I have insomnia on the regular, but nothing like I’ve had since the Lifetime network debuted its Surviving R. Kelly docuseries.
The series laid out accusations that the R&B singer-producer groomed and abused girls and young women. I cringed through the first episodes, but I was relieved that the series clearly showed R. Kelly as a predator. I was also relieved to see the outpouring of empathy toward the accusers and how the documentary addresses why years of his abuse went ignored and unpunished: because Black girls and women are so sexualized and undervalued that we’re not allowed to be victims.
But what left me sleepless is how quickly people assume that all young people having relationships with older partners are being manipulated—partly because the open secret of R. Kelly’s obsession with underaged girls has set the tone for this conversation for as long as I can remember. Don’t get me wrong: We have to make communities safe for Black girls and women, but we don’t have to take away their agency because history has denied them victim status.
Last year, I ended up in the Chicago Tribune, Billboard, the Washington Times, and other national media outlets when I wrote a letter asking the coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina, to cancel an R. Kelly show as part of the #MuteRKelly movement. Because I was visible then, Surviving R. Kelly viewers turned to me via social media this weekend and asked if I was doing this activism because I’d been abused by a pedophile.
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This has kept me up at night, questioning every interaction and relationship that I thought served me well. Was I abused by my older boyfriend? Should my teenager think that her supportive father was a pedophile?
I became a mother at age 15; my child’s father was 19. As a teen, I had sexual relationships with older men, relationships that were clearly illegal. Some of the relationships were abusive. Some of those men I consider ex-partners, not abusers. I spent more than enough time in both my adolescence and adulthood navigating my own abuse and victimization to be clear on the difference.
Still, well-meaning folks will tell me that I’m a textbook victim who identifies with their abuser.
Here’s what I say to that: Beyond my personal experience, I work with teen parents on a daily basis. I know better than most that men between the ages of 20 and 30 father 39 percent of children born to 15-year-old moms. I’ve reported cases of older men having sex with minors, and I’ve been in the delivery room as a doula for the babies born from those unions. I’ve been on many sides of the issue. And, again, I can tell you the majority of the young mothers I know do not consider themselves victims.
I’m left with more questions than answers because issues of youth, consent, and sexuality are complicated—and they should be a prime topic for reproductive justice advocates. Can we have a discussion that recognizes that not every teen was tricked by an older man and that teens make decisions about their lives—good and bad? Can we picture scenarios other than automatic victimhood?
Should we think about male adolescents—who might technically be of age or adults—who have relationships with minors the same way we think about much older grown men who pursue girls?
If we acknowledge that teens have free will—because there are the black-and-white absolutes of the law, but there’s also how people behave in real life—how do we distinguish between these relationships and the rapes of predators like R. Kelly?
And if we’re so invested in protecting Black girls, why name them as victims more quickly than we call out those who harm them?
As a person who works with youth, I believe that it’s possible to hold R. Kelly and his accomplices accountable and, at the same time, to not assume all youth are incapable of making decisions about being sexually active. There’s the reality that young people are sexual beings, and we need to make sure that they aren’t falling “victim” to exploitation and instead are confident and informed enough to be sexually active, safe, and liberated.
There is no universal standard of teen sexual behavior, though it seems we’ve bought into a very one-dimensional idea of what teens are doing—a spectrum that goes from hugs and hand-holding to sexual assault. It swings from the chaste to the illegal, rarely focusing on the in-between and focusing on pregnancy prevention and restrictions rather than better preparing them for sexual interactions. Many teens aren’t learning the social, emotional, or physical aspects of sex. And to be transparent, neither did people in my generation, which explains this generation of 30-year-olds who fake orgasms and don’t possess the emotional and social essentials for adult sex.
I spent most of my childhood policing myself or being policed so I wouldn’t be sexualized. I threw out my favorite shirt when I went up a bra size because it was too “revealing.” Relatives chastised me for being “fast” when I rode in cars with boys.
But when I was a rising freshman in high school, I decided I was finished with that. I’d watched my friends unravel sexually and emotionally due to lack of information and support. I decided that I’d educate myself and learn my own body because nobody—not the school, not my parents—was going to teach me honestly and with the details I wanted to know. I read articles and books about my body and sexuality. I explored my older cousin’s Zane collections and asked myself if I was mentally ready to have sex. I eased myself into sexual experiences and was intentional about being sure my partners had some kind of knowledge and experience in exchange.
And, yes, even though I prepared myself, I got pregnant, which doesn’t mean I wasn’t ready for sex. It meant I didn’t have access to contraception or the means to access any resources, and I had an unintended pregnancy just like millions of girls and women do every year.
I’m still educating myself. Even with so many movements working to undo the sexualization of Black girls and women, we neglect to remember that we can be sexual on our own terms, without coercion.
Organizing around adolescent sexual health and the #MuteRKelly movement forced me to do a lot of self-inventory. My undoing that freshman year was not due to becoming sexually active or dating someone who had just graduated. Hell, it wasn’t even because I got pregnant. It was that so many people assumed I wasn’t what they considered “ready” to even invest in my happiness or well-being.
I’m many things. A mother, an organizer, a reproductive revolutionary. But in regard to my past relationships and possibly the best thing that ever happened to me—my daughter—I am no one’s victim.