My Harsh Realization On the Definition of Victim Blaming
The airing of the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries forced me to face a harsh realization on rape culture in the Black community and the definition of victim blaming.
The first weekend of 2019 opened up with a social media blaze. While college football bowl games and the NFL Wildcard were at the top of the list, there was nothing trending harder or longer than Lifetime’s docuseries chronicaling the lifestyle of whom many call the King of R&B, musician Robert Kelly – better known as simply R. Kelly.
You could hardly find a post, status, or tweet that didn’t center on #SurvivingRKelly. It almost became exhausting to me, considering I had not seen the six part docuseries at the time. I told myself I wasn’t interested. I claimed I would “watch it later.” I figured having been aware of the allegations, the trial and the tapes, that there was nothing new for me to really be intrigued by. But deep down, I knew why I wasn’t really trying to watch it or why I didn’t seem to sympathize that much with the victims.
I was triggered.
I couldn’t even explain why watching this would bother me. I had never been molested, sexually assaulted, or abused. However, watching this series would force me to realize what I was unwilling to accept- that I too had been taken advantage of by someone who should have known better and done better.
After finally watching the series, specifically episode two where Lisa Van Allen is introduced, I immediately felt the bottom of my stomach drop. I knew what she meant when she stated that she felt special to Kelly and that she believed she was the only one. That maybe she was the only young girl he liked. I related to her, because I had been in her shoes.
Only I was much younger...
It was February of 1999. It had to be close to 30 degrees this wintery day, but inside the gymnasium, packed with alumni and students alike, it was blistering hot. This was the second biggest basketball game of the year: Martin Luther King Jr. High School versus Cass Technical High School. These were two of the most prestigious public high schools in the city and arguably the biggest rivalry in all of Detroit Public High Schools.
Halftime was nearing and I felt this was the perfect time to scan the crowd for cuties. Smiling as bright as the sun’s reach, I waved in a Miss America fashion at all the familiar faces, all the while searching the bleachers for new faces that could possibly become new friends. When you’re a cheerleader, it’s not hard to get people to notice you on the sideline during a basketball game. Our uniforms were the typical short pleated skirts and halter tops that bore the letters MLK across the chest in the school colors of black, white, and gold. I had worked tirelessly to become a member of the cheer team, to wear those letters, and to be on that sideline, but really, I was just working hard to be noticed.
I was a freshman and popularity was everything. I wanted to have the same notoriety that my upperclassmen teammates had. I wanted to be included in the conversations of dating and say that I had experienced the same kinds of late night escapades that the juniors and seniors so often glorified. But the truth is, my upbringing was very traditional. I could barely breathe in my house without someone else being there, so there was no way I would be able to sneak away and indulge in the lifestyle that my teammates spoke of. Boys couldn’t call my home after 8:00pm. Either my mother or my grandfather dropped me off and picked me up from school everyday. And, I certainly wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend.
This became tiresome. My circle was doing more and in my young mind, I was ready to do more as well. Like some of the women in the docuseries, I believed I was wise beyond my years. I had heard enough stories. I had read enough books. I had seen enough movies and watched enough episodes of Real Sex late night on HBO to convince myself I was fully capable of making a decision that truthfully my 14 year old brain was not developed enough to make. I was ready to go all the way. But not with just anyone, he had to be a “man.”
Before the game concluded, I locked eyes on an attractive young man sitting around the former players of the program. Every movement I made, every cheer I led, and every chant I yelled he watched. The attention I sought I found, and at the end of the game, he finally mustered up the courage to approach me. The conversation was civil and respectful, eventually leading to the exchange of phone numbers.
Similar to how Kelly eased his way in the minds of his victims, this fellow didn’t immediately come on to me. Through several conversations and weeks of AOL chatting, I learned he was a former King student and was currently taking classes at the local community college. Why would a college student want to entertain a freshman in high school? Still a burning question I ask myself. But while this should have been an immediate trigger to end the conversation, it just intrigued me more.
He still lived in the area, five minutes away from the school to be exact. We had actually crossed paths before, as he had seen me in the Coney Island directly behind the school a few times. I thought I liked him. He spoke to me not as a child like so many others, but as an equal, a partner, an adult. All I could think was this was my chance.This was my “in.” If I could snag an alumnus for a boyfriend, a college man at that, my upperclassmen teammates would include me. They would accept me. They would respect me.
I had not asked his age, but he surely inquired about mine. Unlike Van Allen who initially lied about her age to Kelly, I was upfront and honest about mine...at least in this instance. My adolescent brain was advanced academically and my teenage body was heavily developed in areas that some grown women had not yet to begin to fill, but I was merely a novice in the area of courtship with a man of this magnitude. To me, I was being just as promiscuous as any other ninth grader who had been exposed to sexual behaviors and sexual content at an early age. So when the day came the he offered to pick me up during school hours, I happily accepted. This was my test to see how far was I really willing to go for the sake of inclusion.
Vocational tech students would be entering and exiting the building between noon and one, which meant it would be easy for me to walk right out the back door without being seen. I stood out there waiting for him, nervous, excited, and scared all at the same time. At no point did I think to go back inside. At no point did I say to myself, “Terrika, not only is skipping school wrong as hell, but you don’t know him for real… don’t do it.” Instead, when I saw his green Toyota Camry with gold trim pull up to the door, I hopped in eager to see what would await me once we reached our destination.
From the moment I walked in the door of his apartment, which was within walking distance of the school, the manipulation began. Like Kelly, he made me feel like the world was about me. He never ceased to tell me how pretty I was, how much he had been waiting to finally be alone with me, how much more “mature” I was than any other girl he had met or talked to from “the school” and I ate it all up.
A part of me had been longing to hear a man say to me how much he adored me, in the same way my peers had told stories of their encounters with their older friends. Soon, words turned into touches, touches turned into actions, and eventually I was lying there with my eyes closed to avoid seeing the Jordans on the floor, the Nintendo 64 connected to the television and the very clear signs that this was no apartment shared with another adult or a parent. This was a bachelor pad that could only have belonged to a grown ass man. It only took seconds to notice affirmation of my assumption when I saw his diploma hanging on the wall in a black and gold frame indicating that he had graduated from high school in 1996 (which would have put me in sixth grade at the time). And yet, the realization still had not hit me that I was preparing to lose my virginity to a 21 year old man.
I had a choice to make: continue to engage in intercourse with someone who was old enough to have kids of his own, or ask him to stop and take me back to school. To me the choice was clear.
I asked him did he have protection.
I had never lied about my age. I had never pretended that I wasn’t a freshman. He knew the strict rules of my parents and clearly he knew where I went to school. He knew it all. He didn’t care. And my fragile mind didn’t either.
During our encounter, he continually reminded me how much of a “woman” I was. Something I never realized would become a problem later in life. I was ruined. Not physically, but psychologically, emotionally, and I didnt even know it. I mean, if I could snatch a 21 year old, what the heck would I need with a guy my own age for? My childhood in that aspect was gone. He had done just what he said he was going to do: make a woman out of a 14 year old child.
After that, I created a standard for myself, almost like a requirement, that the guys I entertained were 18 or older. This was my normal. And sadly, the normal for many other young girls just like me. Just like the women in Surviving R. Kelly.
Fortunately for me, I was not raped. I was not forcefully held against my will. I was not made to do anything that I didn’t consensually agree to do . . . as much as a 14 year old can consent. I never saw myself as a victim…until I watched Surviving R. Kelly. This series made me realize that I couldn’t be more wrong.
“The sad horrible part about rape culture is that it convinces us that even though we "know" something is wrong and do it anyway, that it means we played a "knowledgeable" role in those decisions. "
Charna Wilson, Mercer University School of Medicine MFT graduate student
For 20 years I convinced myself that I was being “fast”. That I should have had my “ass whupped” because I was not “naive” and “knew what I was doing” when I engaged in sexual activity with men well over 18 years old.
However, Charna Wilson, MFT graduate student at Mercer University School of Medicine explains how this notion of lack of naivety only encourages predatory behaviors.
“No matter how smart you are, educated or exposed, your brain at that age isn’t developed to a place where the decisions you are making are outside of the naive category.
“The sad horrible part about rape culture is that it convinces us that even though we "know" something is wrong and do it anyway, that it means we played a "knowledgeable" role in those decisions. However, when your knowledge base was naive from the very beginning, you are being taken advantage of and are just as much a victim; it’s very similar to someone being coerced.”
Wilson continued, “In rape culture being sexually active is often “cool” for young boys. Many young women see it as liberating to help them reach their “cool” status when on the other hand, young girls are classified as being fast, sluts, and whores.”
Watching Surviving R. Kelly broke me down in a way that I still can’t find the words to articulate. I found it incredibly difficult for me to sympathize with these women because I was ‘that’ young girl. For many years, this experience was borderline a bragging tool for me. I was proud that I had experience far beyond those my age group because, “I’d been messing with older men since I was 14.” I victim blamed myself without knowing it by continually repeating that it was always my fault, that I allowed this to happen, and it was my call for being in those situations to begin with. I reinforced in my mind that since these men didn’t force themselves on me, it must have been my own problem for being a “mannish and fast tailed little girl.”
Not once, at any point in these past 20 years, have I ever placed or pointed the finger of blame at the male adults who entangled me in their pedophelia. Not once did I ever question their morality or psyche. I was and am a victim, even though I never saw myself as one. And here we are, almost three months into the year 2019, and a new R. Kelly allegation has arisen. At what point do we realize that silence is not golden. Not all the time.
For me, my silence ends today.