Domestic Violence Experts on R. Kelly 'Cult' Allegations: 'This Whole Scenario Is Extremely Disturbing'
"Celebrities have this sort of god-like sway over their young admirers, and certainly with young people who are struggling and trying to be somebody and find themselves getting attention from a celebrity... it can be overwhelming and easy to be manipulated, especially younger women with older men," says Owens -- who has no first-hand knowledge of the details in the Kelly case, but decades of experience working with trauma survivors, consulting with government agencies and working with a variety of domestic violence organizations.
"Here we have R. Kelly, who is 50, and we're hearing stories of teenagers barely out of their teens," Owens continues. "And what concerns me greatly is I'm hearing so many things come from these individuals talking to the media that perfectly mirror what I've heard from sex trafficking survivors."
Kelly denied the allegations in the bombshell report, which alleged that the singer is housing half a dozen young women in properties in Chicago and Atlanta where he allegedly controls all aspects of their lives, including what they eat, how they dress, when they sleep and how they "engage in sexual encounters that he records."
Kelly's lawyer, Linda Mensch, responded to the claims on Monday, telling Pitchfork in a statement, "Mr. Robert Kelly is both alarmed and disturbed by the recent revelations attributed to him. Mr. Kelly unequivocally denies such accusations and will work diligently and forcibly to pursue his accusers and clear his name."
For Owens, the details sound to her like cases she's reviewed involve "traumatic bonding," in which a victim might feel a kinship with their captor because they believe that person is providing for their needs, even as they curtail their freedoms. "To me this parallels sex trafficking in some ways, in the sense that it's an older man using women for sex, keeping them isolated, controlled, controlling their food, freedom, access to support systems," she explains.
Billboard obtained a police report on Monday from a January wellness check in Chicago in which police found one of the women at the center of the case in "good health with no visible injuries or markings." The woman told Cook County Sheriff's Office officials that she was "fine and did not want to be bothered with her parents because her father was threatening people."
One of the women, Jocelyn Savage, spoke out on Monday as well, following a press conference by her parents in which they suggested she's experiencing signs of Stockholm Syndrome (which Owens said is similar to traumatic bonding). Savage, now 21, said she voluntarily cut off contact with her parents and is living happily now and is "not being brainwashed or anything." Owens noted that in an interview with TMZ, Savage declined to say where she was or who she was with, or provide any other information about her whereabouts.
"We don’t know who is standing in front of her, it's likely scripted," Owens said of her impression of the interview. "[The sources in the Buzzfeed story are] saying there are different rooms where they're having sex, they can't go to the bathroom without an escort... I'm strictly putting the puzzle pieces together but it's a very, very familiar puzzle."
"It's a huge concern any time you have someone who is very influential, powerful, wealthy with not a lot of checks and balances, who has security around them," she adds. "I'm not surprised this conversation with this young woman is not taking place in public."
The signposts also rang bells for Brian Pacheco, spokesperson for New York victim's assistance organization Safe Horizon. Pacheco -- who also has no first-hand knowledge of the Kelly allegations -- said abusers often use isolation tactics to gain control of their victims, moving young women away from their families and their social and emotional support systems so that they are more reliant on their abuser. "That definitely caught my eye, if you're looking for a skeleton of what we see with many survivors we work with," he said.
In his experience, tactics such as providing someone with a monitored cell phone or other forms of cutting a victim off from their support systems so they are more reliant on their abuser are common practice. Abusive relationships are crimes of power and control, with the captor always looking for ways to gain more control. "'Why doesn't she just leave? She has her own free will.' We hear that all the time," he said. "But leaving is a dangerous time for women. We call it the 'most dangerous week.' Because when someone leaves a violent relationship, that is often the most violent time, when the abuser will escalate their abuse in an attempt to get that person to stay."
Pacheco was also not surprised that nothing came of the police's wellness check, because in many domestic abuse cases, the victims will not report the abuse, or corroborate it out of fear. "There was a survivor we worked with who said something that stuck with me," he recalled. "She was abused on the night she renewed her vows, and there was nothing her parents or friends could have told her to get her to leave. She was determined to stay, which shows you how complicated abuse can be."
There is hope, however, especially if a victim is willing to work with an organization to break free. Pacheco said one of the keys is building a safety plan out of view of the abuser, who might try to assert even more control over their victim if they find out someone is planning to leave. "It's about figuring out what time of night you can leave, how you can pack a bag with bare essentials and hide it so your abuser can't see it," he explains. "When they decide they want to leave, we work with them on a safety plan."