When I sat for this photo I was already a sexual abuse statistic.
My first R. Kelly sighting was at 14. It was the early nineties and his group, Public Announcement, was getting national attention. Some classmates and I were hanging out after school when we saw him saunter past, as if he wanted to be seen. The story was that he was visiting our music department, something he’d done since dropping out several years before. When he emerged with a pretty upperclassman thirty minutes later, we laughed and shook our heads. By then, the rumors about him were in full swing.
I didn’t realize that the girl would be one of several girls who would come forward to accuse the R&B singer of inappropriate sexual conduct, one of several who would file a lawsuit, and one of several who would settle out of court to avoid any more damage to their reputations. Nine years later, while reading a Sun-Times investigative report at my newsroom desk, my tears would take me by surprise.
By the time of my R. Kelly sighting, another story was making the headlines. Mike Tyson was on trial for the rape of Desiree Washington, an 18 year-old Miss Black America contestant who came under scrutiny for agreeing to meet the boxer in the middle of the night. I remember parroting what I’d heard from adults in conversations with friends. “She met up with him at 1:30 in the morning. What the fuck did she expect?”
Three years later, when I’m nearly assaulted in a stairwell by a couple of classmates while coming out of a bathroom, I wouldn’t tell anyone but my high school counselor and another classmate. I’d also stay pretty mum about the co-worker who would try to assault me a few months later while working as a tour guide at the Museum of Science & Industry, only telling my two best friends and swearing them to secrecy.
Not that I was afraid of what my mother would think; an abuse/assault survivor herself, she didn’t believe in victim blaming. I was afraid of what other people would think. It was bad enough my classmates though I was weird, but being thought of as weird and fast? School was hard enough. So I filed them away with the other unfortunate incidents and tried not to break.
A few months after sitting for this photo, a coworker would try to assault me in an empty part of the museum.
A little over a week ago, R. Kelly’s performance with Lady Gaga on the American Music Awards sparked an intense Twitter discussion about the artist’s checkered past. I joked that having a R. Kelly story is a veritable rite of passage for any black girl growing up in Chicago during the ’90s; I didn’t realize how true that was until women started tweeting us with their stories. A woman from Los Angeles recalled when R. Kelly tried to hit on her as a teenager. Another woman sent me a direct message to talk about a run-in with Kelly over a decade ago. Suddenly the conversation became an impromptu therapy session.
That therapy session continued with the creation of #fasttailedgirls, an idea born from my best friend and Hood Feminism Co-Founder Mikki Kendall. Neither of us expected the response we received; men and women talked about how the label affected them, and within a couple hours the topic trended nationally on Twitter.
It was overwhelming. And heartbreaking. There were survivors of sexual abuse who had been too afraid to speak up, victims of sexual assault who were too afraid to report out of fear they’d be called “fast tailed girls.” There were men who spoke of being warned against certain “fast tailed girls” who would try to trap them with babies, and men who were encouraged to go after them for a good time. And there were trolls. Lots and lots of trolls.
Which is one of the reasons why a lot of us are afraid to say anything at all, because speaking up invites aspersions and ridicule. In a world where nine-year-olds are awkward sexual punch lines and predators are given ironic, lighthearted send-ups, it’s hard to distinguish allies from enemies. When we are attacked, we’re usually the only ones coming to our rescue.
The sexual exploitation of black girls continues to only be a problem for black girls. For the world at large? Not so much. The Jezebel stereotype is still very much alive and a lot of folks are comfortable with the idea that black women have only ourselves to blame.
It’s frustrating and hurtful to not be seen as worthy of protection, and to see that belief reinforced by not only the media, but by people who look like you. I’d link to conversations on Twitter where some black men feel entirely too comfortable referring to 2-year-old black girls as “thots” (those hoes over there) for LOLs and retweets but I don’t want to break the internet today. Just know that it happens, and when we take issue we’re told to laugh it off, to not take it so seriously. With 60% of black women experiencing sexual abuse before their 18th birthdays, it’s hard to find the humor.
And that’s why last weekend’s conversation about #fasttailedgirls was so important. Say what you will about “hashtag activism” (and we’ve heard a lot, trust) but engaging people on social media, allowing them to share their stories, to heal, to build — it’s a life-changing thing. And potentially, a world-changing thing.
And I’m here for that.