Surviving R Kelly and all the other predators hiding in plain sight

Terry Simelane-Mathabathe

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Has preying on teenage girls become an accepted norm in our society? When Surviving R Kelly aired on the 3rd January, it became more than just an expose of the deeds of a predator hiding in plain sight, it opened up the wounds of women and girls all over the world who have been preyed […]

Has preying on teenage girls become an accepted norm in our society?

When Surviving R Kelly aired on the 3rd January, it became more than just an expose of the deeds of a predator hiding in plain sight, it opened up the wounds of women and girls all over the world who have been preyed upon by older men.

We were all forced to stare at our past in a way that we haven’t before. We remember that dodgy taxi driver that used to pick up girls after school and that teacher who seemed to always have a particular interest in the “well developed” girls. We knew a girl that was being fetched from school in a nice car by a much older man. We knew an uncle that always seemed to hug too tightly or say inappropriate things. We as women now had to admit that we too have been preyed upon and groomed by men who were way too old to be interested in us at the time.

What is it, you may ask, that allows a man like R Kelly to survive and thrive in society for over 20 years despite countless lawsuits and a sex tape? It is societal norms like rape culture and victim blaming that allows not only R Kelly, but countless men to prey on young girls over and over again.

Victim blaming has become a knee jerk response to predatory behaviour. When older men lurk around high schools chatting up underage girls, we blame the short skirts and school uniforms and we call the girls “fast”. No one seems to ask why these men hang around high schools in the first place. I remember a conversation that I had with family members about the principal from Reiger Park High School who raped girls from the school. The conversation quickly moved from “men are sick” to “but girls these days are very jas”. When will we hold grown men accountable for preying on young girls?

Recently the MEC of health in Limpopo, Dr Phophi Ramathuba, made a shocking statement about teenage pregnancy. She went on to say that she visited various schools in the area and spoke to some of the learners “I was impressed when they told their stories, some were poor and orphaned, but did not use sex as a hobby nor an alternative way of entertainment.” Not once in her statements did Dr Ramathuba mention the fathers of the unborn children.

This is the slut shaming that allows predators to hide when they are caught out.  

We need to acknowledge that older men wanting to have sex or relationships with teenage girls is less about love or even sexual attraction but really about control. Older men who prey on these girls are aware of the vulnerability and impressionability. According to an article published in the Lancet Global Health journal, the economic and social pressures that result in young women having transactional sex or older partners also contribute to unequal power dynamics within a relationship.

Who can forget the Blesser “phenomenon”? The country was flooded with stories of young girls in their teens and twenties participating in transactional sexual relationships with much older men. There were documentaries, books and campaigns in high schools all geared at teaching young girls that being blessed is bad. Actual shaming of blessers were few and far between. We focused on the poor and vulnerable teenage girls who were receiving the money and we did not focus very long on the middle-aged men who were using money and influence to lure these girls into unequal relationships. We became “oversaturated” with stories of teenage girls getting airtime and eWallets and soon, like we do with most serious issues, we turned “blessing” into a running joke.

Predators seek to prey on the weak and as such, some men prey on girls who are younger than 12. It was reported in the most recent crime stats, that of the overall rape stats in the country; 41% of the victims are children. Only 21% of child rapes reported result in convictions. This does not include cases of statutory rape and child sexual grooming. And since the age of consent is 16, it doesn’t include “consensual” sex with teenagers over 16.

It is time for us to look within and dismantle the structures that allow men to prey on teenage girls. We often are afraid to confront these men because of their positions in society. Remember that the same R Kelly that preyed on young girls, is the same man who wrote and sang You Saved Me. These men attain positions of power using charisma and charm. In the case of pastors, they use religion. They mask the dark side with being an upstanding member of society.

It is time for us to talk about the icky transport drivers and uncles that are too familiar. We need to speak about celebrities like Bricks, Jerry Lee Lewis, R Kelly and Jay Z. We need to stop supporting and making excuses for our neighbours and pastors who sexualise girls and slut-shame teens. We need to report predators and put them on blast. Unless we take an active role in ostracising predators, they will continue to walk proudly among us, unafraid of consequences and emboldened by our silence.