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Surviving R. Kelly: The Hip-Hop Hebephile

Famous sex offenders create painful legacies for everyone around them.

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Lifetime Network is currently running a six-part documentary about R&B artist R. Kelly, one of the most successful recording artists and performers of recent decades. The documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, has launched a renewed focus on the years of allegations surrounding Kelly—mostly that he has sexually abused countless females, often underage, sometimes confining and repeatedly violating them emotionally and sexually.

Unsurprisingly, since the documentary hit the airwaves, Kelly has faced considerable blowback. He has been confronted by police in Chicago, a criminal investigation has been opened against him in Georgia, fellow musicians have denounced him and apologized for working with him, and still other survivors have come forward. Facebook eliminated a group that was created to discredit his accusers, and his daughter has publicly called him a monster, saying she is well aware of who and what he is because she grew up in his house.

As viewership and response to the documentary have increased, I have received tweets and other forms of feedback from both the general public and fellow therapists, mostly asking questions about Kelly’s situation or general issues related to sexual offending. Below are the most common questions being asked, along with my responses. (I have viewed the documentary in its entirety and thus will reference details from it below.)

What is sexual offending? How do we define it?

There are two ways to define sexual offending: legally and clinically. The legal definition for sexual offending varies from state to state. A behavior that is a felony in one state might be perfectly legal or only a misdemeanor in another. The clinical definition of sexual offending is more straightforward. From a clinical perspective, sexual offending is defined as non-consensual sexual activity. There are numerous ways that an action can be considered non-consensual. Common examples include:

  • Being sexual with a person who is unaware that some form of sexual act is taking place – voyeurism, sex with a person who is sleeping, viewing illegal pornography, etc.
  • Being sexual with a person who is incapable of informed consent – a person who is drugged, drunk, mentally or emotionally incapacitated, too young, too ill, etc.
  • Forcing a sexual act on someone who objects to that act – rape, snatch and grab molestation, exhibitionism, frotteurism, creating/distributing child pornography, etc.

How does a person turn into or become a sexual offender?

One common risk factor for sexual offending is having a history of early-life sexual abuse. Surviving R. Kelly suggests that he and his siblings were molested on a regular basis by an older family member. It also suggests that this was not discussed or worked through in any helpful therapeutic way during his childhood or adult life. That said, not all sex offenders have a history of early-life sexual abuse—and not all people who were sexually abused as kids become abusers themselves. But there is plenty of research showing that early-life sexual abuse is one of the most common risk factors for becoming a child offender, especially if that abuse has gone unacknowledged, undefined, and untreated.

What do clinicians call a sexual attraction to children and/or teens?

Individuals who are sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children are called pedophiles. Individuals who are sexually attracted to adolescents are called hebephiles. R. Kelly, if the allegations against him are true, would most likely be a hebephile. (If the allegations made about Michael Jackson were true, he would most likely have been a pedophile.)

Pedophilic sexual offenders are usually what we call fixated/dedicated, meaning their sexual attraction to children is their primary, often sole sexual attraction. Typically, when offending with pre-pubescent children, these individuals “age themselves down,” becoming childlike (in their own minds) as a way to relate to and feel a sense of connection with their victims. They see themselves in a childlike way, and they invite children into their childlike world. This is their form of seduction. An obvious and well-known example of this would be Jackson's Neverland, the home and amusement-park environment where he is purported to have enticed victims into “sleep-over parties” and similar child-play events.

Hebephile offenders, as R. Kelly is accused of being, are typically situational/opportunistic with their offending (rather than fixated/dedicated), meaning they offend when the opportunity arises. For instance, they may stumble across child pornography while surfing for adult porn and then choose to explore that. These offenders tend to “age their victims up,” viewing them as acting or looking like adults. (Think Lolita). Typically, these offenders are attracted to adults as well as minors. In fact, many have long-term romantic attachments with adults. R. Kelly is an excellent example of this type of offender, as he has had numerous relationships with adult women in addition to his relationships with and victimization of underage girls.

How do R. Kelly and Michael Jackson differ from other sexual offenders?

The primary difference between sexual offenders like R. Kelly and Michael Jackson—again, assuming the allegations against them are true—and most other sexual offenders is primarily a matter of wealth and fame.

First and foremost, wealth directly impacts an offender’s ability to act out sexually with an underage victim and get away with it. Both Kelly and Jackson were allegedly able to pay off victims and victims’ families as a way of keeping things quiet. They were also able to hire spin doctors to keep their careers on track, and high-powered lawyers to keep them out of prison. The high school soccer coach who offends typically doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to manage that, so he is far more likely to be found out and stopped sooner rather than later.

With Kelly, it appears that money was also used to stash victims in hotel rooms and apartments across the country. In this way, he kept multiple victims at his beck and call—separated from their families and friends and stuck waiting around for him to return and use them. A typical offender does not have money for that.

Fame also plays a role for alleged offenders like Kelly and Jackson. The awe and respect they got through their music provided access to an almost endless supply of underage victims. Kids who saw these men as heroes wanted to be around them and felt special because of the attention they were given by them. And sadly, as clearly seen in Surviving R. Kelly, the parents of these kids often saw an opportunity for their talented tots to learn from the best and become stars themselves, so they ignored obvious warning signs of sexual danger.

Do money and fame inevitably corrupt people into believing they can get away with anything?

No, but money and fame make it easier for sex offenders to find victims, to discredit accusers, to pay people for their silence, to fend off negative press, and to fight legal battles. We’ve seen this with R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, and with countless others. (Think about accusations leveled against Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Bill Cosby, etc.)

Do sex offenders respond to treatment, or do they offend and continue to offend no matter what?

Different categories of sex offenders respond differently to treatment. For instance, fixated/dedicated child offenders like Michael Jackson was alleged to be, because of their arousal template, tend to struggle in treatment and their risk for reoffending is high. In contrast, opportunistic/situational offenders such as R. Kelly is alleged to be—especially if/when they are also attracted to adults—tend to respond in positive ways to appropriate treatment, and their risk for reoffending once they're in treatment is generally minimal. Factors that can complicate treatment include drug/alcohol abuse, lack of family support, psychopathy, a history of violent or criminal behaviors, etc.