Stop Blaming the Victim: Rihanna and Chris Brown
This morning, I read the Colorlines article about Rihanna’s new song, “Birthday Cake” featuring her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. The release of this song comes three years after Chris Brown attacked his then-girlfriend on the eve of the Grammys, inflicting a split lip, a black eye and other injuries.
The article compares Chris Brown’s first line, “ Girl I want to f*ck you right now. Been a long time, I’ve been missing your body,” with a statement Rihanna made in a 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer. In that interview, Rihanna articulated her realization of how much of an impact she has—as a pop star—on young girls who might be deciding about whether to leave their own abusive relationships.
Other articles were more frank in their criticisms of Rihanna’s new musical partnership. In the Huffington Post, a founder of a women’s shelter was quoted as saying that Rihanna “should be working on herself and not allowing herself to be near her addiction…” (emphasis added).
At first, I found myself nodding in agreement with all the analyses offered by these progressive news platforms. But then I felt triggered and I had to take a moment to figure out why. In that moment, I remembered that my own analysis of abusive relationships have been largely influenced by the trainings I’ve been through to become a certified rape crisis counselor with San Francisco Women Against Rape and a domestic violence advocate with the International Institute of the Bay Area and the Family Violence Law Center.
In those trainings, I’ve learned the ineffectiveness of telling sexual assault and domestic violence survivors what they “should” do. I’ve been trained to understand that individual solutions are actually best formed by the survivor herself.
One question I encounter many times on the rape crisis hotline is, “what should I do?” One helpful answer that I find myself using the most is, “I think you know, deep down inside, what you need to do for yourself.”
Then the client and I start talking about the finances of leaving an abusive relationship, especially when children are involved. We talk about logistics and support. We list the references of women’s shelters and relocation programs. And sometimes, when all of the information is put out on the table, a survivor decides to leave his or her batterer.
But sometimes, she or he decides to stay. Each time a client tells me this, I feel a heavy burden inside my belly because I feel that I have failed as a counselor or as a legal advocate. Somehow, society has made me believe that as someone with the privilege to advise someone to leave, I should do everything in my power to urge the “correct” solution.
Similarly, I think that what the articles are saying to Rihanna—as someone who has the financial privilege to distance herself from her batterer—is that she should feel the same heavy feeling in her belly for not doing “the right thing.” Indeed, the articles said nothing about how Chris Brown’s irresponsible decision to be featured in Rihanna’s new song might encourage young men to seek out their ex-girlfriends to initiate the next steps of another abusive cycle.
I urge everyone to refocus on the real problem. While I appreciate the underlying sentiment people might have in feeling the need to step up and save Rihanna by telling her what she needs to do, I think that what we really need to do as a society is illustrate a better narrative of healthy relationships and provide the services and trainings that support that narrative.
Instead of blaming the victim, here are some ways to get involved:
- San Francisco Women Against Rape provides community education and organizing and is building accountability models through their Community Initiatives Program. You can get involved by volunteering as a rape crisis counselor.
- The Family Violence Law Center provides free legal services to domestic violence survivors and helps to secure Domestic Violence Restraining Orders. You can donate to aid their efforts, here: http://fvlc.org/donate/
- The International Institute of the Bay Area assists undocumented domestic violence survivors by helping them obtain U-Visas and work permits. They have numerous volunteer opportunities also.
- In 2009, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used a line-item veto to eliminate state funding for domestic violence shelters. Within six weeks, six shelters had closed statewide. Domestic violence advocates had to work really hard to convince the Legislature to reinstate the funding. You can prevent this from happening again by supporting the efforts to pass the Millionaires Tax.