Remember when guys joked that there was no such thing as rape? I do. It wasn't so long ago, either. And, it wasn't only guys who blamed women for getting "what they asked for" because they wore the wrong clothes, walked down the wrong street, went out with the wrong guy, or did whatever they did to bring violence and violation upon themselves. (Then there was the theory that, not only do women ask for rape, they enjoy it. But, that's another story.)
All this is to say, when it came to defining rape in the 1960s, 1970s and maybe beyond, the lines sometimes blurred between victim and attacker, as well as normal and deviant behavior.
And that brings us to today. In the Chris and Rihanna thing, what looked like a pretty clear-cut act of violence perpetrated by an out-of-control young man against a defenseless woman, has changed into something much different. According to the media, it's no longer clear which of the two was the victim and which was the perp. In fact, it's no longer clear there was a crime committed. Maybe she just got what she asked for. Maybe he just got a bit carried away.
Whatever. But, don't believe for a minute that the battle between these two pop stars is limited to the courtroom, or even the media. No, it's being played out daily in school cafeterias, at bus stops and around office water coolers, where their fans take sides and sometimes fight each other. We can only wonder which side of the flying fist they'll be on, as they get older.
Consider these excerpts from a story in last week's Village Voice (NY):
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Another Love TKO:Teens Grapple with Rihanna vs. Chris Brown
An unsettling conversation, to oft-disturbing and potentially lasting effect
By Raquel Cepeda, published: April 01, 2009
It's hard to tell, but maybe she's pursing her lips at me. Or, like any other eighth-grader, maybe she's just irritated about having to spend a whole period with a bunch of seventh-graders—and in an advisory class, no less. After all, what's left to talk about, especially after the fact? There are so many other things a 13-year-old would rather be doing with her time, like tomorrow's homework, or daydreaming, or whatever.
But this Monday morning, at the Talented and Gifted School for Young Scholars in Spanish Harlem, we're going to harp—like it or not—on a subject these kids are way, way over: gender violence against women and girls. And so the bell rings. The kids shuffle in from noisy hallways. And the eye-rolling begins.
Many of these students aren't grasping why we're still riding the Rihanna-and-Chris-Brown drama so hard, more than a month after the "alleged" assault. This isn't an isolated case, or even solely a celebrity drama about the 21-year-old pop princess and her 19-year-old American-idol boyfriend, whose Grammy-eve brawl in Los Angeles resulted in two felony charges against him: It's bigger than tabloid fodder or the countless myths and speculations surrounding the incident. (Brown will be arraigned April 6.) And it has everything to do with these roughly 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls who are about to enter a danger zone: According to DoSomething.org, a New York City–based nonprofit organization, one in three teens will become victims of relationship violence.
Seven boys have filed to one side of the room; 16 girls are huddled on the other. OK, I have a question as serious as cancer: Did Rihanna provoke Chris Brown? The boys are deadpan. And by the looks of it, the girl who was pursing her lips has something to vent, and she does: "All we see is, 'Oh, Chris Brown beat Rihanna up, so she must be so innocent,' " she snaps. "But she must have done something to make him mad." Some of the kids nod in agreement. "My mom told me that we really don't know what happened because we weren't there," she continues. "But as far as I know, she went back to him, so that's her problem."
…Peruse almost any blog or major media outlet that's following the battery case, and chances are that you'll come across postings that zealously defend Brown while squarely placing the blame on Rihanna's shoulders … "Someone needs to sit her little tail down and tell her, 'Yes, it's a bad situation that you were abused, but you need to understand it's not OK for you to think you can control and abuse a male with no consequences.' "
An overwhelming majority of the kids here agree: In a class of 23 mostly Latino and African-American students, all but three girls think that Rihanna provoked the beatdown.
..."We live in a society that reinforces violence as the way to handle conflict, from the government to the schoolyard," says Elizabeth Mendez Berry, a New York City–based journalist who wrote "Love Hurts," an award-winning 2005 Vibe feature about domestic violence in the hip-hop industry. "You might disagree with [Rihanna's] choice, but that doesn't excuse his. I think women are often socialized to empathize more with men than with other women."
Furthermore, it's a pandemic every woman will have to grapple with at some point in her lifetime, regardless of race or class. However, the economy does intersect. According to the Department of Justice, females living in households with lower annual incomes experienced the highest average annual rates of intimate-partner violence in the U.S. If this statistic holds true in the forthcoming years, violence against women will only escalate as Americans (and the rest of the world) continue to be weighed down by economic hardship.
…"It's easier to blame the victim because it gives us a sense of control over our own lives," writes Pamela Shifman, Director of Initiatives for Women and Girls at the NoVo Foundation, in an e-mail. "Otherwise, we'd have to confront the fact that we, too, could be victims (which, of course, is true)."
…the conversation about misogyny among young people, hip-hop culture, and society in general needs to address another very real facet: the hatred of women by women. "By definition, misogyny is about the hatred of women. It's not gender-specific," says Morgan, who saw gender-trumping violence when covering the Mike Tyson rape trial for the Voice in '91. "So there are men who hate women, and other women who hate women." The teenage girls' unconditional, sometimes puzzling support of Chris Brown isn't necessarily misogynistic; their acrimonious contempt for Rihanna—their hatred—is.
One thing is clear: Educators must incorporate the issue of gender violence into the curriculum on a national scale, because many families are finding it difficult to talk about it at home. "Only two states, Texas and Rhode Island, have mandated educational programs around relationship abuse," says Mendez Berry. "But I think it's clear that young people really need to learn how to have healthy relationships and how to resolve conflict in a constructive way."
Not all the kids before me today think Brown was justified. "I disagree with the fact that she provoked him, because when you say 'provoke,' to me, that means he had a reason to hit her," says an eighth-grade Latina. "I don't think that's fair." That this opinion puts her in the minority is a major crisis. For everybody.