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Domestic Violence: "Why Doesn't She Leave?" Is the Wrong Question to Ask About Rihanna

Abusers often taunt their victims with just this question, because they grasp the psychological power and the self-esteem erosion behind it.
 
 
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Confession: Every time I see a feminist write about the reasons women don't leave abusers, and they focus to financial constraints and the physical ability to leave to the exclusion of all other factors, I flinch.  I flinch, though I've been guilty of this myself.  It's just such an easy, obvious way to get sympathy for women who have very little sympathy in the public, who tend to share 51-100% of the blame for the beatings that they avoid and wish deeply didn't happen.  You want to get the question off, "Why doesn't she leave?" and onto the one that people hate asking, "Why does he beat her?", and focusing on the most helpless of cases is the quickest, easiest way to do that. But what it does, I realize, is separates "good" victims who deserve our sympathy from "bad" victims who deserve to carry 51-100% of the blame.  You see the same effect when it comes to rape -- the public offers its sympathy to the woman who was wearing a potato sack and a stranger jumps out of the bushes, and we do so in part so we can blame other women for raping themselves by being, and you know the drill, sexually active before, wearing that, stupid enough to drink around men, willing to go out with men she should have known were rapists -- name your "date rape/gray rape" cliches that take the heat off calling it what it is, which is rape.

Which is why a pit formed in my stomach when photos were leaked showing -- to no great surprise to anyone who understands the situation -- that Rihanna was at a party with Chris Brown, and that they're probably back together.  She's going straight into the "bad victim" category, of course, because she hasn't been covered sufficiently by feminist explanations of why women don't leave.  She has the money to leave, and they don't have the intricate ties that make it hard to leave, like children.  And then there's the hints that she "did something" to provoke him -- we prefer our battering victims to just lay down and take it and never do a single thing in self-defense.  In fact, if you are ever battered and call the police, be very careful to only use fleeing as a form of self-defense.  The law is very eager to see domestic violence not for what it is, but just as a normal fight that got out of control, and so if you even slap a guy off you, you're probably going to jail and getting charged, too.

It was questioned in comments here yesterday whether or not feminists are just making shit up when we say that men who beat and rape women can expect a large amount of social support, often more than their victims.  That fact that feminists and sometimes even law enforcement pushes hard back against the perp-coddling aspects of our society does confuse the issue.  We've convinced people, and therefore we can pretend the people who go on and on about how she was asking for it and he's such a nice guy, etc. are marginalized, right?  Wrong -- they're, it turns out, Kanye West.  And, as someone who has experienced this first hand can testify, even if you can get people to agree that what the guy did to you was unforgiveable so that they shun him -- which alone is nearly impossible -- people treat you like a leper.  Many a woman who has pressed charges for rape or domestic violence, or even just come out about it, saw her friends slowly drift away, even if they mean to care.  More often, though, if the man who hurt you is in your family and social circle, people are going to rapidly "not take sides", which is essentially taking his side, because if and when you do choose to fight back or leave him, that will be viewed as you deliberately removing yourself from that particular social circle.  So, without taking his side, they can take his side through passively waiting you out. In fact, the Kanye West thing is a classic example of this danger -- he initially sided with Rihanna, and now he's asking for sympathy for Chris Brown, and there's not much wiggle room after that.  You really can't take both sides in these situations, though I fully understand why he'd want to.

So why doesn't Rihanna leave, when she can afford to?  I have no idea.  Maybe Chris Brown is that charming.  Maybe she saw what I'm seeing, which is this passively (and actively) taking of his side in celebrity circles, and she realized that her career, which depends on socializing with these people, would suffer.  Maybe she thinks he won't do it again now that he's been publicly shamed to a degree.  Maybe her socialization as a woman has trained her, like most, to feel like she's got to take the scraps she's given from men.  Probably all of the above.  If so, then she's like most women in her situation, a mixed bag of motivations that are all, because of our sexist society, pointing her in the direction of staying. 

A major reason men beat women is because we ask, "Why doesn't she leave?" In fact, abusers often taunt their victims with just this question, because they grasp the psychological power of it, the sexism and the self-esteem erosion behind it, and they are happy to use it as a part of their arsenal to demoralize the victim and make her think she doesn't deserve better.  So every time we ask that, we have to ask ourselves why we don't believe that society coddles batterers, when we are engaging in batterer assistance ourselves.

One reason that it's hard for feminists to communicate these ideas is that we can't express them without giving really specific examples, and to do so is often a violation of someone's privacy.  And because victims of gender hate crimes are shamed by our society -- told it's their fault -- they rarely wish to talk about it at all.  So we express these trends in vague terms that make it easy to disbelieve, if that's what you want to do.  Jaclyn has a post that gives some examples to that you have something to hang onto, and she links to another.  Those are helpful, but I suppose they only go so far in helping people understand this situation.

I don't know what's going on.  But I know that if I were Rihanna, and I saw both the active and passive support for Chris Brown, I'd probably have a hard time leaving him, too.  I'd fear -- for a really good, solid reason -- that leaving him and taking on the "victim" label would mean that my phone calls would slowly stop being returned, and that would be it for the career path I had laid out.  Now, I'd wonder if I could find a second way to make my career in music, but being 20 and working in a really harsh world, I'd be loathe to give up a good thing in order to pursue something that probably won't work out.  I'd know that there's 50 young women a lot like me who are dying to take the spot carved out for me in the milieu, and that would make my odds look lower.  I'd go through a cycle of feeling like I'd done something to deserve this at times, and flashes of annoyance that I'm the one who is in real danger of seeing it all go away.  Flashes that I'd stifle, because I've got a good thing going, mostly, and I don't want to ruin it with my negative energy. 

It could be something else, entirely, of course.  Or maybe she's really got one foot out the door.  I hope so, for her sake.  I have no idea.  But if I were her, this is what I imagine would be bothering me.  And doesn't that seem entirely reasonable and sympathetic? And completely plausible?  It's amazing how clarifying it can be if you put yourself in the shoes of someone who finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.
 
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