The news that Rihanna added her ex-boyfriend and batterer Chris Brown to the remix version of her song “Birthday Cake” is disturbing but not altogether surprising. Fame does not equal consciousness. Nor does it guarantee emotional health, self-esteem or healthy relationships.
As abhorrent as their decision was to reunite musically (and allegedly sexually), Chris and Rihanna are not relationship anti-Christs but rather a symbol of what really happens in a disproportionate number of our intimate partnerships. A victim of domestic violence will attempt to leave their abuser an average of 7 times before permanently disengaging. The reality is that ChriHanna’s dysfunctional abuse cycle was interrupted early because of their fame – they are simply continuing down a well-tread path covered in millions of other abusive relationships.
According to "sources close to the couple", theirs was a relationship that had an increasing escalation of violence. The popular “She hit him first” excuse that a Brown defender says when justifying his battering is pretty standard blame the victim fare. This mindset is so deeply embedded in our culture that victims often have to be taught NOT to accept responsibility for her batterer’s abuse. Rihanna may be a rebellious young woman with a temper, but let’s be clear: even a “bitch” can be a victim of domestic violence, just as a promiscuous woman can be raped. Focusing on Rihanna’s alleged behavior is intended to distract from Brown’s confirmed and convicted behavior. Nobody “makes” you batter them. Anyone who says so is simply giving a batterer a pass on personal responsibility and has no understanding of the etiology of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is not about anger or a temporary lapse of control. It is about a need for control so great that a batterer will use any means in order to achieve it, often methods being emotional, financial, verbal, sexual, physical, stalking or digital abuse. When a man is finally arrested for perpetuating violence against a woman, you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Domestic violence is never a one-time event. It is a pattern of intentionally coercive behavior that is rooted in a paradigm of thinking based on fear and loss of control over one’s partner.
To be clear: women can be batterers and men can be victims. But it is impossible to have a gender neutral conversation on an issue that is so clearly not. The statistics don’t lie: 85% of victims of domestic violence are women (Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2001, February 2003). Black women, despite our notorious reputation for being defiantly strong willed are 35% more likely to be in abused than White women (Callie Marie Rennison. and Sarah Welchans, U.S. Dep't of Just., NCJ 178247, Intimate Partner Violence 2000). It is true that culture helps shape a woman’s response to being battered, but it doesn’t change the fact that she is still a victim.
Abusers and victims are not born…they are created. According to Lundy Bancroft, one of the nation’s foremost experts on batterers, “An abuser learns manipulative and controlling behavior from several sources, including key male role models, peers, and pervasive cultural messages. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has integrated manipulative behavior to such a deep level that he acts largely on automatic.” The abuser or victim mindset is a poisonous seed implanted in your mind through experience and conditioning in childhood. It grows and flourishes in the shrouds of silence and denial, with the full extent of its damage revealing itself in vivid Technicolor as you embark upon your intimate relationships. Just like an alcoholic who never thought they’d turn out like their drunken parent, a batterer and a victim often find that against their most fervent desires that they become what they’ve grown to hate.
It’s unfortunate that ChriHanna are so caught up in their own pathology that they don’t understand the greater impact of their defiant decision to reunite in such a public fashion. It’s sad that they lack the awareness and maturity to really get how their actions help shape social attitudes towards violence. But their unconsciousness is nothing more than a reflection of our society’s ignorance and acceptance of intimate partner abuse.
Domestic violence is a problem of values, not of personality. It is deeply rooted in patriarchy, male privilege, sexism, ignorance and social conditioning. Eldridge Cleaver famously said, “If you’re not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” Anyone that chooses to take a non-position on domestic violence is in fact supporting it. Period. One of the most important ways that we as a society can address this issue is by actively challenging our beliefs and the way we respond to those who batter. As long as we continue to assist our sons, friends, brothers or partners from escaping the consequences of their abusive behavior, domestic violence will continue to destroy our women, families and communities at epidemic proportions.
Yes, Rihanna has the right to do whatever the hell she wants with her career and personal life. But her choice is one that normalizes behavior that should not be viewed as normal. In the end, it remains to be seen if “Birthday Cake” ends up being the swan song of her career…or a wake up call to our people.
Sil Lai Abrams is EBONY.com’s Relationship Expert and the author of No More Drama: 9 Simple Steps to Transforming a Breakdown into a Breakthrough and a board member of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Follow her on Twitter: @sil_lai and connect with her on Facebook.