What R. Kelly Teaches Us About How Sexual Predators Choose And Silence Their Victims

CREDIT: Interview

On Monday, the Village Voice published a long conversation between Jessica Hopper, the music editor for Rookie, and Jim DeRogatis, now a professor at Columbia College, who, as a critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, broke and covered the child pornography case against R. Kelly (himself a child sexual abuse survivor). The Voice also published the indictment against Kelly in the case, and a number of DeRogatis’ archived stories. The combination of conversation and document is one of the most important pieces of culture writing to be published this year, because of DeRogatis’ account of how Kelly has avoided conviction in both criminal and civil cases, and the discussion of the point at which we can’t simply dismiss an artist’s behavior on the grounds that bad people can still make great art. DeRogatis’ testimony and his timeline of Kelly’s life, and the testimony of women who observed Kelly’s routines in Chicago, also provide a chilling taxonomy of how sexual predators select their victims, a methodology amplified by Kelly’s wealth and fame.

Pick Victims With Little Power, Or Who Are Undervalued By Their Communities: The child pornography indictment against Kelly repeatedly accuses him of crimes not just against the victim, but “against the peace and dignity of the same People of the State of Illinois.” But DeRogatis suggests that one of the reasons Kelly was acquitted in that trial, and that he was able to settle other civil suits relatively quietly is because he targeted young women who believed that they were not particularly valuable to the People of the State of Illinois. “Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of,” he tells Hopper. “Mark Anthony Neal, the African American scholar, makes this point: one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different. No, it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.” That perception, on many levels, seems to have been correct. DeRogatis did dogged local reporting work, and the child pornography trial did make national headlines. But the stories of the civil suits, which would have established a pattern of behavior, don’t appear to have consistently affected Kelly’s reputation until now. And, as I’ll discuss later, Kelly’s settlements in civil suits typically required his accusers to remain silent as an insurance policy.

Target Victims In Settings Where A Predator Has Authority Or Cultural Capital: Kelly attended Kenwood Academy High School, where he studied with the music teacher Lena McLin, who DeRogatis credits with exposing Kelly’s talents to the wider world at a talent show at the school. Later, DeRogatis suggests, McLin’s classes would become one of Kelly’s hunting grounds. He told Hopper “He would go back in the early years of his success and go to [Lena] McLin’s gospel choir class. She’s a legend in Chicago, gospel royalty. He would go to her sophomore class and hook up with girls afterward and have sex with them. Sometimes buy them a pair of sneakers. Sometimes just letting them hang out in his presence in the recording studio.”

Target Young Women At School, Period–And Leverage Financial Power: Mikki Kendall, a widely-published author on race, feminism, and culture (some of her work appears here), recounted her childhood experience seeing Kelly hanging out at Chicago-area schools, and being hit on him herself when she was just 14:

Make Targets Complicit In The Abuse Of Other Women, So They’ll Be Less Likely To Report You: Of one victim Kelly meet at McLin’s classes, DeRogatis said “She detailed the sexual relationship that she was scarred by. It lasted about one and a half to two years, and then he dumped her and she slit her wrists, tried to kill herself. Other girls were involved. She recruited other girls. He picked up other girls and made them all have sex together.” If a girl feels responsible for putting other young women in the same terrible position she herself has survived, it’s a fair bet that she’ll feel like she shares her attacker’s guilt and doesn’t deserve justice. That’s a recipe for silence, or even for suicide–it’s an awfully nasty way to try to make sure that victims keep themselves away from the criminal justice system, or decide on their own not to seek compensation in civil court.

Involve Whole Families In Settlements: DeRogatis tells Hopper that when he was covering one of the sex tapes he’d received, “the girl and mother and father took a six-month vacation to the south of France. We’d been to the house several times. We’d rung the doorbell. This was an aluminum-siding, lower-middle-class house on the South Side, with a station wagon which is 13 years old — you know what I mean? And now they’re in the south of France. And one time the dad got a credit as a bass player on an R. Kelly album. He didn’t play bass.” Given the ways in which sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors are often put on trial before their accusations will even be investigated, women of all ages need support from their families to pursue charges against their attackers. Denying a woman–especially one who is underaged–the support of her family by coopting them financially is a way a predator can appear to be generous to a survivor, while also showing her how little her parents value her safety.

Make Silence A Condition Of Any Settlement: In 1994, Kelly married Aaliyah Dana Haughton three months after the release of her solo album. She was 15, though a marriage certificate said otherwise. He was 27. Two months later, the marriage was annulled, and DeRogatis explains, as part of the settlement ending the marriage, “which provides a nominal payment of $100 from Kelly to Aaliyah, Aaliyah promises not to pursue further legal action because of ’emotional distress caused by any aspect of her business or personal relationship with Robert’ or for ‘physical injury or emotional pain and suffering arising from any assault or battery perpetrated by Robert against her person.'” If you’re willing to pay enough–or if you have something that another person wants enough, like a way out of a marriage–your victims’ silence can be as much of a commodity as anything else. And that’s a very valuable commodity if you want to be able to keep offending.