Surviving ‘Surviving R. Kelly’

The truth is that when you actually believe that black women and girls matter, life in America can seem pretty dark.

* According to a WebMD article published in the spring of 2019, the suicide rate for black teen girls went up 182% in the past decade.

* An organization called Black and Missing, found in 2014 that 64,000 black women and girls have gone missing.

* Black transgender women continue to be assaulted and murdered in our cities.

Black girls and women matter to me. Having watched the powerful documentary on Lifetime called Surviving R.Kelly, I realize that black girls and women do not matter to R. Kelly. They also did not matter to all the people surrounding this guy (before and after he became famous), who enabled him to hurt and abuse young girls and women. So many people interviewed admitted to following Kelly’s orders to go “get him some girls” like they were just objects that he had the right to use how he saw fit. How is he alone a monster, if the people around him brought girls and women to the slaughter, looked the other way and participated? Shame on us, too. We are also complicit as a society when we rally around someone with talent and dismiss their behavior when they abuse women and children. If we didn’t know better before, we know better now.

Those who know me know that I once conducted research on the childhood sexual abuse of black boys. At the time, it was a strange departure from my focus on women and girl issues. However, I began to see a connection between “women’s issues” like sexual assault and domestic violence and what I believed to be an emptiness within perpetrators. When you work on behalf of victims,  you often do not want to concern yourself with perpetrators. But, I started to believe that an exploration of men’s behavior might be warranted. Surviving R. Kelly did a great job of drawing a line between the childhood sexual abuse of Kelly and his abuse of victims as an adult. The filmmakers addressed the issue without taking away his culpability. Watching the documentary felt like affirmation of what I had come to believe. As an adult, Kelly seemed to on at least one occasion ask for help. Unfortunately, no one helped him. They just all participated in and covered up his crimes.

I would later spend time reading and writing about domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST). In DMST, perpetrators would send out scouts – usually young adult men who were often abused or neglected themselves – to find vulnerable young people (mostly girls and lgbt teens) runaways or those who had been kicked out of the home. The perpetrator (or pimp) would provide the teen with attention, or compassion, or a ride or housing to gain their trust. The process of “grooming” or “seasoning” a person into a prostitute starts with something that for most victims feels like the honeymoon of a romantic relationship. There is a combination of increasing control, threats and actual violence with a cycle of pleas for forgiveness (not unlike what happens in domestic violence) along with sexual manipulation. Finally a girl is coerced to do a “favor” for the man she wants to please by sleeping with other people. The financial transaction in DMST is usually between the pimp and the john – with a victim being used as a piece of property being rented temporarily. The process is insidious and strips away at the soul so that the victim feels complicit in his or her own victimization. “Rescue” is often not about a physical removal of a person from a pimp, but something more psychological.

Everything that happened to R. Kelly’s estimated 47 victims followed this exact pattern – down to having them all refer to him as “Daddy”, with the exception of his selling them for money. Interestingly enough, R. Kelly seems to be convicted of similar crimes faced by pimps and traffickers. The only reason we understand anything about DMST is because whole lot of brave survivors – some of whom have started their own organizations to help victims – came forward to tell their stories. We now have the tools to prevent DMST – survivors and grassroots organizations just need our help and resources. In the case of R. Kelly, movements like Mute R. Kelly, MeToo, TimesUp and this amazing docuseries on Lifetime also created the amazing culture shift we see in the world today.

Finally, what moved me was the dedication of parents who risked their lives to get their daughters back. They never gave up! Having explored, for a brief time, the stories of young women who made it out of sex trafficking alive, I was left with the impression that – the ones we are looking for, survive! It is imperative that we form communities of care so that our young people do not fall through the cracks. It is estimated that within 72 hours of a runaway being on the street she/he is being recruited for sex work. Once a person gets caught in this violent and dark world, it is very, very difficult to get back out.

Surviving R. Kelly is a story about a society where black girls and women are not valued. However, it is also a story about the constant drumbeat of survivors, activists, lawyers and family members who would not let up for three decades until this man was finally stopped and held accountable for his actions. Surviving R. Kelly gave us a unique opportunity to sit, listen to and hold the pain in the stories of young women, survivors … without turning away. I had to breathe through it at times, but I am grateful for the project. I have been inspired to action.

The lives of black women and girls matter to me!




‘Mother and daughter.’ PIXABAY

Great resources:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Black and Missing Foundation

Visit me at

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