A photo from the San Francisco event marking the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in 2010. (credit: Steve Rhodes, via Creative Commons)
Last month, I dropped my daughter off with my mother and went into San Francisco to be a part of the tenth annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
On the train on the way over, I spent some time on Twitter. That morning, news about R. Kelly was blowing up my feed. Finally, it seems like music fans are actually talking about the outrageousness of his new album Black Panties, whose cover and promo campaign include images that are practically bragging about his appetite for black teenage girls.
When I got to the International Day to End Violence event, I was confronted with an altar that held photos, candles, and a list of the sex workers who had been murdered over the previous year. Some were killed by male partners, some by clients, some by police, some targeted by serial killers. The list named how they were found: decapitated, in pieces, stabbed repeatedly. They named the number of children they had left behind. They died in Europe and Iran and Nigeria and Canada and Asia and the US. Many were trans women of color.
When the program started, writer and sex worker Gina de Vries read a deeply moving piece about the centrality of the body and the need to hold your body as a source of joy. Later, an African heritage stripper and performer named Cinnamon M. did a striptease to Florence & The Machine’s song “The Dog Days Are Over”—she started with her ample and curvaceous body covered in plastic wrap with words like “cunt” “nigger” “poor” drawn on it, and proceeded, in the strip tease, to rip off the word-covered plastic.
A protest sign from the San Francisco event marking the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in 2010. (credit:Steve Rhodes, via Creative Commons)
I couldn’t stay long. My babysitting window was limited, and the commute time was nearly two hours round-trip. On my way home, the two stories began to swirl in my head: R. Kelly and sex work, violence against sex workers and the violence of R. Kelly. Both are stories that are deeply about gender, sex, violence, and the law.
Across the nation, the law punishes sex workers for using their bodies in the way they consent to. But it won’t punish R Kelly for abusing young women without their legal consent. I participated in the recent hashtag on Twitter #notyourrescueproject which featured many sex workers sharply criticizing attempts to label everyone selling sexual services as a monolith of victims. Meanwhile, in the case of R. Kelly, where there are numerous documented cases of sexually victimized underage girls, Kelly has not been convicted or done any jail time. As Chicago reporter Jim DeRogatis said in his dogged reporting on the case: "The saddest fact I've learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody."
R. Kelly’s case reinforces how young black women’s bodies are seen as sexually available. Trumping their age and legal status, they are seen as unrapeable. In all of it, we see that justice is neither blind nor balanced. A lot of this comes down to money: when it’s rich, famous men having sex, their behavior is seen as acceptable. When it’s small groups of women and queer folks having sex to make a living, they are criminalized, prohibited, stigmatized, and marginalized.
R. Kelly is a predator. He preyed on young black teen girls, cultivating them with gifts, cash, and attention. He knows just where young poor and working class girls are vulnerable. We grow up without our dads, or if they’re physically present, we don’t feel we fully have their love. We grow up hungry to be special. Many of us lack material resources in a community where young people judge and attack each other viciously if our poverty shows on the outside.
In our rape-friendly culture, women are so beleaguered that a male artist could win a legion of adoring female fans for writing a song called, “Only Fuck Her if She Says Yes.” The bar has gotten that low.
The predator needs support to provide him cover. R. Kelly collaborators Lady Gaga, Kelly Rowland, and all people who give Black Panties a good review without mentioning his horrific history are complicit in the continued lack of accountability for R. Kelly. While I insist that he needs to be held accountable, I will always hold him with the compassion of context for his actions, as a black man who was sexually assaulted repeatedly as a child and didn’t have anyone to help him heal from that. I’m not offering excuses for his behavior; I’m identifying the root of his behavior. His behavior needs to be stopped. We need to boycott his work. He needs a serious psychological intervention. The music and entertainment industry and mainstream media need to stop enabling, excusing, and euphemizing his rape history, and the proceeds of his music need to go toward creating healing and justice for his victims. What an incredible healing that would be for the African American community. That would be a public defiance of the legacy of slavery that would have us believe ourselves and behave like beasts and monsters—a deep reclaiming of the truth of our humanity.
For now, we’re stuck with reality.
I was a little late getting home to pick up my daughter. She crashed soon after I got her into pajamas. But I stayed awake for a long time, thinking about our daughters, and remembering the anti-violence event. I want young people of all genders to be able to peel off the words and ideas that subjugate them and to grow up to make art about and fight for a more just world.
Writer and performer Aya de Leon is working on a sex worker heist novel. She blogs at ayadeleon.wordpress.com. Check out her #BoycottRKelly parody series of Black Panties images.