When the media reported that singer Rihanna was reconciling with R&B star Chris Brown after reports that he beat her in February, the horrible incident became the hot topic of every tabloid and entertainment show.
The 19-year-old Brown appeared in court on March 5 and was charged with two counts of felony assault for an incident in which 21-year-old Rihanna said he repeatedly hit, choked and threatened to kill her while they were having an argument.
For the most part, the media turned a serious topic into a sensation, exploiting every gory detail for no other purpose than to shock its viewers.
In the midst of the frenzy, talk show host Oprah Winfrey pulled together a show on dating violence in an effort to take the issue seriously, and reach out to women who might be living in violent situations.
Winfrey invited supermodel and talk-show host Tyra Banks to talk about her interviews with Rihanna, in which she described her parents fighting, and with Brown, who said he witnessed his mother's abuse and swore he'd never put a women through what his mom went through. Banks also talked about her own experience of emotional abuse.
The show relayed the simple recognition that violence against women is rife in our society, and women aren't to blame for it--observations that sadly not everyone shares. In a survey in the aftermath of the beating incident by the Boston Public Heath Commission, half of the teenagers surveyed, aged 12 to 19, boys and girls, said they thought that Rihanna was responsible for being beaten.
Statistics on dating violence and young women are shocking. According to the Family Violence and Prevention Fund, one in five female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a date, and 8 percent of high-school-age girls say that they have been forced by a boyfriend to have sex against their will. Forty percent of girls aged 14 to 17 say they know someone their age who has been hit by a boyfriend.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, every year women in the U.S. experience 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes. According to the Bureau of Justice, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner in 2005--an average of three women every day.
During the show, Winfrey and Banks repeated the advice that women must find the strength to get out of an abusive relationship. They made it seem as if abused women simply needed to summon the confidence inside to get themselves out of a nightmare. "When you feel great, you draw greatness to you," said Oprah. You might as well tell a battered woman to pull herself up by her bootstraps.
Nowhere in this discussion was there any recognition of how difficult it is--financially and emotionally--for most women to get out of battering relationships, much less a real answer to why battering takes place.
Women escaping abuse often find themselves without the funds, credit or work history to find stable housing. A 2008 Equal Rights Center investigation of 93 rental properties in the District of Columbia found that, overall, 65 percent of test applicants seeking housing on behalf of a domestic violence survivor were either denied housing or offered less advantageous terms and conditions than an applicant not associated with domestic violence.
Shelters for women who seek to escape abuse and their children are scarce and pitifully underfunded.
A 24-hour census of domestic violence shelters and services by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that more than 20,000 adult and child victims of abuse sought refuge in emergency shelters, and more than 10,000 adult and child abuse victims were living in transitional housing in a single day in 2008. According to the survey, on that same day, nearly 9,000 requests for assistance went unmet because of a lack of funding.
Of course, few people would look to Oprah Winfrey to provide all the answers to such serious questions as violence against women. But the discussion on her show with Banks says something about the way we are expected to view problems like domestic abuse and dating violence. The problem, like the solution, is always explained in terms of personal responsibility.
"Breaking the cycle of violence"? is a favorite phrase of talk show advisors, but what does that mean exactly? That, by some force of nature, some men are batterers, and they pass this to their sons? The word "cycle"? implies that violence is unstoppable and inevitable, until an individual man or woman makes it stop.
This isn't to say that such individual solutions can't and don't happen--men and women change their situations for the better, despite the tremendous forces working against them. But the "individual responsibility" way of looking at violence against women masks a greater, more systemic problem--that a society which treats women as less than equal opens the door for women to be abused. In all sort of ways, our society views women as if they are of less value than men. This isn't expressed only in music lyrics or sexism in popular culture, but in women's overall status, including the unfair burden in the home that most women are expected to bear.
Add to this the difficult and contradictory relationships that can exist among family members. Inside families and relationships, the unexpressed frustrations of the outside world make themselves felt--and in some cases, the people closest and least responsible for the outside miseries become targets of abuse. It is little wonder that reports of domestic abuse have increased among military families, as the horrors of military services come back to haunt soldiers who take it out on their family members.
The answer to domestic violence lies in fundamentally changing the status of women in society. One first step would be to demand services, such as a safe place to live, for women who are facing abuse. Another is fighting for living wages, so that no woman feels the need to stay with an abuser because she cannot afford to leave. Likewise, free and accessible child care and health care would go a long way toward freeing women, and men, from the stresses and burdens of everyday life.
These things will come at no small price--and they certainly won't be won by exhorting women to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." They have to be organized for and fought for--by women and men together, committed to ending women's oppression.