What Rihanna Can Teach Us About Domestic Violence

Society needs to stop blaming the victims and excusing the perpetrators.

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I admit it, I looked at the photo that everyone's talking about. Like a rubber-necker at a car accident, I had to see the photo of a bruised and battered woman on the TMZ website. (For those who aren't up on the latest celebrity news, pop star Chris Brown allegedly beat his girlfriend, B illboard-chart-topping singer, Rihanna.)

A photo was leaked to TMZ that purportedly shows Rihanna, and news reports claim that the tattoos visible in it match those the singer is known to have. The Los Angeles Police Department issued a statement saying that the "photo has the appearance of one taken during a domestic violence investigation" and calling it an "unauthorized release of a photograph."

My overwhelming pity for the victim quickly turned to anger when I began browsing through media coverage of the whole affair. I was particularly enraged by this Los Angeles Times piece by Harriet Ryan and Richard Winton predicting that Rihanna (as well as Brown) will probably lose lucrative endorsements. The article quotes business folks labeling her "irresponsible" and suggesting that she, along with Brown, now has an image problem and is no longer the "good girl" everyone thought she was. In other articles, celebrity friends of the couple were quoted as saying they hope Rihanna and Brown can work through their differences. At least Rihanna's family members say they hope she breaks up with him. The rest of the world seems far too forgiving.

Can men who are abusive change? I ask Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Some can but it's unlikely, and there's not a lot of public support for a change in their behavior," she says. As an example of unsatisfactory public reaction, Smith points to blogs "expressing support for Brown's alleged actions, saying that Rihanna is jealous and possessive, as if she's somehow responsible for the violence." In a way, Smith says, the leaked police photo might help people focus on the victim. "There's no way you can look at this photo and think this woman got what she deserved. What can anyone do to deserve this?"

Our society's tolerance of women being battered is glaringly obvious from the statistics:

  • 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime
  • One third of female murder victims are killed by their intimate partner
  • Men's violence against women is the No. 1 cause of injury to women—surpassing even car accidents.
  • Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to police.
  • Yet women stay in these relationships . Do they have some sort of mental illness? No, Smith tells me. It's a social behavioral problem on the part of the victim and the abuser, not a psychiatric disorder. "The crux of the problem is that violence is something the perpetrator uses to get control of the other person. [An abuser] may also isolate the woman from her family and friends so she feels like he's the only one she can rely on." Of course, financially strapped women, especially those with kids, might have a hard time breaking away, and some justifiably worry that they'll be killed if they do. Rihanna doesn't seem to be in this situation, but Smith says it's often hard for a woman to simply break the emotional bond with the person she's still in love with.

    There has been a growing awareness of domestic violence in recent years. One men's organization, A Call to Men, is working to change men's attitudes through education. The group sent out a press release saying that "possibly much of what [Chris Brown] has learned is unfortunately, from the collective body of men, which continues to teach our boys that male dominance, control, privilege, and entitlement is the correct way to behave." (Of course, men can be victims of domestic violence, too, perpetrated by a male or female partner.) And while women still all too frequently get fired from jobs if their abusive partner calls incessantly or shows up at work, groups like the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence are working with corporations to offer more counseling services for their employees and to make it easier for employees to switch to out-of-state branches in order to get away from their abusers.

    If you're a victim of domestic violence, Smith says the Internet is a good tool for locating free shelters in your local area, though she urges women not to use their home computer for these searches because it's an easy way for a partner to find their whereabouts. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) is another great resource.

    Rihanna's situation, if she has in fact been abused, reminds us that domestic violence can happen to any woman. So, take a look at the photo on the TMZ website if you, like me, can't resist. In fact, use it as an opportunity to sear the image into your mind. This may be the new poster girl for domestic violence. We cannot afford to look away.

    • Read more on domestic violence against men and the chronic health problems women face even years after the abuse.