For three days, I cried with survivors, raged at parents and R. Kelly’s team of enablers, despaired at obviously brainwashed victims, and cheered for those who triumphed over the terrors exacted on them. I watched as a survivor of sexual assault, as a former teenage daughter, as a Black woman, as a former fan of R. Kelly’s music, as a wife, and as a mother. I had conversations with my husband, my girlfriends, my siblings, and with fellow members of communities I belong to. I managed to get myself blocked by a well-known clergyman because of a tweet I shot off in a fit of raw emotion.
Today, though…today was the day of self-reflection. I asked myself what I am doing to protect my own children from predators. Sure, I can start forbidding sleepovers. I can tell my kids that their body is theirs alone and no one is entitled to it. But what messages am I unwittingly sending them about how much they can trust me when they are hurt?
As I sifted through the reactions and hot takes regarding “Surviving R. Kelly”, something kept tugging at me: how many of those girls’ parents telegraphed that they could not be trusted and thus didn’t learn until it was too late what their daughters were going through? Make no mistake, I am not blaming the parents. R. Kelly is 100% responsible for any atrocities he committed and continues to commit. However, as parents, we have to not only empower our children to not fall prey to those who seek to exploit them, but give them an escape when every safeguard we put in place fails.
Have I ever preached personal responsibility for abuse in any way? As my daughter’s body is developing, can I be intentional in the words I use in guiding her clothing choices? Some time ago, a friend of mine posted a Facebook status admonishing young girls in the clothing choices they make in contemplation of the leering eyes of grown men. I took issue with it, even though these types of admonishments are not uncommon. By placing the onus on young girls to not make themselves desirable to predators (because let’s be crystal clear: a grown man admiring an adolescent girl’s body in a sexual way is predatory behavior), inevitably we make them feel that it is their fault in the unfortunate event that they are victimized. We live in more enlightened times. Most of us know better than to say about a sexual assault victim “Well, she asked for it because of the way she was dressed.” But we can express that in other ways. I want to be careful that I don’t do that.
It goes without saying that I want my children to know about consent; how to give it, how to refuse it, and how to ask for it. But one thing I have been examining within myself is how I enforce that in other ways. I was struck by how many of Kelly’s victims stated that they did not feel that they could say “no”. How often do I encourage my children that saying “no” to someone in an ostensible position of authority is okay? One of my children is a hugger and the other is not. For both of them, there are conversations to be had about establishing and respecting boundaries. More than that, though, I also have to make sure I’m respecting and enforcing their boundaries. That includes making sure they actually want to give a relative or friend a hug before I encourage them to do so. If they can’t trust me as their mother to validate their desire to say “no”, who can they trust to validate them in a potentially traumatic situation?
These aren’t the only questions I have asked of myself. Over the coming weeks, months, and years, the images and stories I became intimately familiar with over 72 hours will continue to haunt and challenge me. I will think about rumors of grown men messing around with my high school classmates. I will think about the people my children interact with at school, at church, and even within my own family. I will think about my own experience with sexual assault and those of people I love. My hope is that I am not the only parent having these thoughts. The best thing we can do for our children is to truly be people they can trust with their lives.