In a nation of bad Santas, why shouldn’t an indicted child molester be the subject of an inspirational book for kids? Consider I Can Fly (The R. Kelly Story), a tale for readers between the ages of six and nine. Its happiest illustration shows a passel of little girls beaming at the feet of the artist who calls himself “the Pied Piper of r&b.” Quite an image for someone charged with 21 counts of child porn.
Most of these allegations involve possession of photographs, but Kelly is also accused of starring in a certain notorious video. According to the prosecutor, it shows him having sex with a 13- or 14-year-old girl. R. Kelly XXX was a hot item in the contraband smut trade until the cops moved in, and several putative versions of it are still circulating online. The one this reporter watched shows a man who closely resembles Kelly getting head and tail from a girl who could well be underage, though I wouldn’t swear to either.
Kelly insists he’s not the man in the video, and claims he was set up by an estranged former manager. As for the pics in his possession, Kelly says the girls were of legal age when they posed. Whatever the verdict, the most notable thing about this case is its impact on Kelly’s marketability. Sales of his music have soared since the 2002 indictment, and this year he’s nominated for a Grammy.
In the face of such acclaim, Kelly is trying to clean up his act. The tumid ballads that are his signature have given way to a cloying romanticism in many of his recent songs. It’s hardly the first time an iconic rogue has tried the “Love Me Tender” ploy. In Kelly’s case, devotion is a scrim behind which all sorts of sexual fantasies can operate, including the most unmentionable one: messing with minors.
His fans insist he’s another innocent black man being set up. If so, the plot has backfired, since Kelly’s troubles have only added to his aphrodisiac aura. It’s quite possible that the allegation of child abuse operates as a kind of Spanish fly, sexing up an already randy persona. Given the bump in Kelly’s numbers, you have to think that, in the right circumstances, this is a crime that pays.
R. Kelly isn’t the only performer with a kiddie crisis. There’s Michael Jackson, who will be arraigned this week on charges stemming from his sleepovers with a 13-year-old boy. Jackson has denied that their friendship was sexual—and this case may show how hard it can be to distinguish affection from child abuse under current law. But let’s look at the charts. Sales of Jackson’s music have been stagnating for some time, and the indictment certainly didn’t help. He’s been pilloried in every tabloid from here to Neverland. Kelly, on the other hand, has been dissed but not mocked. He recently sang (via satellite) for the troops in Iraq.
Why does Jacko rate contempt while the Pied Piper gets a wink and nod? The answer lies in the widespread assumption that “awakening” a young lass is the mark of a potent man. When combined with the racist fantasy that black men are repositories of unbridled lust, sex with girls becomes the ultimate credential for a playa. But Jacko will never qualify as a stud. He’s violated the rules of both racial and gender identity by transforming himself into an alabaster androgyne. In a time when banality passes for subversion, Jacko is our Oscar Wilde.
Jackson’s one reprieve came last month when he released a hit song co-written with Kelly. But not even that imprimatur can redeem him, because his emotional (if not erotic) object is a boy. The reaction to these two cases couldn’t be more gendered. That’s the way it often is with child abuse. Though the law makes no distinction between boys and girls or toddlers and teens, our sensibilities do—and our feelings about this crime vary enormously depending on the players.
A while ago we were treated to a spate of comedies about boys having sex with older women. The bluntest of the bunch, Tadpole, was described by New York writer George Kalogerakis as “a sweet, funny, very New York film” in which a 15-year-old preppie is seduced by a woman of a certain age and then makes a move on his stepmother. “The issue of what constitutes age-appropriate dating . . . is thoroughly explored,” Kalogerakis wrote. Neither he nor most reviewers noted that the sex portrayed in the film is a felony. Women who mess with boys have gone to prison, but that doesn’t get in the way of this heartwarming fantasy.
Playing child abuse for laughs is an option only when the child is a teenage boy and the seducer a woman. As Lolita demonstrates, you can even wring some irony out of a man/girl pairing. But if the subject is man/boy sex, the film can’t be a farce; it has to be a slice-of-life drama with a violent ending, as in the recent L.I.E. Don’t hold your breath for Y Tu Papá También.
There’s a common thread in all these fantasies. They evoke a world where male privilege is the basis of sexual morality. In this system, a man can attest to his machismo by seducing a girl, and a woman can affirm a boy’s manhood by giving herself to him. But a lad seduced by a man is deprived of his masculinity. This is why such incidents often inspire images of robbery—the boy’s status has been stolen.
A generation ago, not much attention was paid to the sexual abuse of boys. It was thought that they could slough it off in the absence of penetration. After the pedo-priest scandals, we know otherwise. Now there’s a danger that boys will be regarded as the most vulnerable victims. That would be the perfect projection of America’s homosexual panic. As for attitudes toward men abusing girls, consider Chris Rock’s reaction when he spied R. Kelly in the house at last year’s MTV awards show. Better put the Olsen twins in the balcony, quipped Chris. Bah-dum!
Because fantasies of sex with minors are so common, age of consent laws are essential. But the obsession with these cases has unintended consequences. It focuses our attention on the sexuality of minors, and makes our fantasies about them even hotter. The more hysterical D.A.s get, the hipper these reveries seem. By now, a yen for the young is an emblem of roguish transgression. This spiral of arousal and repression was bound to produce a superstar—and R. Kelly is that man.
As for Jacko: If he wants to save his career, he’ll have to start fooling around with 14-year-old girls.
Research: Matthew Phillp
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 6, 2004