“Them girls knew what they was doing. They just out to get his money. I don’t care what he did. I’m gonna keep playin’ his music and I’m gonna party to it!” These passionate words were said to me by a fan and supporter of R&B singer, R. Kelly in 2003. I was visiting girlfriends in Atlanta for NBA All Star weekend. One night as we rode downtown, an R. Kelly song came on the radio. I and another woman asked for the station to be changed due to filed lawsuits and accusations about him having sex with teenage girls and videotaping these acts.
The fan who loved his music wanted to debate. She began to build her case by referencing how good his latest album, Chocolate Factory was. In her opinion, his single, Step In the Name of Love was probably one of his best songs. I told her I enjoyed the song as well but could not reconcile supporting his music when I believed the allegations were true. She did not understand why I would let “fast girls” who obviously wanted to have sex with R. Kelly turn me away from him and his music.
My response was simple, “I work with adults who have been sexually abused as children. I know too many people who’ve been hurt.” She was quiet for a moment and then disclosed she had been molested as a child. Yet she was adamant on making sure I understood she was not like those girls who were alleged victims of R. Kelly. She continued to praise him. “No matter what he did, you can’t take anything from his music!”
My memory of this incident was triggered recently when a friend told me comedian, Damon Wayans recently made insensitive remarks about the dozens of women who have come forward accusing Bill Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them (http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/07/bill-cosbys-accusers-speak-out.html). I watched Damon’s September 4th interview with the Breakfast Club. Calling his comments insensitive is an understatement. Referring to Cosby’s accusers as “unrapeable” and therefore unbelievable based on how they look is an appalling insult to all women.
When a famous person has been accused of sexual abuse, I expect a few things to happen: 1) dozens of news reports 2) thousands of shares of these reports on social media 3) shaming & blaming the people who said they were sexually assaulted and 4) defense of the alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse. Steps one and two rarely occur with everyday people. Unfortunately, steps three and four happen to almost everyone but are heightened in celebrity cases. Whether the alleged perpetrator is R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen or Bishop Eddie Long, people will rally to their defense because it’s easier for them to assume an accuser wants money instead of justice.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18 years old. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network) states 1 in 6 women have experienced an attempted or completed rape while the rate for men is 1 in 33. Statistics like these should motivate religious leaders and spiritual teachers to assist everyday people within their reach. If more of us denounced sexual abuse in high-profile cases and publically supported victims when they are shamed, it would show survivors of abuse and their loved ones that we care about their wellbeing.
Before I completed the second edition of my book, Hush Hush: An African American Family Breaks Their Silence on Sexuality & Sexual Abuse, I realized some aspects of Christian theology support patriarchy, sexism and sexual assault. It has been easy to point the finger at Christianity. However, after I became an ordained Interfaith minister, I learned my spiritual path of Ifa and other religions were not exempt from these issues. I have provided support to adults who were sexually harassed or abused by Rabbis, Orisa/Ifa priests, Christian and Non-denominational ministers. Now, I believe these issues exist in most traditions.
So what proactive steps can we take to help our spiritual and religious communities heal from sexual abuse and prevent it from happening in future generations?
1) Learn about sexuality and sexual abuse from professionals in the field. This is very important for seminary students, religious leaders, spiritual teachers and pastoral counselors. Sexual abuse cannot be prevented without exploring some of the inaccurate information we believe about sexuality.
2) Critically examine the theology and philosophy of your spiritual path or religious tradition. What does it say about sexuality, gender, children, abuse and violence? Then do an honest assessment to determine your values and beliefs about these issues.
3) Create a safe and sacred container for educational discussion on sexual abuse in your community. It is important to have sexual abuse prevention advocates, educators and/or counselors at your event to provide additional emotional and mental support.
4) Let your community know victims of sexual abuse will be supported and protected. Simultaneously hold perpetrators of abuse accountable regardless of who they are.
Any further action steps would be specific to the community you are serving. The most important aspect of the work is to show up with honesty, love and commitment.
Ironically, I am returning to Atlanta on September 20th. For the first time in many years, I will speak with teenage mothers in foster care. I know without a doubt some of them will be survivors similar to the R. Kelly supporter I met 12 years ago. As I prepare for this trip, I know the outcome I desire. I want these young women to feel: acknowledged, believed, validated and whole. We all have needed someone to do this for us at some point in our lives regardless of whether or not we were abused. The very least we can do for the people we serve, is to give the gift of compassion at the times they need it most.