R. Kelly — Ephebophilia And the Elephant in the Room
First, allow me to begin by clarifying a common misconception. R. Kelly is not a pedophile, he is an ephebophile. While both illnesses are socially, physically, and emotionally destructive, there are some distinctions primarily along the line of preference that can be immensely helpful in identifying this type of predatory illness. While a pedophile has a sexual interest in prepubescent children (usually ages 13 or younger), ephebophiles have a primary sexual interest in children in their mid-to-late adolescent stages of development (generally ages 15 to 19). The information that has been presented over the years suggests that Kelly is likely an ephebophile.
Having made this distinction, I offer up the fact that R. Kelly is simply a microcosm of a much larger issue — a reminder of the elephant in the room — an elephant that we have become far too comfortable sharing space with.
Growing up in the inner-city, I cannot say that there was high exposure to or heightened awareness of pedophiles. I knew they existed because my great-grandmother (adopted mother) constantly warned me about them as a child. I was told not to get close to strangers, not to go into the homes of people I did not know, and to never accept rides from anyone but her and my great-grandfather.
What I observed in large numbers were men who voiced and acted out ephebophilic thoughts and behavior. I saw grown men talking about how fine little Sonya had gotten when Sonya was only 14. I heard, far more than I care to remember, grown men say, “if she is old enough to bleed, she is old enough to breed.” It was obvious that this thinking and behavior was a part of the culture that existed as a legacy of slavery.
When people ask me why there is such a great and distinctive divide when addressing the R. Kelly saga, the answer, while complex in dynamic, is easy to explain. People are responding based on their childhood experiences that have created biases in the area of perception. The level and rate of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) in the Black community is beyond alarming. While Black females are disproportionately affected, Black males are not exempt.
Even using the most conservative estimates, Black women are the most affected group in the U.S., with nearly 40 percent of Black females reporting that they were sexually molested or raped before the age of eighteen (Amodeo, Griffin, & Fassler, 2006). There are studies that suggest that as much as 60 percent of Black females experience some form of CSA before the age of eighteen (Hargrove, 2014).
I can remember at least two families in the inner-city community in which I grew up that had a very odd dynamic in which men sired children with their daughters. What I reflect on now is how that behavior was normalized despite not being a predominate behavior among the men in the community. One misconception is that a majority of a group has to participate in a certain behavior in order for the behavior to become normalized among the group. This is simply not true. All it takes is for the behavior not to be challenged and it will become a normalized part of the social construct.
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People knew what was going on but no one did anything about it. I can only imagine the helplessness that the victims felt. How did they reconcile how they were being treated in comparison to their friends in the neighborhood? How were the young boys growing up in the neighborhood interpreting this behavior and how would it affect their behavior in the future.
It is time to confront the elephant in the room. We need to have serious discussions about CSA in the Black community. CSA is a traumatic force that destroys lives and generations if not confronted and dealt with. There is a culture of silent condonation as most sexual abuse goes unreported (Hargrove, 2014; Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Victims, 2014).
When I examine the psychological and social dynamics of the R. Kelly case, I see the fallible culture of silent condonation. There have been suspicions and allegations surrounding R. Kelly’s ephebophilic fetishes for over two decades and while there was a lot of talk about it, there was little done within the Black community. There was one case surrounding the initial tape that ended in an acquittal, but nothing more.
The great divide in this story can be traced back to childhood experiences and perpetuated behavior. For many, Kelly has become the surrogate for the person who violated them when they were young. Many others, though they will not admit it, can relate to Kelly. Even if they have never acted on the impulses, they have caught themselves staring at an underage girl in a manner that is inappropriate.
Both pedophilia and ephebophilia have gone largely unarrested in the Black community. You would not believe how many victims of CSA my wife (who is a survivor of CSA herself) and I have worked with that report that the family turns on them and ostracizes them when they decide to stand up for themselves and report the abuser. We must be willing to admit that there is a problem before the healing can begin. In my book, Born in Captivity: Psychopathology as a Legacy of Slavery, I go into depth on this issue and its negative impact on Black progress and empowerment.
There are some who would argue that R. Kelly is simply low-hanging fruit and that media moguls and producers are literally eating off of his demise, and you are right. However, one has to acknowledge that if Kelly would have been held accountable long ago through the Black community, instead of being enabled by so many — all of which should be held accountable as well — he just might have been saved from this feeding frenzy that is underway.
I have been very clear in my stance on CSA. I have absolutely no tolerance for it. It is easy to aim anger and hostility at R. Kelly as he serves as the poster-boy for CSA, but what he has done does not scratch the surface. He is simply being used as a distraction and a mechanism to create more confusion, division, and internal animosity in the Black community. We must develop protocols and practices designed to protect and insulate our children (Daro & Dodge, 2009).
I have been asked if I agree with the manner in which certain media outlets are producing heavily biased content or the fact that there are groups who have literally set themselves up to profit from the fall of R. Kelly. The simple answer is no, I don’t like what I see; however, until the same energy and ferocity that is being used in this fight for or against Kelly, to defend and protect Black children (male and female), that is where my focus will be. As I previously stated, we failed R. Kelly a long time ago on multiple occasions and those failures are bearing toxic fruit. Here is a question that I am more interested in getting an answer to. How long are we going to continue to leave our children exposed to the darkness of CSA? As we answer that question, we will be forced to look back and see that this did not start with R. Kelly and if nothing changes it will continue.
Our children deserve a safe space to develop into the powerful adults they have the potential to become. It is our responsibility to create that environment. This begins with the acknowledgment of the elephant in the room.
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Akbar, N. (1991). Mental Disorders Among African Americans. AFrican World Press.
Amodeo, M., Griffin, M. L., & Fassler, I. R. (2006). Childhood Sexual Abuse Among Black Women and White Women from Two-Parent Families. Sage Publishing Journal, doi: 10.1177/1077559506289186.
Daro, D., & Dodge, K. (2009). Creating Community Responsibility for Child Protection: Possibilities and Challenges. Center for the Future of Children.
Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Victims. (2014). The National Center for Victims of a Crime.
Hargrove, S. (2014). What’s Hidden in Plain Sight: A Look at Child Sexual Abuse. American Psychological Association.
Putnam, F. (2003). Ten-Year Research Update Review: Child Sexual Abuse. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent psychiatry, 28(3), 206-222.
Wallace, R. (2016). Molestation, Incest, and Rape in African-American Families. The Odyssey Project.
Wallace, R. (2017). Born in Captivity: Psychopathology as a Legacy of Slavery. Houston: Odyssey Media Group & Publishing House.