‘Surviving R. Kelly’ and the Abusers Who Hide Behind Him
We have to remember that this cultural moment is about far more than the despicable things R. Kelly has done, and we cannot allow others to use him or anyone else’s more visible forms of misconduct in order to deflect from their own.
This essay contains discussions of r/pe and sexual violence against minors, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse.
“Surviving R. Kelly” aired on Lifetime last week, in which women who were preyed on by R. Kelly spoke about the abuse they experienced and witnessed. Several celebrities also made appearances to criticize the singer and his abuses against girls and women. Among them were rapper Joe Budden, radio host Charlamagne Tha God, and music journalist Touré. These three men spoke with conviction about how appalled they were by the details of R. Kelly’s case, and I’m sure they were very convincing to viewers in their admonishment of him despite their own unsavory behavior.
Not only has Charlamagne tweeted horrible “jokes” about R. Kelly and statutory rape in the past, but he has also admitted to drugging and date raping a woman and has another rape allegation against him from a woman who says he assaulted her when she was just 15 and he was 22. Joe Budden’s former girlfriend detailed how he physically abused her. Even though the charges were eventually dropped, the rapper did plead guilty to a disorderly conduct charge connected with the incident. Furthermore, graphic photos of his accuser’s bruises around her neck released by TMZ certainly provide evidence of violence.
This week, Touré was publicly accused of aggressive sexual harassment by a makeup artist who used to work with him. She spoke up because she saw him in “Surviving R. Kelly” and commented on the irony of him appearing to discuss the singer’s sexual violence after having participated in sexual misconduct himself. She provided screenshots of his apology in a private message to her, which included “Please don’t talk badly about me! I’m so ashamed to think of that happening.”
Touré issued this response to the public accusation:
“On the show, our team, including myself, engaged in edgy, crass banter, that at the time I did not think was offensive for our tight-knit group. I am sorry for my language and for making her feel uncomfortable in any way. As a lead on the show, I should have refrained from this behavior. I have learned and grown from this experience.”
Knowing about the allegations against and confessions of Charlamagne and Joe Budden, and now learning about the disgusting behavior of Touré and his shitty apology, seeing them appear in the capacity they did in “Surviving R. Kelly” is dubious, to say the least. This unfortunate juxtaposition has helped me put words to something that has bothered me for over a year now. It starts with Aziz Ansari and the public responses to a woman’s account of a “bad date” with the comedian from 2017, in which “Grace” detailed how he made her increasingly uncomfortable with his sexual advances towards her as the night progressed. It was certainly a polarizing moment, with some speaking up to say they had also experienced that kind of treatment on a date and others missing the point by excusing his behavior because they perceived his sexual aggression as normal.
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When the story broke, there was so much focus on what Aziz had specifically done to this specific woman in this specific situation that what got lost in all the noise was the fact that these kinds of “bad dates” are constantly happening because that kind of behavior is so normalized. There were a handful of outlets and commenters who acknowledged this, but not nearly enough. Even more important to acknowledge is the truth that any given “bad date” does not always look exactly like what happened between Aziz and “Grace”. Often, it looks different because there are scores of ways that people try to coerce others into sex. There are a plethora of ways to manipulate and control the situation so they ultimately get what they want and satisfy their urges. There are an abundance of ways that sexual violation plays out, illegal or otherwise. There are ways I and people I know have been violated that either wouldn’t be considered sexual violence in contemporary society or that only just recently have had laws written against them.
The dominant discourse about Aziz’s behavior wasn’t about any of the numerous other ways that a “bad date” might happen, and what this extreme focus on him did was allow other people who have also been sexually coercive to point to the Aziz Ansari story and say, “Look at what he did. Look at how gross and unacceptable it is. I have never done anything like that. I would never do anything like that. Wow, I’m such a good, safe person.” It allowed people to ignore the ways they have been coercive and sexually aggressive. It allowed them to use Aziz as a scapegoat to detract from their own behavior.
It’s a tactic I’ve seen abusers use before. They’ll gladly point out how others mistreat you (even if that’s not necessarily true and simply a way to isolate someone), but will never want to discuss or own up to their own abusive behavior. They’ll pretend that they never hurt you at all, just because they didn’t hurt you in the specific way someone else did. This is also what “Surviving R. Kelly” has allowed people to do, even within the documentary series itself. Charlamagne, Joe Budden, and Touré have all been abusers, but it’s incredibly easy for them to point to R. Kelly and say, “That man is a monster. I would never do what he’s done,” even though these men have all left scars and bruises, physical, emotional, and psychological, in their wake.
We can’t ignore or conveniently forget other types of violence simply because R. Kelly’s particular brand of violence is in the spotlight right now. Their violence may look different, but it’s still violence and it will always be relevant to the conversation. We have to remember that this cultural moment is about far more than the despicable things R. Kelly has done, and we cannot allow others to use him or anyone else’s more visible forms of misconduct in order to deflect from their own.
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