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Last year’s documentary series Surviving R. Kelly provided groundbreaking television in an era where many Americans are waking up to the horrors of sexual abuse at the hands of powerful people. It also provided a space for more than a dozen women to speak about the unfathomable abuse that they say the singer inflicted upon them as teens and young women.
The second part of the series, which aired on Lifetime over the weekend, ended up taking a distinct, unexpected turn during its first episode: It allowed a similarly safe space for men to discuss their own traumatic experiences of sexual assault.
This time, R. Kelly’s brothers, Carey Kelly and Bruce Kelly, give separate interviews with interconnected stories about how the three of them were groomed for molestation, experienced sexual abuse as children, and detailed what they know about the many years of abuse Robert Kelly himself endured through to his early teens.
Through their stories, the brothers aren’t necessarily ignoring a decades-long string of allegations, legal proceedings, and the resulting public outcry tied to R. Kelly. The singer has been dropped from RCA Records, radio stations have agreed to #MuteRKelly, and he now sits in jail facing more than two-dozen charges in three states. Instead, his brothers’ revelations shed light on how some male survivors live with the pain—or replicate it by becoming perpetrators themselves—in a society that rewards unhealthy models of masculinity, validates myths that have sustained rape culture, and often fails to educate people about healthy sexuality and boundaries.
Although some statistics vary, the male survivor support organization 1in6 analyzed numerous studies to estimate that 1 in 6 men and boys have been sexually abused or assaulted throughout their lifetimes. They’re also less likely than women and girls to disclose or report these experiences. In this installment of the series, Carey and Bruce shared their experiences, alongside analysis by clinical psychologists and survivor advocates.
“Someone who struggles with [sexual] trauma at an early age would be confused about what sex is, what the rules around sex are, and how [to] live a sexual life,” said Jody Adewale, a clinical psychologist based in Southern California, later adding that “someone who was abused at an early age can have a lifelong struggle of trying to regain control.”
The brothers first detailed how a man in his 60s, otherwise beloved as a kind and generous “neighborhood uncle,” established goodwill through deeds like distributing free food to people in the neighborhood. Mr. Henry, as they called him, lived in a building where the brothers would practice with their band.
“And then started buying us stuff. Back then I didn’t think about it because I was a child,” Bruce, Kelly’s oldest brother, said, before recalling the three of them running out of his apartment after the man presented his genitals to them. “Don’t tell nobody,” Bruce remembered the man saying as they fled.
What Bruce and Carey describe is a tactic otherwise known as grooming, in which minors are targeted and manipulated by adult perpetrators, often through methods such as buying gifts and offering other incentives to build trust before attempting an abusive act. Although they escaped this particular incident, Kelly’s brothers said Robert was subjected to the man’s routine abuse until, one day, he paid their mother to not pursue criminal charges.
The “neighborhood uncle” wasn’t the only person who targeted the brothers. An older female family member not only abused Robert, as he noted in the 2018 song “I Admit” and through an earlier book and interviews, she also abused Carey.
“I was 6 years-old when it first happened,” Carey recalled through tears, adding that he begged her to stop before he mentally dissociated during the assaults. “I would make believe that I was somewhere else playing with my friends, or at the park doing things that kids are supposed to be doing at that age.” He also knew that his older brother, Robert, was being touched by the same relative.
Though the scars of sexual assault remain present for boys abused by girls and women, these acts, specifically, are often not only normalized, but even sometimes celebrated. Boys who are sexually exploited and abused, even by older women, are legally unable to consent to sex, just as girls are. Yet social programming bound up in unhealthy masculinity instead serves to tacitly endorse this kind of abuse, by recasting it as “becoming a man” who can attract women and demonstrate sexual virility. Or worse, it results in male child survivors not fully understanding that they experienced sexual abuse.
Take Chris Brown, who told The Guardian in a 2013 interview that he “lost his virginity” at age 8 to a teenage girl. “It's different in the country,” said Brown, who’s from the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. “By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I'm saying?”
Although what Brown experienced involved a teenager who was below the age of consent for most states, despite what he detailed, the incident isn’t “different.” The encounter was sexual abuse, and underscores what can happen when children aren’t taught about respecting bodies and boundaries.
With the conversations prompted by efforts such as the Surviving R. Kelly series, there may indeed be hope for the future. The second edition of the docuseries prompted a 40 percent increase in phone calls to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) national hotline, as noted by The Root.
It’s not clear how many of those calls came from men and boys. Even so, more males have come forward in the years since #MeToo began shifting perspectives on sexual assault and abuse. Terry Crews went public in 2017 about a powerful Hollywood executive who groped him without consent, and he continued speaking out despite the onslaught of victim-shaming and blaming by those who accept the lie that men like him should be “strong enough” to not ever be a target of abuse.
Sam Thompson, a U.K. man who was assaulted by two men in 2016, retold his story this week to the BBC after one of his perpetrators was recently sentenced to life in prison for 163 rapes. Like Carey Kelly, he also said he didn’t feel like continuing to live after suffering the violent attack. But after initially speaking out a few years ago, he shared a reflection that should be etched into the memory of anyone who seeks to understand and better help male survivors:
“I think that what defines us as men or supposedly defines us as men is impacted from the offset as soon as something like this happens.”
If you or someone you know needs support: National Helpline for Men Sexually Abused or Assaulted: Online__; National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800.656.HOPE (4673); National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)