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Rihanna and Domestic Violence: How We Are Messing Up a Teachable Moment

Rihanna's abuse has sparked a national discussion about domestic violence. Unfortunately, most of it is offensive and unproductive.

Pop star Rihanna's beating by boyfriend Chris Brown sparked a national conversation about intimate partner abuse, a tragic issue that rarely makes it into the national spotlight despite the millions of women (and some men) who fall victim to domestic violence every year.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women are the victims of about 4.8 million physical assaults and rapes by their partners every year. Less than 20 percent of battered women seek medical treatment following an injury.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association:

 ... domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, more common than automobile accidents, muggings, and cancer deaths combined. Other research has found that half of all women will experience some form of violence from their partners during marriage, and that more than one-third are battered repeatedly every year.

Rihanna's celebrity pushed the issue to the forefront of our national conversation; unfortunately, most of the dialogue surrounding the incident hasn't done much to advance an intelligent, empathetic discussion about the problem.

In fact, when news first broke, a number of celebrities lined up behind Brown with glib statements of support for the alleged abuser.

Rapper T.I. said, "Hey man, you people gotta remember, we celebrities and we entertainers but we still human. All of us...Don't expect us not to make mistakes 'cause we will."

Soulja Boy blamed the media for the incident, saying, "I hope everything works out for the best! Chris hold it down homie, you know how the media gets!!"

Kanye West also urged fans to give Brown a pass. "Can't we give Chris a break? I know I make mistakes in life."

When a leaked photo of Rihanna's battered face hit the scene, many of Brown's erstwhile supporters backpedaled. But, as many feminist commentators pointed out, the release of the photo itself was a breach of Rihanna's privacy and yet another symptom of our culture's insensitivity to domestic violence. Cara at Feministe wrote:

On the subject of all of this: Just Stop It. It's bad enough that her name was released, when it should not have been. This woman was clearly attacked, in what is very strongly believed to be an intimate partner violence incident.

She is dealing with more than enough, and more than she or any other woman should ever have to deal with.

Every woman deserves some sense of privacy in a situation like this, no matter how famous she is. Every woman in this situation deserves our support.

And every woman in this situation should get to decide for herself how public she wants to be about it and whether or not she is portrayed in this way.

Not you. Not me. Not some stupid entertainment Web site that clearly just wants to make a profit.

Just her. Her, and only her.

But Rihanna's celebrity, combined with our screwed-up ideas about gender and domestic violence, appears to have made a reasoned dialogue -- one that looks at the issue seriously and is also respectful to Rihanna's humanity --- difficult to find.

Amid reports that Rihanna returned to Chris Brown, much of the conversation shifted to the question "Why doesn't she just leave?" It seem reasonable enough to wonder why a battered woman would stay with an abuser. But it's also essential to consider the complicated power dynamics undergirding abusive relationships, which make it difficult for victims to leave their abusers; on average, it takes a battered women six attempts to escape her partner for good.

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