In January of 2019 Lifetime network aired a 6-part series on Robert Kelly, most commonly known as R. Kelly in the music industry. R. Kelly, a 51 year-old African American male from Chicago, IL is well known as a musical genius in R&B and pop culture. He’s experienced platinum album sales, sold-out tours, and has produced and performed with some of the greatest musical performers of all time. Along his journey to fame he has also been accused of underage marriage, sexual abuse and assault, child pornography, and emotional, mental and physical abuse of numerous minors and adult women. Lifetime’s series provided personal accounts from many women who allege that R. Kelly initiated a cycle of sexual or physical abuse with each of them. It could not be more relevant in this #metoo era.
If you plan to watch the series, be prepared-the personal testimonies are powerful. However, many of us have heard about previous allegations or have caught a glimpse of video footage of R. Kelly’s illicit sex acts with female minors. While some consumers have boycotted his music and concerts or even called for more harsh legal consequences, R. Kelly continues to make suggestive music and speak freely about his avoidance of jail time. As a native of Chicago, I’m in constant contact with many R. Kelly fans that have conflicted feelings about his behavior and what price, if anything should be paid. The irony of R. Kelly potentially watching this documentary about the potential harm he has caused to numerous underage and adult women from the comfort of his own home begs the questions-are we desensitized to the idea of sexual exploitation of young women in the hands of celebrities? Do we truly understand the cycle of abuse? Lastly, are we still blaming the victims for becoming prey to people we struggle to see as predators, even when multiple personal testimonies and video recordings highlight the ‘naked truth’? As a relationship expert, I’d like to use this situation to highlight our discomfort with confronting abuse, whether we are the potential abuser or the abused.
A part of our apathy as a society stems from our confusion about how intelligent, high functioning women eventually succumb to degrading and abusive treatment without immediately fleeing. This Lifetime series takes the time to break down the cycle of abuse in a way that truly helps viewers understand the gradual and subtle process of emotional manipulation that occurs. In the initial (honeymoon) stage, abusers allow themselves to be vulnerable, open, trustworthy, and loving to draw their partners closer. Over time, victims find themselves compelled to support their partner and isolated from their friends, family, and other members of their support system in ways that reduce their chances of easily escaping a physically and emotionally dangerous cycle. An unfair power dynamic is automatically created when an older male public figure with money and influence offers to help younger women by cultivating their talent, then requests sexual favors or makes demands that are hard to resist for naïve, impressionable, and fearful youth. Other tactics like breaking down a partner’s sense of self-worth and adequacy with constant criticism and verbal put downs perpetuate the cycle, no matter what age both partners are. This steady activation of control leads to learned helplessness; a belief that there’s nothing a victim can do to escape their dark circumstances.
Let’s keep it real: Many of us will watch the Lifetime series, read supporting articles like this, and discover that it’s still hard to place the labels “abuser” and “victim” on certain people. R. Kelly may be among them, as well as people you personally know who have survived questionable sexual and physical experiences that negatively impacted them. True conflict arises when we have to confront that some of our favorite, most talented public figures and personal role models are potentially misguided, law-breaking individuals walking among us. Power comes with privilege. That privilege has historically kept countless victims, many of which are female, in silence. The production of a documentary of this nature is a testament to the pursuit of justice through major media platforms that is currently trending in our society-the same society that has unfairly exonerated some public figures for their legal and moral missteps. It’s the dawning of a new day. Regardless of the legal system’s verdict, the #metoo train continues to pick up passengers. It’s currently making a stop in my sweet hometown of Chicago. To the parents of these precious daughters, many of which are now mothers to their own children, who suffered in silence-cheers to having a voice in the New Year.