When R. Kelly’s history as a sexual predator reemerged this month the outrage that followed had a strong whiff of “It’s about time” to it. It was especially “about time” for those who felt Kelly had escaped justice and was now, with yet another sexually-charged album entitled “Black Panties,” rubbing his publicly-debated private parts in our faces. It takes a lot of gall to nearly go to prison for child porn and to continue to pump out baby-making anthems. Yet Kelly continues to do it.
It’s even more unsettling when you realize he probably wrote his explicit “baby-making jams” with a 15-year-old in mind.
And while it’s bad enough that Kelly has never faced justice for the acts he’s been accused of, what continues to disturb me is how people often condone this behavior, especially when it’s perpetrated against black girls.
The first time a (very) old man hit on me I was 13. I was in a mall with my mother and was wearing a pair of black shorts and a red T-shirt, that I’d tucked into my shorts. My shorts went all the way to my knees because, at the time, I was uncomfortable with my changing body. I’d always been a skinny kid, but around 9 or ten I started to develop a very round butt. By 13, my thighs and hips had joined in on the action of being much larger than my waist and upper body. But I didn’t see my body as “sexual.” I didn’t even understand what sex was. I had a factual grasp of how people got pregnant, but as a virgin, no understanding of the mechanics. My butt didn’t make me think of a “sexy” woman. It made me think I was fat.
As I stood in line at the food court with my mother, a stranger approached. He was with his friends, who began shouting at me about my behind. How big it was. And what he’d like to do to it. And then he told me I was “blessed.” My mother said nothing and told me to say nothing. She pretended like she didn’t hear it and we never discussed it. But I remember being frightened and wondering “what I had done” to make that man start yelling.
“How could I stop it?” I wondered, as I knew I did not want it to happen again.
In the end, I blamed the shorts. They must have been too tight, maybe, I thought. So I never wore them again. In fact, by my sophomore year in high school, I stopped wearing shorts altogether. My mother was amazed that I, and my sisters, could wear hot blue jeans in the summer time, but none of us ever told her the real reason. We got tired of the comments. We got tired of the old men shouting. To be honest, it got so bad by the time I was 16 or 17 there were days I wouldn’t take my coat off when we went out. I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I didn’t want the attention. Catcalls and lewd remarks didn’t make me feel desirable or sexy. They made me hate myself and my body. It made me think something was wrong with me.
“If only I could be skinny like I was when I was little,” I thought. “No one ever shouted at me when I was little.”
I was not alone in my life-altering reaction. Countless black women shared similar stories during @HoodFeminism’s “#FastTailedGirls discussion and a recent Ebony Magazine Twitter chat asking black women to recount how they felt the first time they were propositioned by a man when they were still underage.
What’s most shocking about someone like R. Kelly isn’t so much that he exists, but that he is so common. That there is a certain percentage, a small but highly vocal percentage of men, who are dogged in their pursuit of underage girls and are obsessed with normalizing it. They try to put it on “all” men to cover their tracks and you’ll meet random “Beta” males who will repeat this nonsense while admitting they don’t find 14 year olds attractive.
They know it’s wrong. But the perpetrator is shouting so loud that he’s fine, that it’s normal, then writing whole albums about it. Other people’s silence is the currency the perpetrator needs to pay his way into another girl’s bed. If you can convince all men that they’re complicit, that your sick behavior is “normal,” then you can get all of them to cover for you. You can even get other women to cover for you. Then you can operate right in front of everyone, hiding in plain sight and people will blame the girl or her parents if she winds up “ruined” by you.
When allegations about R. Kelly first surfaced back with his supposed “marriage” to then teen protégé Aaliyah in 1994, the most common thing I heard from other teens and adults was “she must have wanted it.” It didn’t matter to people that at 15 she couldn’t consent to marrying anyone or that it was R. Kelly who molded her “mature” image. People didn’t lay the blame with Kelly who wrote her age-ambiguous songs on the now creepy-in-retrospect album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.”
But in the eyes of my friends, many of whom were his fans, he was a famous musician, wealthy and desirable. They imagined a relationship with him would be romantic or exciting.
Which is the problem. You have teenage girls who are still learning and growing and they’re imagining what a relationship with an older man would look like, not knowing or understanding the reality of the age difference and the power dynamic that comes with it.
Growing breasts at 12 doesn’t mean you want to have or even understand sex at 12. But some people don’t get that.
Even worse people don’t care.
Those “even worse” people included a 27-year-old “nice” guy who used to flirt with me at the mall. I was 15 and he tried to date me. Thank goodness for my strict parents who didn’t let me go anywhere unchaperoned, because I probably would have gone out with him. Boys my own age, due to being fellow goofy teenagers, had shown little interest in me and I was desperate for male attention. I know now that without a parental roadblock I might have snuck off to meet him, even though there was always part of me that knew it wasn’t right.
But he laid on all the smooth talk that wouldn’t work now, but then? What did I know? All pick-up lines are new when you’ve never heard them before. And while I was allegedly “mature” for my age, when it came to boys I was clueless. I wanted to be liked, but I didn’t understand them or their desires or motives. I went into all my relationships innocently and honestly because I was sheltered. I had romantic fantasies. Not explicitly sexual ones. And because I didn’t know any better. I could have easily been one of those girls R. Kelly exploited with charm and gifts. You think you’re special because he makes you feel “chosen” and validated, and you end up being used and discarded. But because you’re so young, you don’t know what you don’t know. You end up being schooled on romance and sex by a serial child molester.
And that’s how he wants it. A woman would never fall for this. But a girl?
Home training doesn’t save you from this. It doesn’t matter whether or not you were “fast.” Who your parents are have little to do with it. This happens and continues to happen because sexual predators need prey. They know how to play on the sensitivities of the uninitiated. It’s why they choose teenagers. You get all the control, you know what’s coming and they don’t.
It will only change if when girls speak we listen to them. It will only change when we decide this isn’t normal simply because the predator says so.