* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The only difference between R. Kelly’s behavior and classic pimp is that R. Kelly kept the women and girls to himself
Rochelle Keyhan is CEO of anti-trafficking non-profit Collective Liberty
For most of us, human trafficking conjures images of young women being kidnapped by traffickers like in the movie Taken. But, for survivors of R. Kelly, their parents usually knew where they were, and initially, they met with him with stars in their eyes and high hopes for their careers. So, how could his behavior be considered human trafficking? It’s a type of trafficking called "personal sexual servitude."
Lifetime Channel released a documentary series called “Surviving R. Kelly” in January 2019, which happens to be anti-trafficking awareness month. The documentary included allegations - denied by R. Kelly's attorney - from multiple women who accused Kelly of sexual misconduct. Soon after the series aired it was reported that R. Kelly is being investigated for violation of the United States Federal Mann Act for transporting minors across state lines for sexual activity. Those familiar with recent, and historical headlines, about the singer’s exploitations know he frequently preyed on girls under 18. Given that Mr. Kelly potentially paid to fly a minor (under 18) from California to Chicago and then preceded to use her for personal sexual servitude, this is an appropriate charge to be investigated. His behavior, though, should also trigger an investigation into potential human trafficking, specifically for “personal sexual servitude.” Lifetime releasing the documentary provides us as a nation the opportunity to invest in understanding more clearly the wide variety of criminal behavior that amounts to human trafficking – and that self-education and awareness should be occurring year round.
Kelly has been in the news on and off for exploitation of young black girls and women since he allegedly married his 15-year old “protege” Aaliyah in 1994 and his ongoing documented use of sexually abusing young black women since then. His marriage to Aaliyah was 6 years before the United States anti-trafficking law was passed in 2000. His behavior over the next 24 years, as outlined in the Lifetime series, involved classic recruitment tactics engaged in by pimp-style sex traffickers of at least 8 young girls. R. Kelly would find aspiring musicians who were young and impressionable, express interest in them and their unique talents, as a renowned musician, woo them to his studio under this false pretense, and ultimately, manipulate them into sexual relationships. Each girl who has come forward describes thinking she was his only girlfriend, until much later into their relationship with him learning not only were there many other girls, but that he was also married. As the trafficking situations progressed, the girls were punished with physical violence, emotional abuse, and isolation for extended periods of time if they disobeyed or upset Kelly.
The sexual servitude statute in Georgia, one of the primary locations Kelly engaged in exploitation, first became law in June 2011. Involuntary servitude in Georgia is when “A person commits the offense of trafficking a person for sexual servitude when that person ... knowingly recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains by any means another person for the purpose of sexual servitude.” That is indisputably the behavior R. Kelly engaged in: he recruited his victims by promising them something they really wanted -- a foot in the door to successful careers in the music industry. From there, he groomed them to meet his sexual whims, controlled their behavior and social interaction, and dropped all pretense of helping their music careers.
We need to enforce the entirety of the anti-trafficking laws across the over 25 types that exist in our communities on a given day, and to do that we need to really understand the trafficking behaviors so we can identify them. Personal sexual servitude is a form of human trafficking, and R. Kelly is a human trafficker preying on vulnerable young black girls. He utilized sex and control as the currency they could repay for his support of their careers. That support quickly stopped once he had defrauded them until they were compliant, often after instituting physical and psychological force.
The only difference between R. Kelly’s behavior and classic pimp controller trafficking into commercial sex is that R. Kelly kept the women and girls to himself - making this “personal sexual servitude”, and not “pimp-controlled sex trafficking”. Regardless of the type of trafficking, we need to be calling it what it is and holding perpetrators like R. Kelly accountable.