Last night, I watched the first two episodes of Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning, Lifetime’s latest docuseries about the disgraced R & B icon. What I already knew: He’s a monster. What I learned: He’s a monster far beyond what we could have even believed after last year’s original Surviving R. Kelly. (Allegedly.)
But I don’t want to write about R. Kelly. Yes, he’s in the news again, but I’d rather use this opportunity to think bigger when it comes to protecting women from sexual assault.
Because someone like R. Kelly is actually rare. This is a man with enough money, fame, and enablers to continue engaging his proclivities for decades. When it comes to sexual assault, the true danger for the typical woman (or man) is much, much closer.
The typical person who will commit sexual assault is — you. Yeah, you.
After nearly 20 years, the long and winding saga of R. Kelly has desensitized many of us. The details are known, the alleged monstrosities many. He’s an easy person to point at — or, for an ever-dwindling few, defend.
It might seem like R. Kelly is alone on a planet of fuckshit. But best believe he’s got room for you.
A funny thing happened when I sat down to write, though, and asked my boyfriend a few questions to help clarify my thoughts. I thought he was going to be a sounding board — but we ended up in a two-hour conversation so jarring that for a moment, I really didn’t understand him at all. And he felt the same about me.
Here’s the thing: I think of him as a feminist and an ally for women’s issues. (Like any true ally, he rejects those titles. Strongly.) But I couldn’t believe how quickly we found ourselves in a place where we didn’t see eye to eye on the basics of consent and sexual assault.
Like me, he’s a journalist. And we both knew that the conversation we were having said more about the state of things — about where we all stand, about where men and woman overlap and don’t on sexual assault and the true danger R. Kelly represents, about how men can stand up for women and when they need to sit down — than any essay ever could. So we took some time to retreat to our corners and cool off, then reconvened. And turned on the audio recorder.
Aliya: So, I watched the first night of the R. Kelly docuseries. And still, the takeaway for me was that the true danger for the typical woman or man — the true true danger — is much closer than someone like Kelly.
Shane: True. And not being R. Kelly doesn’t automatically make you a good person. It just makes you not R. Kelly.
“We knew that the conversation we were having said more about the state of things — about where we all stand, about where men and woman overlap and don’t on sexual assault and the true danger R. Kelly represents, about how men can stand up for women and when they need to sit down — than any essay ever could.”
Aliya: So, what responsibility do men have to prevent rape and sexual assault? I don’t want to swivel my neck and point my finger at men reading this and say you need to do this. So I need your help. You are a 42-year-old Black man with a six-year-old son. What do you think?
Shane: I agree with you. We think rape and sexual assault are done by monsters, but that’s not the only truth. So we need to do a self-inventory as to how we approach sex and how we’re thinking about sex.
Aliya: That’s too vague. What’s an actual thing men should be doing?
Shane: Okay, so men should be checking the men around us. If you hear your boy talking about ordering more drinks so his date will come home with him, I’m saying something about that.
Aliya: Wait. Really? You’re in the barbershop and someone is talking about getting a girl drunk —
Shane: — I’ma say, yo, that’s suspect.
Aliya: Is it every man’s responsibility to prevent rape?
Shane: I mean, there are ways we can support the conversation. I’m not walking around with a rape whistle. But there are little things. Locker room talk has moments where you let things slide. It’s hard not to. You don’t have to be preachy. But these are the seeds that add up over time. It makes rape culture systemic.
Aliya: Are there things in your life, actions you’ve taken with women in the past that you would not do in 2020?
Shane: Sure. As a young man, there’s been some street harassment in my life. I probably catcalled and did those kinds of things, which is something I wouldn’t do now.
Aliya: You do not seem like the catcalling type.
Shane: Did you see Men in Black?
Shane: Will Smith is trying to decide if he’s going to join the Men in Black and then he thinks, I don’t have to help. People are smart. They’ll figure out what to do about aliens. And then Tommy Lee Jones says, “a person can be smart. People are stupid.” It’s the same thing with guys: If there are enough of us, we may do things we wouldn’t do on our own.
Aliya: So, very early on after meeting you, I would roll my eyes internally at some of the things you say. It felt like you were more of a feminist than I was. And, in bed, the consent was extreme; you asked me if I was okay like every 30 seconds!
Shane: And then you said, “look, you have macro consent. Stop asking me.”
Aliya: Exactly. But the catch is, we could have a miscommunication one day that leads to something that could be considered sexual assault. And you did not like the idea of that.
Shane: True. I’d rather go back to asking you if you’re okay every 30 seconds than have that happen.
Aliya: Have you had to deal with dicey consent issues?
Shane: I was working at a conference in Atlanta some years ago and everyone went to the bar to have a celebratory drink. One of the women at the bar, who I barely even spoke to, got drunk. I was done for the evening, so I was going to go up to my room. I told her I would walk her to her room. We got to the room and she wanted to have sex with me. I knew she was too drunk to consent. I left.
Aliya: And some guys would take the opportunity to go for it. And still not think they’re monsters.
Aliya: But still, I think the idea that the typical person who would assault me is more like you than R Kelly is something that makes you very uncomfortable. But you need to recognize that. All men do.
Shane: So what’s the takeaway here?
Aliya: My takeaway is that sexual assault is not just Shane’s friends. It’s Shane himself. People like you. Good people. Allies and fellow feminists. And the reason why I want you to sit with that and process it is because you have a six-year-old son — and one day you’re going to have to have these extremely uncomfortable conversations with him too.