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Abby L. Ferber Headshot

How Many More Rihannas?

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They shouldn't be surprising, yet they are so disturbing that one can't help but be stunned to read that "Nearly half of the 200 Boston teenagers interviewed for an informal poll said pop star Rihanna was responsible for the beating she allegedly took at the hands of her boyfriend, fellow music star Chris Brown, in February."

These statistics bespeak the normalization of violence against women in our culture.

44% of the teens "said fighting was a routine occurrence" in relationships.
Research conducted in 2006 found that "alarming numbers of teens experience and accept abusive behavior in dating relationships. Many teens also feel physically and sexually threatened." One fifth of teens who have been in a serious relationship report being hit, slapped or pushed by a partner. And almost one fourth of girls who have been in a relationship reported going further sexually than they wanted as a result of pressure. New technologies like cell phones, text messaging, and myspace are also being used to abuse, bully, and control. "71 percent of teens identified boyfriends/girlfriends spreading rumors about them on cell phones and social networking sites as a serious problem."

Women in the U.S. are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by any one else, and 73% of women who are raped knew their attacker.

Teen dating violence, like domestic violence among adults, affects everyone, no matter what your race, class, religion, or sexual orientation. And while boys and men do experience domestic abuse, the vast majority of intimate partner violence is perpetrated by men and targets women. Dating violence is about power and control, and it entails more than physical abuse, including emotional and sexual abuse as well.

Young women of color, like Rihanna, face an even more complex and difficult situation in confronting and leaving an abusive partner. According to Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, "Within the mainstream anti-violence movement in the U.S., women of color who survive sexual or domestic abuse are often told that they must pit themselves against their communities, often portrayed stereotypically as violent, to begin the healing process. Communities of color, meanwhile, often advocate that women keep silent about the sexual and domestic violence in order to maintain a united front against racism."

Why are girls' so willing to rationalize Brown's behavior? We raise our girls to be "nice." Girls are expected to consider the feelings of others, and please others, at the risk of jeopardizing their own needs and safety. Girls quickly learn that their value is rooted in having and keeping a boyfriend. Girls and women's magazines and popular music videos and video games send the message that this is the most important measure of a woman's worth.

No more excuses- we all should be talking about these issues with adolescents. Any teen who has not experienced domestic abuse themself certainly knows someone who has. Because teens generally do not turn to adults for help when they are involved in an abusive relationship, it is important for adults to be alert for signs and to raise the issue with teens first. No one is immune from this serious and widespread social problem.

There are many excellent resources out there for parents and teachers to make this task easier today. Here are just a few:
National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center
Teen dating abuse awareness toolkit
Teen Dating Bill of Rights and Pledge

Too often prevention and education efforts focus on girls and women, but at it's root, this is a problem of masculinity. We live in a culture of violence against women, where aggressive men are glamorized. Men demonstrate their masculinity through control and power over women and other men. We need to offer our adolescents more positive models of masculinity, rather than those based on power and control.

Check out recent books on masculinity and violence, including: Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, by Michael Kimmel, and The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help by Jackson Katz. On his website, Katz provides an excellent resource (abbreviated here):

TEN THINGS MEN CAN DO TO PREVENT GENDER VIOLENCE

1. Approach gender violence as a MEN'S issue involving men of all ages and socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. View men not only as perpetrators or possible offenders, but as empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers

2. If a brother, friend, classmate, or teammate is abusing his female partner -- or is disrespectful or abusive to girls and women in general -- don't look the other way.

3. Have the courage to look inward. Question your own attitudes...Try hard to understand how your own attitudes and actions might inadvertently perpetuate sexism and violence, and work toward changing them.

4. If you suspect that a woman close to you is being abused or has been sexually assaulted, gently ask if you can help.

5. If you are emotionally, psychologically, physically, or sexually abusive to women, or have been in the past, seek professional help NOW.

6. Be an ally to women who are working to end all forms of gender violence.

7. Recognize and speak out against homophobia and gay-bashing. Discrimination and violence against lesbians and gays are wrong in and of themselves. This abuse also has direct links to sexism (eg. the sexual orientation of men who speak out against sexism is often questioned, a conscious or unconscious strategy intended to silence them. This is a key reason few men do so).

8. Educate yourself and others about how larger social forces affect the conflicts between individual men and women.

9. Don't fund sexism. Refuse to purchase any magazine, rent any video, subscribe to any Web site, or buy any music that portrays girls or women in a sexually degrading or abusive manner. Protest sexism in the media.

10. Mentor and teach young boys about how to be men in ways that don't involve degrading or abusing girls and women.

This incident provides us with an opportunity to engage in a broader discussion about violence against women. For all of the girls and women that you know, don't let this opportunity pass by in silence.

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