The series has prompted many to search for the identity of this woman. Technology makes it difficult to hide in plain sight not only for celebrities like R. Kelly, but also for the victims of his behavior. I urge people to consider their own mental and emotional process as they follow this series. Become more aware of any tendencies to blame the victim, dehumanize the family members, and justify the acts with thoughts such as “she knew what she was doing.” When we get down to what’s really important about this series, I believe we will discover that it would be a long, hard walk if we had to adorn the shoes of any of the adult women, young girls, and family members who are now bravely sharing their accounts of this imperfectly human, beyond messy debacle. Aside from the poor choices, naiveté, and possible payoffs, crimes were committed. Human beings were preyed upon. Accountability is lacking. Let’s continue to educate ourselves about the nature and prevalence of abuse. Perhaps next time we will be able to call out the pink elephant in the room before it’s too late.