The aftermath of the recent “Surviving R. Kelly” cable series has led several local organizations to encourage sex abuse victims to seek out the help available to them.
Oak Park community activist Anthony Clark hosted a “Believe survivors” forum Feb. 13 at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church, where he invited representatives of various organizations that seek to assist victims to talk about their services.
“The issue of rape culture, sexual assault, sexual violence, sex trafficking — it’s strange to me when we attempt to discuss these specific issues, it’s hard for people to discuss and talk about them,” Clark said. “This issue is so pervasive. It’s in every corner in our lives.”
The event was initially scheduled to include Lizzette Martinez, who appeared in the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary. The TV series delves into allegations of sexual abuse of women and girls by the singer. Martinez has said R. Kelly picked her up as a 17-year-old in a mall and took advantage of her desire to be a singer.
Clark said Martinez was set to fly in from California, but she ultimately had to cancel.
“A lot of wounds were reopened, and she’s battling and fighting right now,” Clark said. “She wishes she could be here, but self care is important and she’s taking care of herself right now.”
Among those speaking was Tania Haigh, co-founder of Oak Park-based P.A.X.A., or Parents Against Child Sex Abuse. Haigh said it is her organization’s goal to assist parents with the difficult conversations of speaking to their children about sex abuse, even at an early age.
“The truth of the matter is there are a lot of ways we can dig into our children earlier,” Haigh said. “Talk to them about their bodies. Predators are attracted to children starting at age 0 in different stages. We’re really bullish about educating children about predators.”
According to Haigh, 90 percent of child molesters or pedophiles are known to their victim and the victim’s family, and can typically be described as “manipulative.”
“They take advantage of your trust and our children,” Haigh said. “Quite simply, it’s about asking questions. Ask them ‘Has anyone every touched you?’ It’s not just age 2-4, but you’re on top of what’s happening on that play date or that eighth-grade trip or that sleepover. We are trying to educate parents.”
Rahasad Singletary, a physical education teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, said the school’s curriculum has changed greatly since the 1990s to teach healthy relationship habits.
Singletary said the high school has partnered with organizations like R.A.D. and Sarah’s Inn to teach self defense and to break the cycle of violence for students.
“Society puts a lot of pressure on young men at an early age of what a young man is supposed to be,” Singletary said. “Society says a man is tough, strong, a provider, aggressive, he talks the lead, etc. All these different stereotypes, they don’t even need. What if a kid doesn’t fit in that box? It’s OK if you’re not one of those. Once you figure yourself out as a young man, you can have healthy relationships.”
The goal of such programs, Singletary says, is to educate students to unpack their emotions before unhealthy anger can set in. Singletary added that “most sexual assaults take place between two people who know each other.”
“We start talking about what manipulation looks like or coercion looks like,” Singletary said. “We teach this so we can empower the people around us to build a community and a school.”
Zachary Draves of Pillars Community Health says his organization seeks to educate youth about dating violence and healthy relationships by using techniques such as visiting local schools.
“We’re making sure we have this conversation with everyone, especially men and boys,” Draves said. “It’s discussing what is a healthy masculine identity and how we can create masculine identity that’s on our own terms rather than what society hopes men have to be. When we talk about R. Kelly, we need to have a talk about toxic masculinity.”
Deirdre Harrington, also with Pillars Community Health, works closely with a hospital treating survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
“I didn’t realize how pervasive it really was,” Harrington said. “This issue is personal for a lot of us. We talk about it all the time, but it’s so sad that for so long no one was listening to survivors.”