For many who watched the six-part documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” hearing directly from several women who described sexual abuse at the hands of the R&B star prompted a troubling question: Has Kelly remained popular and largely not faced criminal consequences because his accusers are black?
Rebecca Epstein, a researcher at Georgetown University, thinks so. She co-authored a 2017 study that found black girls are viewed by adults as more sexually mature than white girls in the same peer group. As a result, when black girls are victims of sexual assault, they are less likely to be believed by those who see them as older than they actually are.
“What our research indicates is that black girls face even greater skepticism by the figures that wield such authority over their lives than other victims of sexual violence,” said Epstein, executive director at the law school’s Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Regardless of the race of the victims, only 230 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. While many victims of sexual assault are doubted, black victims have it even worse.
The R. Kelly series, which drew an average of 2.1 million total viewers over its three-night run last week, looked at decades of accusations against Kelly, starting with his 1994 marriage to his 15-year-old protege, Aaliyah, a singer who rocketed to superstardom before her 2001 death in a plane crash. Allegations surfaced again in 2002, when a videotape surfaced that allegedly showed him having sex with a 14-year-old girl. In 2008, he was acquitted on 14 counts of child pornography. Last year, The Washington Post published an investigation in which six women said Kelly was abusive toward them.
Over the years, Kelly has denied the accusations against him. This week, Kelly’s attorney told the Associated Press that the documentary is just “another round of stories” to fill airtime. James Mason, the singer’s former manager, did not call return a call The Post left for him asking for comment. On Wednesday, CNN reported Mason had a warrant out for his arrest for allegedly threatening the father of Joycelyn Savage, whose family says she is being held captive by Kelly.
Kelly’s most loyal fans, including many women, have continued to support his music and defend him online amid the allegations. They attacked Andrea Kelly, the singer’s ex-wife, for appearing in the documentary and saying that she, too, had been abused by him. Skeptical fans and viewers criticized the women who came forward, the women’ parents for letting them associate with Kelly, the security guards who worked for him — everyone except Kelly himself.
The backlash against the accusers illustrates how black girls face harsh skepticism when revealing trauma in a society that effectively erases their girlhood, according to Epstein.
"Black girls face unique forms of bias that need to be addressed and that requires different consideration than the racism faced by boys,” Epstein said. “Hypersexualization is the epitome of that difference.”
“Adults are less likely to believe that they need nurturing and support,” Epstein said. “That may help explain why adults didn’t raise an issue to a 15-year-old girl marrying an older man.”
That view of black girls extends to the legal system. Advocates and activists point to the case of Cyntoia Brown. She served 15 years of a life sentence for the 2004 killing a 43-year-old stranger who she told police had brought her to his home for sex when she was 16 years old. This week Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Brown, who is now 30.
Brown was a victim of sex trafficking, yet local and national coverage around her case often refer to Brown being “solicited for sex,” “bought for sex” at age 16.
Not acknowledging black girls’ innocence as children and victims is what recent studies have also said contribute to a sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Research shows society won’t believe black girls who say they were abused, and when girls like Brown say they acted in self-defense, they’re punished, sometimes disproportionately so compared with white women.
The Georgetown report cited past research showing that black girls accused of crimes find less leniency in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors used their discretion to dismiss, on average, three of every 10 cases involving black girls, but dismissed seven of 10 cases involving white girls.
“We suspect that when a judge looks at a girl in front of them and is seeing in their mind’s eye a mature person who knew what they were doing, they will be less likely to extend them the hand of leniency,” Epstein said.
Alexandria Morgan of Her Healing, a psychotherapy practice that specializes in trauma-informed yoga, said that even the language used when talking about victims and accusers reveals an underlying biased against the victim. She noted this while watching the R. Kelly documentary as other ways we use language to disempower victims.
“One thing that stood out to me a lot was how the African American community responded to Kelly when the sex tape came out with the 14-year-old girl. He was charged with child pornography, but not child sexual abuse. It was like that wasn’t even important," Morgan said.
The documentary did prompt some victims to seek help. During the program’s premiere, calls to the RAINN’s sexual assault hotline increased by 27 percent.
Morgan has reported seeing an increase in black women requesting her psychotherapy services even before the documentary but not for the root of the problem.
“I noticed they weren't coming in to discuss their sexual abuse. They were coming in because of other factors in their life like anxiety or depression or having a difficult time in a relationship,” Morgan said. “Initially, they didn't even report that they had a history of child sexual abuse.”
And when girls do experience assault, advocates say society needs to change its response.
“There are layers of racism and sexism that present even more barriers to our listening to black women and girls,” Epstein said. “And that has to change.”