Surviving R. Kelly and The Rape of Joan Bellinger

Like many Americans, I watched Lifetime’s six-hour Surviving R. Kelly docuseries earlier this month. The series painstakingly narrates how Kelly leveraged his multiple advantages—of gender, wealth, fame, and age—to victimize teenage black women, whose intersecting inequalities have long been exploited by perpetrators of all races. My recent book, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain, argues that this racialized sexual disadvantage has its cultural roots in medieval attitudes toward young low-income women. The popular stereotype of the sexually available servant girl responsible for her own exploitation was later racialized so the medieval “wanton wench” became the stereotyped “likely [attractive] Negro wench, about seventeen years of age” advertised for sale in 1781 and the “fast little girl” cited several times in Surviving R. Kelly by those who chose to deny Kelly’s abuse.

We can see the traumatic real-life effects of sexualizing socially disadvantaged young women not only in Surviving R. Kelly but also in premodern legal cases. In Canterbury in 1574, a fifteen-year-old servant named Joan Bellinger appeared before two town officials. She testified that her master, the tailor Stephen Jeffrey, had ordered her to come to him one evening when his wife was out enjoying supper with a neighbor. He grabbed her by the arm and threw her down on a bed before exposing himself to her, pulling up her dress, and raping her. Joan reported that “she did tell him that he did hurte her, and he said, ‘No, Joane, I do not hurte the, for this dothe me good and thee no harme.’” He forced her to swear that she would not tell her parents or anyone else what he had done. Similarly, Jerhonda Pace broke a nondisclosure agreement to say of Kelly’s sexual predation when she was sixteen, “I told him it was a bit uncomfortable…It was painful.”

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John Petrean, one of the jurors in Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial, explained why he had voted to acquit Kelly. “I just didn’t believe them, the women,” he said regarding the young black women who had testified about Kelly’s abuse. “The way they dressed, the way they acted…I didn’t like them…I disregarded all what they say [sic].” In other words, his deep-seated misogynoir prevented him from believing their experiences. Similarly, one of Kelly’s former employees said, “I thought, These bitches are crazy.” In contrast, the sixteenth-century witnesses in Joan’s case believed her: three women appointed by the town alderman examined Joan and affirmed “that she…is very sore hurt in her prevy partes, by suche meanes as she hathe confessed.”

Both R. Kelly and Stephen Jeffrey used various forms of power at their disposal—including gender, age, and socio-economic status—to victimize young women disadvantaged by intersecting inequalities. Just as young black women are disproportionately victims of sexual violence, with between forty and sixty percent reporting coercive sexual contact before the age of eighteen, young servant women in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England were similarly vulnerable. Living in urban areas far from their families, sharing close quarters with their employers, and subject to stereotypes that portrayed them as perpetually sexually available, servant girls appear repeatedly in premodern legal records as victims of abuse and exploitation. Katherine Bronyng’s master and mistress forced her to sleep in their son’s bed, resulting in her pregnancy and legal punishment in 1505. Margaret Haburgh’s master impregnated her and killed her baby by throwing it into the sea in 1519.

Both Surviving R. Kelly and these premodern cases remind us how social inequalities have intersected for centuries to produce violence that falls more heavily than some bodies than others. And they remind us, echoing #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, that movements to end sexual violence cannot ignore poor women and women of color, who have borne the disproportionate burdens of victimization and survival for far too long.

Carissa M. Harris is Assistant Professor of English at Temple University and author of the recently published Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain.

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Surviving R. Kelly and The Rape of Joan Bellinger

You Know How It Is

You know how it is. You go to school, you get a degree, find a career, maybe you meet some cute girl . . . 

Wait—what? If you’re like me, you only too often find yourself reading something like this sentence above, describing some supposedly potential universal human experience only to find out mid-message that it’s been crafted, explicitly or implicitly, by and for men (at least, straight men). From novels to scholarly texts to departmental advertisements language that is meant to appeal to people in general too often ends up excluding over half of the population. And it’s not some little thing—the exclusion is felt like an invisible punch to the gut. At least, that’s what happens to me. I’ll start reading a work of philosophy, or a [male] academic’s webpage, or really pretty much anything at all, and at some point, usually right when I’m starting to empathically nod along to the flow of the narrative, I’ll stumble across an often unintended reveal of the male-ness of the intended “you,” and I’ll get a jolt of recognition. It’s not the interpolated recognition of inclusion into the larger social narrative that I thought I was part of, but the recognition that I’m actually not included after all—that I’m an “other,” the extra category that people are too often trying but failing to incorporate into the thread of society. It reminds me that the protagonist of popular culture and academia is too often men, and that the implicated reader is male, too. In the era of #MeToo and Times Up, when the ubiquity of explicit forms of sexual harassment is becoming more and more visible (more visible, that is, only to those in power who had previously convinced themselves it wasn’t so pervasive), let’s take a moment also to consider the more invisible, even unconscious obstacles that women face while working to succeed in their chosen paths in life. As we know, language matters. Saying “he” to mean “everyone,” or “man” to mean “human,” isn’t some quaint shorthand for the universal person, to be dismissed with an eye-rolling shrug when exclusivity is pointed out. Talking about “you” when the you being talked about isn’t everyone excludes as much as it includes. This is why virtually all academic journals no longer allow the use of “he” to cover “all”—and it’s why we need to do even more to recognize the unstated assumptions that go into our words. This is as true for Black History Month as it is for Women’s History Month, reminding us as always of the fact that when we talk about one month to represent such a large amount of people it may be better than nothing in our current era, but also that the rest of the months are unmarked as belonging to straight white men.

As a psychological anthropologist I struggle with how much to fight against these issues, especially when there is so much more to think about in life. As an Ithacan I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where the truck driver driving in the lane next to me was as likely to be female as male, and where I rarely felt constrained by my gender. I was fortunate to receive an undergraduate education at a women’s college, too, where it wasn’t an issue whether and how a professor would give more opportunities to the male student than the female one next to him. But my upbringing couldn’t prepare me for the dense, ubiquitous layers of sexism in my professional life, even as I surround myself with men and women who are actively working to change it. I try to be mindful of my language in writing (choosing, for example, the still-contentious single “they” instead of “he” or “he or she”). I point it out when a man says something a woman just said and is listened to more. And I stop my students mid-sentence if they ever accidentally talk about “man” when they mean people. In my work on Buddhism in Southeast Asia I write about gender as one among many of the factors that influence how people are understood, trying when I do to avoid the liberal feminist assumptions that may not play out the same ways I’m used to with informants. Yet I often take pause with the idea that because I’m a woman I should spend extra, precious time on women’s issues when men, simply, just don’t have to.

In the end, Women’s History Month reminds us all to do our part, in whatever ways we can. It reminds us to speak up for equality and diversity, to not stand by when small and large obstacles are put in the way of our own or anyone else’s success, and to advocate for change in whatever ways we’re able. From questioning our assumptions about who the “you” is that we’re writing for, to drawing attention to the many insidious ways that words work to cause harm—in everything from women’s name changes at marriage to the feminized voices responding to A.I. commands to whatever we each find important and possible to address—this month is a time to remember that we can each call attention to gender inequalities, in whatever ways you and I can. Maybe that can be how it is.

J.L. Cassaniti is the author of Living Buddhism: Mind, Self and Emotion in a Thai Community, and Universalism Without Uniformity: Explorations in Mind, Self, and Emotion. Her new book Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia is out this month.

You Know How It Is