Content warning for discussion of partner violence and self injury.
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So, as I was saying…
We need to talk about R Kelly. For those fortunate enough not to be following the news, a recent article on Buzzfeed along with articles on a number of other outlets, detailed the trials of parents trying to free their daughter from what they call a “sex cult.” The story, as reported, is terrifying and heartbreaking. This is far from the only time that Kelly has been in hot water for allegations of sexual misconduct. Those of us who came of age in the 90’s remember the sex tape he allegedly made with a girl who was underage at the time.
All of this makes for great tabloid gossip, or would be if the implications of this story were not so horrific. However, this is not a blog about celebrity scandal. This is a blog about kink, healthy sexuality and abuse. I’ve seen some folks on social media defending R. Kelly’s behavior by invoking BDSM.
As long as no one is being forced to do anything against their will and all parties are of age, who am I to judge?
#RKelly #Kink #Fetish
It’s called d/s. She’s free to accept the relationship as a whole, but within the relationship, #rkelly is in charge. Not illegal.
My gut response to all of this is a whole lotta rage tinted NOPE!
But I’m going to set the rage aside for a moment to pick this argument apart.
Assent vs. Consent vs. Fully Informed Consent
I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating over and over again: for consent to possible, both yes and no must be readily available. Sometimes consent is given without having all the available information about the situation at hand.
In a healthy power exchange dynamic, the person ceding the power does so with fully informed consent. Even in the most extreme forms of power exchange, both parties are still able to utilize the law of two feet should the dynamic need to end. Furthermore, there is an assumed responsibility in consensual ownership. If someone puts their trust enough in you to give you their submission, that is not a gift to be squandered or taken lightly. The relationship campsite rule is very much in full effect.
A coerced “yes,” is not consent. It is a subset of assent, which is simply a verbal yes. In non-sexual and non abusive contexts, we assent to things all the time to which we do not consent. Watch any movie or television show about work that has ever been made.
Bearing all this in mind, let’s go back to the situation with R Kelly. If you are a young aspiring artist or singer, and a world renowned singer takes an interest in you, there are consequences for saying no to that person’s request. Which brings me to my second point:
Intrinsic Power Dynamics
Most forms of Kink and BDSM involve deliberate engagement with power. As Mollena once sagely said, it is a power exchange, not a power dump. Power is an energy that flows between partners. In the past, I’ve compared it to the connection of lead and follow in dance. Partners agree on a power structure, and create a dynamic within those rubrics. In an ideal world, partners would come to these negotiations on an even footing.
The reality, however, is that there are intrinsic power dynamics that can shift the playing field in any number of ways. The greater the inequity in the intrinsic power dynamic, the greater the potential for abuse. Intrinsic power dynamics is part of what makes the 50 Shades of Gray franchise so deeply troubling for kinksters.
R Kelly’s abuse of intrinsic power dynamics is far more concerning to me because unlike Christian Gray, R Kelly is not a fictional character. His actions have real consequences on real humans.
In the Buzzfeed article, the parents of Kelly’s most recent target tell a story about how their daughter was in constant text communication with Kelly. They eventually learned that she was texting with him behind their backs, and they didn’t realize how far the relationship had progressed until it was too late. This pattern of isolation and specialized attention is known as grooming. Grooming is a process whereby a perpetrator incrementally tests and pushes a target’s boundaries, slowly earns trust, and peels away a target’s independence. Isolation from friends, family and social supports is also a tried and true abuse tactic. By the end of the process, the perpetrator becomes the target’s entire world. The target is slowly convinced that they have chosen to cede control, and that they cannot survive without the perpetrator in their life. It is probably not a coincidence that one of Kelly’s past conquests slit her wrists after their breakup.
Healthy power exchange does not isolate or cut participants off from community. More often than not, quite the opposite.
TL:DR: The details of R Kelly’s alleged “sex cult” bears certain external similarities to the trappings of a consensual D/s relationship. However, strict protocols do not a D/s relationship make. Even if, for the sake of argument, R Kelly’s actions did fall under the rubric of kinky play, his actions would still be problematic and abusive.