By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
In the wake of “Surviving R. Kelly”—a six-hour television documentary that aired on Lifetime in January, revealing the accounts of several women who have accused the R&B singer of abuse, including keeping them secluded in a house and controlling them with fear and intimidation—and the upcoming HBO two-part documentary “Leaving Neverland” on March 3 and 4 alleging that the late Michael Jackson was a systematic predator and rapist of young children, the issues of sexual misconduct have been widely discussed.
The Birmingham Times recently spoke with licensed professional counselor, Cherie May Edwards of Work in Progress Counseling Center in Center Point about the R. Kelly documentary, the effects of sexual assault and sexual abuse in the black community.
Edwards has been a counselor for 14 years and is working on becoming certified in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, an integrative psychotherapy approach used for the treatment of trauma.
Featured previous interviews with sexual abuse survivors and professional counselors are available online at www.birminghamtimes.com.
BT: What are some of the long-lasting psychological effects of sexual abuse trauma?
Edwards: There are so many. Depression, anxiety, relationship and intimacy issues. Self-esteem issues and that can also show up like weight gain or difficulty connecting with people. Sometimes it can also cause a lack of boundaries where people who have been traumatized are too open, they don’t have boundaries so they kind of let people take advantage of them. Again, there are so many things from fear of people and places and I can’t go through the whole list, but those are some effects that I’ve seen.
BT: Do you see cases where the victim is blamed or can feel responsible for sexual abuse?
Edwards: That’s really common for people to take responsibility for being victimized or they feel that ‘if I had not gone to this place’ or ‘if I had not trusted them’ whether it’s a stranger or an acquaintance that is well known to them, they feel like if they had done something different then it wouldn’t have happened and that it is their fault in some way, that’s very common.
There are cases where people feel like other people [will] say they shouldn’t have been dressed a certain way or they asked for it. I didn’t actually watch the R. Kelly documentary, but I watched my timeline on social media and saw the things that people were saying and so people want to blame somebody. Somebody is at fault when bad things happen . . . people say, ‘well where were these girls’ parents?’ So they’re blaming the parents for the girls being victimized and not the actual perpetrator and so people are always looking for who was at fault.
BT: How difficult does it appear for someone to recover from sexual assault trauma? What impact does it have on them as they get older?
Edwards: It depends on the person’s support system, their coping skills and their resources. Someone who has a supportive family and supportive community as well as resources to treatment as well as their own coping skills, someone who is already managing life well will recover from trauma a lot faster than someone who doesn’t have the support of family or friends, doesn’t have the resources to get therapy, doesn’t have adequate coping skills to already deal with their current life stressors . . . you add another life stressor like a sexual trauma and it’s going to be harder for them to recover.
Even with younger girls, it has an impact on them as they get older because the more advanced you are in your coping, the quicker you’ll be to recover from something. It’s kind of like if you equate it to physical health, if you’re in good physical health, and you have an injury or an illness, you’ll recover faster because you’re stronger than someone who has been ill for a while and then they come down with something else. If you are emotionally coping well, and mentally healthy, it’ll be easier for you to recover because the healthier you are, the faster you can learn more coping.
BT: Is this something that’s always been prevalent in the black community or culturally do we, as blacks, keep this under the rug?
Edwards: I think culturally, what happens in this house stays in this house is the message that I’ve seen a lot but it’s interesting because I see quite a few Caucasian people who say the same thing. We’re in the South, so I don’t know if it’s a southern thing or if it’s a black thing but it’s not really a black thing because I’ve heard white people say we don’t talk about things that go on in our house, we keep things private.
BT: Is it important to teach children about their sexuality early?
Edwards: Teaching children and being open with children about their bodies and sexuality — age appropriately, obviously — but there’s no reason for a child to be in second grade and not know where babies come from and then be educated by somebody on the playground who is being educated by somebody else something that is inappropriate. If you’re not teaching your kid at home then somebody is teaching them, so you have to start young and the reason why so many people grow up with twisted ideas about sexuality — like guys feeling like they need to get all the girls and girls feeling like sex is bad and desiring it makes them bad — and all sorts of ideas that people come up with about sex are because of the messages that are unspoken.
If we’re not allowed to talk about our body parts then there’s something wrong with our body parts and there isn’t. So, if I’m telling my kid to not touch themselves, why? That’s yourself, you can touch you in private. We send a message that our bodies are bad or dirty and why do kids grow up with that message? It’s important to have that conversation and the reason why kids feel like it’s weird for parents to talk about sex is because who waits until your kid is 12 to now want to talk about sex? If you haven’t been having the conversation all along, then it’s awkward but if you’ve been having the conversation about sexuality at an age appropriate level for as far as they can remember, it’s not weird to talk about it and what comes with puberty if you’ve been talking about their body and its functions all along.
BT: What should those who have experience sexual abuse do, especially teens and adults, who have been sexually assaulted and fear speaking up?
Edwards: If it’s an ongoing situation, say a young person who is being sexually abused by a trusted adult or neighbor or even a trusted family member, they can tell a school counselor, teacher, they can tell their doctor or pediatrician and if they tell one of those adults, they are mandated reporters so someone has to investigate that. They can’t say ‘well she’s fast anyway’, if a child underage tells an adult in one of those capacities that they are being abused, a report has to be made and there gets to be an investigation.
If this is not ongoing, this has happened and it’s in the past and they’re currently safe, I would still say that they can talk to their school counselor or pediatrician or doctor. In the state of Alabama, someone over the age of 14 does not need parental permission for therapy so they can ask to go to therapy if they feel like family can’t do it, talk with a school counselor. Thinking about someone in the community who doesn’t know where to go, I would start with the school counselor or pediatrician because both places have resources that they can attach them to and referrals can be made.
BT: Why did R. Kelly documentary cause such a strong reaction, in your opinion?
Edwards: He’s been such a popular figure. He’s been the soundtrack of the early 1990s. When I think about R. Kelly or his music, I was in college in the early 90s and so “12 Play” was all the rage and he had more music beyond that so he’s got all this music that people love and people are still ‘Steppin’ in the Name of Love’ and so you’ve got this musical icon, if you will, and then he’s got all this love music, how do you hold that up to all these atrocities that people have said he’s committed? It creates cognitive dissonance, which is I believe one thing, but I don’t really know what to do with this belief because if I believe this about him, I can’t continue to support him so I just won’t believe it or I’ll blame something else, I’ve got to make it okay in mind to still be okay with him.
Sexual abuse is so common and so many people have experienced it in some shape, form or fashion. Everybody hasn’t been raped, but people have been touched inappropriately or groped or mishandled in some way that they did not ask for so there are so many levels of sexual trauma and so many different types that it’s not all about being kidnapped, but if you’ve been abused in some way and you see this person that’s doing it, you want them to be held accountable in some way.
You’ve got people who are standing up for the rights of women to not be abused and saying we’ve got to hold these people accountable. You don’t get to just abuse people and it’s okay just because you have money and fame. It’s definitely divided the community because I’ve watched folks talk about they’re unfriending folks left and right because people are saying things like ‘where were the girls parents’ as if that makes it okay that these things were done to them because their parents were not involved enough or their parents were looking for a paycheck. Does that make it okay? No, it doesn’t. Or ‘they were looking for fame and this and that’ but those girls were looking for fame only, not sexual abuse, that doesn’t make his behavior okay. I’ve watched the conversations back and forth but I’ve chosen to stay out of them because I believe if he did all these things, he needs to be held accountable.
BT: In lieu of recent events like the R. Kelly documentary, Bill Cosby sentencing and others in Hollywood being accused of sexual abuse, do you see more women coming forward?
Edwards: Yes, I think hearing people say things like ‘well, why are they coming forward now’ knowing how hard it is for women, for people really, to admit that they’ve been violated and then for your story to not be believed or to be doubted or have your character maligned because ‘well you must’ve done something to deserve it’. On average, people aren’t reporting sexual trauma just for the fun of it. I think if someone reports that they’ve been victimized, it needs to be investigated and it needs to be neutrally investigated, not saying necessarily that it must be so because they said it, but let’s collect evidence and see what happened and let’s not automatically assume, ‘oh well she must be trying to get something from these powerful men’ or ‘she’s trying to get something because he has power or money’ because it is hard for someone to verbalize when they’ve been victimized. I’ve witnessed women and boys unable to speak even the words of what happened to them so, for someone to stand up and say this happened to me, they deserve to be heard and not further victimized by rude comments and disbelief.
For more on Cherie May Edwards visit www.workinprogresscounseling.com or call (205) 944-4563.
For more information on sexual assault, visit www.rainn.org or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Click here to read more stories from survivors and counselors on sexual abuse: April ‘7even Rich’ Richardson; Angel Warren; Aiechia House; Lashaundria Brown; Counselors on the lasting effects of trauma women face; Why more women are coming forward.