A friend recently confessed to me about a moment when an instructor in college came onto her. While telling me this story, she followed it up quickly with, "I didn't tell anyone because I was so embarrassed." She was afraid people would think horrible things about her, and she felt like she brought it onto herself for being too nice or perhaps because she dressed the wrong way.
I immediately jumped up on my portable soapbox after she told me this. (Kidding--I don't carry one around with me, although sometimes I wish I did.) "You shouldn't feel embarrassed or scared!" I said, ranting about this culture of victim blaming we live in.
But over the next day, I thought more about this--how my friend, a very smart, very confident young woman, could think that this violation of her being was somehow her fault. For years, I've reported on sexual violence and abuse, and it always shocked me to hear men and women of all ages say they are at fault for another person's violent actions against them.I remember a moment while reporting this story for NPR when Jenny and I were outside a coffee shop around Georgetown talking with a group of college girls about sexual harassment. One of the girls, a first year, made the suggestion that a woman's choice of clothing might "bring on" harassment, and her friend, a third year, immediately jumped on that comment.
It was that conversation that made me really see how important it was for sexual violence to be discussed in public. It doesn't matter who you are--assault and abuse can still happen, and when it does, the fear can be paralyzing and you aren't sure what to do next.
Or maybe you do speak up, but society still is programmed to work against you. One victim of assault I spoke with about a year ago told me one of the first things that happened after she went to the police was an interrogation by a group of male officers about her attack. The one thing they did that they thought would make her feel better? They put a female officer in the room to hold her hand.
The issue hits close to home for many reasons: since coming forward and speaking myself about my own experience as a survivor, I've had friends and strangers come to me with their stories too. Online projects like Project Unbreakable have also given survivors a platform to speak in a society where their voices are often buried. Slowly, but surely, there must be a way to give power back to the broken and abused?
Perhaps this is why the recent details surrounding Rihanna and Chris Brown's rekindled relationship strikes so hard. Here was a very public relationship gone wrong before the cameras. People were shocked because now we were having to talk about violence and abuse. We couldn't avoid it.
Survivors felt empowered in 2009 after Rihanna's first interview after the high-profile assault, where she boldly admitted, "It was a wake-up call for me. Big time. I will say that to any young girl who is going through domestic violence: don't react off of love. F--- love. Come out of the situation and look at it in the third person and for what it really is... I even went back after he beat me, which was wrong."
And yet, in popular culture today, Brown is still celebrated and rewarded. He has a loyal fanbase who have no shame in tweeting things like, "I'd let Chris Brown beat me up anytime ;) #womenbeater." Then there's the recent event of Brown deleting his Twitter account after an online fight with comedian Jenny Johnson, in which Brown tweeted, "Just ask Rihanna if she mad??????"
So...now what? A recent New York Magazine piece articulates the confusion well: "Most of us know it's never cool to blame the victim," Ann Friedman writes. "We know that Chris Brown is the real asshole here. But how do we support [Rihanna] when she just wants us to support him?" And that's the real question, right? How do we condemn this behavior without lashing out at the woman who has returned to her attacker?
Maybe we can remind Rihanna of what she said three years ago in that ABC interview:
"It's completely normal to go back. It's not right. I learned the hard way, but again, this is what I want people to know. When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part. I couldn't be held responsible for going back."