R. Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison on Wednesday after being found guilty of sexual offenses. Accusers testified how Kelly sexually assaulted them when they were minors. Experts say black women and girls experience a disproportionate amount of sexual violence.
R&B star R. Kelly was sentenced Wednesday to 30 years in prison, nine months after being found guilty of nine charges of human trafficking and racketeering.
The official sentence followed a six-week trial in September that featured graphic testimony from dozens of accusers, many emotionally explaining how Kelly subjected them to perverse and sadistic whims when they were minors.
Some of the trial’s details were meant to startle us: the accusation that the singer thought he had impregnated then 15-year-old singer Aaliyah and arranged to marry her so she couldn’t testify against him. The charge was that he knowingly spread herpes to several of his young victims. The allegation was that one of the victims, then 16, was beaten and suffocated until she passed out for texting a friend.
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But sexual assault experts say some of the revelations shouldn’t have come as a surprise: that black girls were brutally victimized, many people around Kelly were complicit, and it took more than two decades for much of the public to care about them.
“Many survivors of Kelly’s abuse — women and men of color, who have long been ignored and brushed aside — came forward and spoke out strongly at the trial,” the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network said in a statement at the time. “Today’s verdict was made possible by their courage and persistence to be heard, and we thank them for their resilience during a difficult and very public trial. We hope today’s verdict empowers survivors everywhere to feel they are not alone.”
Society has long abandoned victims of sexual violence. Rape, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse are ubiquitous social problems, but justice for survivors and accountability for perpetrators remain rare. But sexual violence experts say black women and girls face specific challenges around victimization: they experience disproportionate sexual violence, find it much harder to be believed, and are often reluctant to interact with law enforcement officers worldwide. Fear that access to that system will lead to more damage.
“Black girls have been historically and culturally disproportionately affected by sexual violence,” said Indira Henard, executivepe Crisis Center. “This c executive directors is so powerful because it focuses on the sexual violence that black women and girls experience daily.”
According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, more than a third of black women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. One in four black girls is sexually abused before the age of 18.
The Kelly case may have caught our attention because of its fame and power, but the experiences of its alleged victims are not uncommon.
“We can be outraged at R. Kelly, and we should be outraged, but we also need to recognize that there are R. Kellys everywhere. And not in terms of just entertainers; I’m talking about in our families, in our churches, our mosques, our synagogues,” said Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and adult rape and editor of tanthologygy’ Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse.’ “We have a responsibility to see that.”
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‘This doesn’t just happen in a silo.’
Kelly has dealt with a handful of women in his current case. Still, he is accused of physically and sexually abusing dozens of girls and women while the music industry looked away. In 2008, Kelly was tried in a high-profile child pornography case, but the jury found him not guilty.
“This has been going on for over 20 years,” said Tonya Lovelace, a survivor of child sexual abuse and domestic violence and the former founder of the Women of Color Network. “R. Kelly was helped by his staff, by the people around him. This doesn’t just happen in a silo.”
Lovelace said the pain and abuse that black women and girls experience is often minimized or ignored.
“We live at the intersection of race and gender. People do the most damage to the deepest margins because people don’t look there,” she said. “People who want to do evil do evil there because no one is watching.”
Black women and girls are also in one of the highest rates of sexual violence, experts say, as the country has sanctioned their abuse for generations. Black women and girls experienced rampant sexual violence during slavery, and that legacy lives on, they say.
“Black women have probably lived through one of the most egregious histories in this country — of slavery, of forced sexual experiences of rape and assault,” Lovelace said. “This is the historical context. R. Kelly’s case is set against centuries of violence against black women.”
Black women and girls face additional barriers.
When #MeToo first exploded, many advocates and survivors demanded that the public and the criminal justice system “believe women” — a phrase that begs people not to brush off victims from the get-go. Sexual assault experts say it’s even harder for black survivors to believe, which prevents them from reporting and receiving support even if they do.
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For every black woman who reports rape, at least 15 black women do not report it, according to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community.
Black women and girls also face additional barriers to reporting.
“Since our attackers are often black and brown men, we are afraid to call the police or are more concerned because they are also being vilified. They are also the target,” Lovelace said. “You have the most neglected dealing with the most targeted.”
In the Kelly case, Lovelace said, his victims were dealing with someone who might have been targeted by a black man but also had structural access to power.
“They felt like they wouldn’t be heard in any way,” she said of his victims.
‘This was child rape.’
Although the prosecutors in Kelly’s trial are now adults, many testified about abuse that occurred when they were children.
“What people need to realize… is that this was childhood rape. This was childhood sexual abuse,” Lovelace said.
Children are manipulated and prepared to trust their perpetrators and remain silent about abuse. But black girls can be considered complicit because of what researchers call “fake bias,” which projects negative stereotypes of hypersexualization onto black girls and causes adults to empathize with them less than their white peers.
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“We see them as wanting, wanting and being able to,” Simmons said. “Even if they lied about their age, they chased him, all that, they’re still kids.”
Jerhonda Johnson Pace, one of Kelly’s accusers, testified that she had sex with Kelly when she was 16, under consent, even though she told him she was 19. When she finally reveals her real age to Kelly, she says he has a sexual relationship with her.
Experts say that to support black women and girls better; there needs to be a collective acknowledgment that this abuse goes way beyond Kelly’s victims.
“There are all these ways that kids seek love and attention, and this is what they get,” Simmons said. “Instead of blaming them, we need to embrace them, protect them, and hold the people who cause harm, not just the person performing the sexual act, but all bystanders accountable.”
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