Musician R. Kelly has been the subject of investigations, indictments, and lawsuits for decades. Most recently, the singer was indicted in Chicago in a lawsuit that accuses Kelly of sexually abusing four victims - three of whom were between the ages of 13 and 16 at the time - over a span of a dozen years. Through it all, the musician has maintained his innocence and has presented statements from other underage victims who reiterate that they remain in consenting relationships with Kelly.
This idea that girls would willingly subject themselves to a relationship in which their attire, food and even their bathroom use are all direct by someone else can be confusing to an outsider’s perspective. But the method used to teach an individual to accept an abusive relationship, known as “grooming,” is a process that has long been used by traffickers to continue their own cycle of trauma and abuse.
“Grooming is the slow, methodical, and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized,” Eric Marlowe Garrison, a sex counselor and author, said in an interview with Allure. “After [the perpetrators] find their targets, they then gain trust and move in from there.”
Grooming commonly starts with friendship. Specifically in Kelly’s case, grooming typically started with a promise to help a young singer with her music career. An abuser or trafficker approaches a victim with the promise of care and companionship, security and support, but then they will slowly convince their victim that they are the only one who cares about them. Teens who feel isolated and alone, or have run away from home, are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Kyra Wooden, Director of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Youth Program, explains that “youths are more likely to fall victim to the trafficker’s ploys because of emotional wounds and voids that the trafficker promises to heal.”
Like sex traffickers, Kelly systematically selected his victims, looking for individuals who felt as though they didn’t belong. His victims were girls who had big dreams and needed his help in order to make them come true. As the Lifetime documentary Surviving R Kelly points out, almost all of Kelly’s victims are girls of color - girls who have been taught by society that their lives are worth less than white children. This often leaves Black girls more vulnerable to all forms of exploitation.
After establishing a foundation of trust and care, abusers and traffickers will then start to make requests of the victim to judge how far his or her boundaries can be pushed. What might begin as a request to wear certain clothes or use certain names will slowly escalate to the point where an individual is no longer allowed to leave a room without gaining permission.
Throughout this process, the victim is isolated, which leads him or her to believe that there are no other options. To accelerate this, traffickers will confiscate a victim’s identification documents and money, which makes a victim even more reliant on his or her trafficker. The more an abuser is able to keep an individual from his or her support networks, the easier it is for the abuser to remain in control. As Dawn Michael, PhD, a sexuality counselor explained to Allure, the resulting behavior on the part of the victim can look to an outsider as though he or she has been “brainwashed.”
“The more they can cut off other people [who] are close [with the victim], the more power they have over that person, because they’re not going to have as much outside influence,” Michael said.
In Surviving R. Kelly, several interviewees described the two different sides of the singer: the one who was loving and confided in them about his own sexual abuse as a child and then the one who would withhold food from them for days when he was angry. This cycle of explosions and reconciliation manipulates victims psychologically, and as one psychologist puts in Surviving R. Kelly, creates “chains and handcuffs that are all mental.”
For many victims of abuse, the first step to breaking the cycle is the realization that their relationships aren’t healthy. The beginning of that realization can be as simple as receiving information for the first time about what a healthy relationship looks like. A core focus of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Program is helping participants understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships and how traffickers manipulate those relationships - a process that had led some participants to self-identify as victims of trafficking or question the nature of their relationships.
“Child sexual exploitation, grooming, and avoiding toxic relationships are all very complex in nature,” Wooden, said. “Students need to learn preventative and protective behaviors because the tactics for luring and grooming are more intricate and conniving than young people are familiar with. Overall, teaching youth to understand their right to have relationships without hurt and pain can ultimately save a student’s life.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, help is available at the National Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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