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


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.

Amanda Marcotte further explains why this is the wrong question to ask in domestic violence situations, writing:

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.

But Marcotte wasn't even looking at the more egregious examples of insensitivity towards Rihanna's abuse, which continue to pile up despite criticism.

Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton had this to say recently: "There are so many layers to this Chris Brown and RiRi story. Every day there's a new development ... And it pains me to say this, but every day I'm getting more and more disappointed in Rihanna."

A blog in the Village Voice today even had the gall to say this:

Horrifyingly enough, Rihanna not only went back to her attacker, Chris Brown, but there were reports that she recorded a duet with him! Talk about ennabling! Well, those reports turned out to be misleading, but it's all too sick to ignore anyway, so let's just go with it: What do you think the name of the alleged duet should be? (Disclaimer: I'm hardly making fun of abuse here, I'm mocking the absurd condition of women who return to their oppressors and might even accompany them to the recording studio!)

(In other words, I'm not making fun of abuse, I'm just using a fake story as a means to mock a victim of abuse.)

Considering how uninformed and insensitive coverage of the story has been, it's not surprising that many people are getting the wrong idea about the issue. In a much-publicized study released last month, researchers found that nearly half of Boston teens surveyed said Rihanna was responsible for the abuse.

Needless to say, as Rebecca Traister pointed out in Broadsheet, we need to do a much better job of turning Rihanna's tragedy into the kind of teachable moment our society desperately needs:

It is vitally important that we take advantage of this heartbreaking opportunity to air out some of our long-held assumptions and do some actual teaching.

And now it's more important than ever to shed light on domestic violence -- experts warn that the economic meltdown is likely to drive up the incidence of abuse. In a piece preceding the Rihanna abuse scandal, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettenoted:

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, headquartered in Austin, Texas, could be the canary in the coal mine. The hot line documented a whopping 21 percent increase in calls for September over the same month in 2007, said spokeswoman Retha Fielding. "Our people make notes of what's said during the calls. They tell us more women are talking about money problems in relation to the violence," Ms. Fielding said.

The hot line just logged its 2 millionth call. "It took us seven years to get the first million calls," she said. "It only took five to get the second million." "I was at the Women's Center of Beaver County at the time," she said. "We saw an increase in victims seeking services. The women would say things like, 'He was never like this before, but he's lost his job at the mill and there's no place else to make that kind of money.' " Now, she said, "We think we're starting to see some of the same things in terms of stress factors. Our clients aren't saying there's more violence at this point, but in the past eight weeks they've been talking a lot more about economic stress than they were before. That's a warning sign."

Judy Yupcavage, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said research shows that recession and unemployment don't cause spousal abuse by themselves, but they exacerbate situations where violence already is a factor.

"It's important to emphasize that violent people don't get a pass on this behavior because of a bad economy," she said.

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