What do we do with the news of R. Kelly?

The reckoning that has come to Hollywood demands that we take greater action than in the past.

I’m not entirely sure what justice looks like, particularly when the criminal act is sexual abuse. There is nothing simple about the consequences when it comes to the convoluted manner in which sexual abuse is adjudicated.

The main dynamic of a sexually abusive relationship is an unequal power duality. Power is situated in inconspicuous ways, but the most obvious is seen in the celebrity — or the coercive power of the celebrity. Society is naturally stratified where those who hold cultural capital have intimidating power magnified, especially when that person has a sort of paragon status.

R. Kelly, since the early ‘90s, has been a stereotypical image of hyper-virile masculine sexuality. The epic scope of his exploits has been documented in the criminal accusations levied against him. He is a living example of a toxic power fantasy dramatically played out in the cultural theatre.

For years, there has been an omnipresent headline in the entertainment column that reads something like, “R. Kelly sexually abuses women … again.” Every day, the average reader skims past it, saying, “Huh? Wow.” And then moves on. The very nature of his music capitalizes on the eschewing of this specific brand of sexual consumption — the consummation of the young and innocent.

Sexual power depends on naïveté, at least in its most predatory form. For those who see sex as an end goal (as an act of consumption), there has to be the consumed (i.e., the gullible and the innocent who do not have a vocabulary or underlying ideology to contend with the persuasiveness of power).

It comes as a surprise to me that R. Kelly has actually been arrested and charged with 10 counts of aggravated sexual assault. Who knows if he will be convicted? Our vocabulary for this topic is aged and almost primal; I hear such things as, “hat’s disgusting, deplorable, depraved.” All of this seems so intensely reactionary — as it should be. A fundamental human feeling is disgust.

Disgust, which can societally alienate or denounce an individual, cannot and does not enable us to handle our modern duties: justice, equity and integrity, to name a few. Even when we do address crime and punishment, it becomes an anatomical debate of tautological policy. Our bodies are the primary focus, which allow us to look at the material representation of wrongdoing. There is video evidence that R. Kelly was in a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old. How do we contend with the ideological symptoms of this outside of the context of our visceral reaction?

It seems like a narrow road with no turn-offs. We can posse up and bring vigilante justice to every sickening fiend we see, bringing a wild, violent revolution to those with a twisted sexual ideology. There is also reverting to the old path of strongly reprimanding the perverts and tossing them in the clink for life. Neither of these solutions are satisfying because, somehow, we have to keep returning back to the same discussion.

It is hard to not arrive at the same solution as always: more education! More understanding! More acceptance! More discussion! Bring it out of the shadows! What must happen first is a recognition, and then a prosecution of abusive power relations. Yes, that has begun with our Weinsteins, Cosbys and others. But an expanded vocabulary for the young and innocent, rather than the reliance on some sort of communal feeling of disgust, must enter our colloquial discussion.

Most of all, this must be discussed outside of the political, partisan realm, in which dialogues are steeped in the ethics of power amid their very notions. Our ideological health is dependent on a renewed consciousness, rather than abhorrence.

Post Author: Thomas von Borstel