Age Is More Than a Number: On R. Kelly & Why Age of Consent Laws Matter

In July, a Chicago-based reporter published a story alleging that R&B singer R. Kelly was holding young women in an abusive cult. This story was not shocking to anyone who has followed Kelly’s career or the numerous sexual assault allegations against him. Since the mid-1990’s, Kelly has faced both civil and criminal charges for sexually abusing minors, child pornography and related crimes. In 1994, when he was in his late 20’s, he started a relationship with then-14 year old singer Aaliyah. He later married her when she was just 15 years old. The title of Aaliyah’s debut album, with Kelly as her songwriter, was “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.

Despite seemingly solid evidence against him, such as videos of him having sex with girls as young as 14 years old, R. Kelly has never been convicted of sexual assault. He has settled multiple civil lawsuits against him. In the most recent allegations against Kelly, the 50 year old singer is alleged to have complete control over six young women; Kelly allegedly promised the women stardom, but quickly started abusing and controlling every aspect of their lives. Although there is significant evidence that Kelly is a serial sexual predator, many entertainers continue to work with him, including Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, Bruno Mars, and Pharrell.

R. Kelly presents an example of why age of consent laws are so important — and why age is more than just a number. It is generally accepted that the rational, decision-making part of the teenage brain — the prefrontal cortex — is not fully developed until the mid-20’s or later. While this does not mean that teenagers are incapable of making good decisions, it does mean that they may be vulnerable to being exploited by adults. The myriad young women that Kelly has allegedly abused over the past two decades were taken advantage of by a much older man. According to many of their accounts, Kelly used his fame, money, and contacts in the music industry to coerce them into doing things that they did not want to do — including degrading sex acts that Kelly filmed and distributed. Age of consent laws protect children and teenagers from exploitation by making these type of sexual encounters illegal. Unfortunately, in Kelly’s case, these laws did not protect his alleged victims, as he was ultimately acquitted on all charges.

This brings up a reality that must be addressed when talking about the R. Kelly case: the fact that his victims were all young black girls. As this piece titled How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast describes it, black girls are often seen as more adult than their white peers. As a result, they are not given the same level of care and protection — and are often more easily manipulated by men. The author notes, “This cycle of neglect and abuse is mostly ignored in social and education policy because the violence is often sexual and it happens to girls whom society views as disposable. We rarely focus on how programs are failing black women and girls, or how we could intervene to help.” Addressing these inequalities and ensuring that black girls are protected by age of consent laws is a necessary step to prevent sexual predators from exploiting young women and girls in our communities.

At Blackburn Center, we are committed to ending sexual violence by addressing the root causes of gender-based violence, such as inequality, rape culture and harmful gender norms. We offer services to all victims of violence, including sexual assault. While R. Kelly may present an extreme example of a sexual predator using his fame and fortune to assault young women, abusers utilize many tactics to exploit their victims — and don’t have to be rich or powerful to do so.

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