The recent airing of Surviving R. Kelly, a docuseries giving spotlight to alleged victims and witnesses of multiple cases of sexual abuse committed by producer and singer R. Kelly, has reignited an ongoing conversation about how girls are exploited in the music industry. Although the allegations against the self-proclaimed ‘Pied Piper’ which span decades are shocking to say the least considering how his popularity has been maintained throughout the years, the experiences being reported echo stories we’ve heard before. Fame and the power it brings gives abusers the power to abuse and sexually exploit children, in this case, allegedly; their fans.
Although the seriousness of the abuse is acknowledged in a level of public outrage, the social popularity of the abusers often causes a large amount of the resulting blame to fall on the parents and families of the victims, and the victims themselves no matter how young they were when the grooming or abuse started.
Where were the parents?
In many cases of child sexual exploitation (CSE) involving celebrities and non-celebrities, there is a disproportionate amount of blame put on the parents. Where were they? Why didn’t they protect their children? But in many cases the control of the perpetrator has a larger influence over the victim than that of the parents. Abusers can lie and manipulate their victims to make them believe their families do not want or know what’s best for them, that they won’t be believed if they speak out, and make them believe they couldn’t escape if they tried. Gifts, money, industry opportunities and/or blackmail (threatening to ‘expose’ them if the leave) are used to coerce and maintain control over victims. It’s not as simple as all parents just not caring or not trying at all to protect and save their children from abuse. It’s equally unfair to suggest that the victims should just ‘know better’ or are willing victims because of the perceived gain, the ‘lifestyle’, that is used to exploit them.
Child sexual exploitation occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual (Department for Education, 2017).
In all cases of abuse, the ultimate blame belongs with the abuser. Misplacing blame primarily onto parents or even the victims themselves only acts as an enabler for the abuse to continue and for injustice to remain, because it stops us from focusing on the biggest problem: the abuser.
Why do we blame the victims?
A level of victim-blaming exists in us all. Is it just easier for us when we hear about these crimes to blame the parents or the victims? Because if we do that we think we remove the possibility of it happening to us and our children; because we wouldn’t let it happen. Is it easier for us to put the blame on parents or victims rather than acknowledge the risk of the abuser? It can feel impossible to engage with abusers’ behaviour and what causes it, and that can be why we focus just on victims.
Reinforcing victim-blaming narratives strengthens the idea that abuse is inevitable due to the victim’s or parent’s behaviour or actions. This can encourage an acceptance of abuse if it occurs – because ‘it’s their fault’. Instead, we want to empower victims and their families to avoid and escape dangerous situations, and work to create wider environments where abuse is not tolerated. Protecting children involves strengthening their protective environment, including building awareness in and the resilience of parents against CSE, and this can and should be done without categorically blaming families or victims if the abuse occurs – and maintaining the blame where it ultimately belongs – with the abuser.