Experts explain why there may be no legal recourse for the women in R Kelly’s alleged cult

R. Kelly Mike Pont/Getty Images

BuzzFeed’s bombshell report on the disturbing abuse allegations against singer R. Kelly told the stories of multiple young women living in his so-called “cult,” reportedly under the singer’s complete control. It also told the stories of their parents, who are fighting to get them back.

So far, their parents’ attempts at legal intervention — even with the aid of local and federal authorities — have come up short. Experts told Mic that’s largely because, as a result of the singer’s alleged psychological manipulation, the adult women in Kelly’s grip don’t see themselves as victims.

“There’s this coercive control at play here,” Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a Tuesday phone interview. “This is frequently an issue in domestic violence cases — a lot of the emotionally and psychologically abusive behaviors aren’t necessarily criminal, especially in the context of an intimate partner relationship.”

“That’s why it’s so hard for ... friends and family members to assist them,” she continued.

R. Kelly performing during The Buffet Tour
R. Kelly performing during The Buffet Tour Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

Monday evening, one of the women allegedly held captive by Kelly spoke out against BuzzFeed’s report, telling TMZ she’s “no hostage.”

“I just mainly want to say that I’m in a happy place in my life,” 21-year-old Jocelyn Savage said in a video published on TMZ’s site. “I’m not being brainwashed or anything like that, and it just came to a point where it definitely has gotten out of hand. I just wanted everybody to know, my parents and everybody in the world, that I’m totally fine. I’m happy where I’m at and everything is OK with me.”

Savage told the outlet she hasn’t been in contact with her parents because they’re unflagging in their belief that she’s being held against her will — which she denies. Nonetheless, Savage refused to disclose her location and wouldn’t comment on if she was living with other roommates or whether she was free to go at any point in time.

“If they’re legally an adult and saying, ‘This is where I want to be and what I want to do’ there’s little you can do,” Nancy Friauf, the president and CEO of Partnership Against Domestic Violence, said in a phone call on Tuesday.

For some victims of domestic violence, speaking up and seeking legal action may take a long time. On average, it takes domestic violence victims about seven tries to finally break free of their abusers for good. Friauf explained the cycle of abuse that feeds domestic violence victims’ reluctance to seek help: There’s a honeymoon phase; a “tension-building” phase; and eventually an incident of violence itself, after which time the abuser will apologize profusely and promise to be a better partner. This cycle repeats itself again and again, with the abuser successfully convincing victims that the next time will be different.

“If they’re legally an adult and saying, ‘This is where I want to be and what I want to do’ there’s little you can do.”

Charmagne Helton, a member of PADV’s board of directors and a survivor of domestic abuse, had to try four times to leave her abusive marriage. Up until that point, Helton was trapped in the cycle of abuse and had trouble accepting that she was a victim — no matter how much her friends and family tried to convince her otherwise.

“Think about it like this: You’re with your Prince Charming — you have staked your flag in the sand,” Helton said in a Wednesday phone interview. “But you’ve got everyone saying [he’s] not so great. And now, since you’re already so invested in the relationship, you end up feeling judged.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t Helton’s friends and family who stopped the cycle of abuse, but a violent choking attack by her then-husband of three months. She ran to the home of a neighbor, who called the police. Police arrived and arrested Helton’s ex-husband, pressing charges on her behalf. He later served an eight-day jail sentence for assault.

But had neighbors not witnessed Helton in the aftermath of the attack, it would have been much harder for law enforcement to intervene in Helton’s abusive marriage.

“If you’re a next-door neighbor and you hear screaming, or you’re out in public and have reason to believe a crime is happening, you can call the police,” Friauf said. “But if you’re concerned about someone and they’re saying, ‘Nope, everything is fine,’ that’s their choice.”

Kelly performing at the Barclays Center
Kelly performing at the Barclays Center Mike Pont/Getty Images

Raghu said there are circumstances under which prosecutors can pursue “evidence-based” cases against alleged abusers, which don’t require the testimony or even the participation of victims. However, in order for prosecutors to begin an investigation without the help of a victim of abuse, there usually needs to be a reported incident, or at least a threat, of physical violence.

This threshold makes for an uncertain future for the women in Kelly’s reported “cult,” especially since Kelly has escaped consequences for his alleged actions in the past.

Kelly’s career is riddled with allegations of sexual abuse and predation dating back to 1991, when the singer — who was 27 at the time — married R&B singer Aaliyah when she was just 15 years old. He later had alleged sexual relationships with other teenagers and appeared in court in 2008 for child pornography charges relating to a sex tape he allegedly made of himself peeing in a 14-year-old’s mouth. Kelly was indicted on 21 felony charges of sex with a minor and child pornography, which was later reduced to 14 charges.

Despite this lengthy list of alleged offenses, Kelly has managed to preserve his career, continuing to earn Grammy nominations and perform at music festivals. Kelly has an upcoming concert in Virginia on July 28.

Raghu has a feeling these latest revelations might be the tipping point for the star, especially given the greater public consciousness surrounding issues of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. If Kelly doesn’t have to answer to a court of law for his actions, he’ll certainly have to answer to the court of public opinion.

“The law is important, but it only goes so far,” Raghu said. “It’s really the cultural and social norms surrounding particular issues that can drive change — many times even faster than the law.”