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"Asking For It": Rihanna, Victim-Blaming and the Problem with Sympathy

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Last week, Thought Catalog's Jayne Ricco wrote an article asking if it was "okay to judge Rihanna for getting back together with her abuser," as Instagram recently confirmed what everyone I know feared: RiRi and Breezy are back on -- and canoodling in our hipsta-filters. Although Ricco states that Rihanna has the agency to be with whomever she likes, she poses a central question:

But is it really anti-woman or anti-feminist to say that I don't think any woman should knowingly return to a relationship where she faces real physical harm? Why are none of us allowed to think and say that? Aren't there some things in life about which we are allowed to proclaim, 'No, I don't believe that is ever okay'?...Why, in certain situations, like Rihanna's, can we not say that we disagree with her choice without being labeled judgmental or anti-feminist? At some point, when can we say that physical safety simply must take precedence over the emotional complexities that make it difficult for a victim to leave her abuser?...Is it terrible to say that while I would be saddened if he hurt her again and of course don't want it to happen, I will have less sympathy for her than I did the first time?

These are interesting inquiries, and Ricco seeks to answer them through a sometimes thoughtful and exceedingly well-intentioned exploration of the scandal and Rihanna's "situation" -- from her own experience in representing abuse victims. Unlike many abuse survivors, Ricco states that Rihanna has the financial, social or matrimonial means to leave her abuser. If she were to leave, Rihanna doesn't have to worry about divorce court or custody battles and could seek therapy to help sever her personal and emotional ties with him. If she were to leave, she would have security to protect her and a nation of people on her side. If she were to leave, we would be with her in solidarity.

And much of that is true. However, I also know that getting back with your abuser tends to be the norm, rather than the exception. On the average, it takes women seven tries to leave, and most women will go back at least once. My mother put up with months of abuse from her ex-husband -- leaving and coming back -- before she found the strength to leave for good. Staying wasn't about finances or keeping a family together; she just needed to leave when she was ready, when she knew she couldn't take any more. It was an addiction she needed to figure out how to quit.

Do I agree with her choice to remain in that relationship for that long or to go back to a guy who beat her in the face with a box fan? No, of course not. But if I want to be a supportive child or the feminist I hope I am, I need to respect the decisions of women I don't agree with. The meaning of the term "feminist" is complicated, and if you polled a room full of feminists on what that label means to them, you would likely get a different answer from each respondent. To me, my feminism is rooted not in burning bras (although that sounds like fun), but in realizing that women are individuals with their own agency, who reserve the right to make their own choices over their bodies, their selfhoods, their relationships and their lives. I don't have to agree with those decisions -- whether that's shaving their head or getting an abortion -- and I don't have to endorse Rihanna's relationship. It's not mine to endorse.

As a feminist, I support Rihanna not because I think she made a good decision or that if she just takes him back, he'll change. Chris Brown might not change, and he very well could abuse her again. However, the question of sympathy bothers me, as denying Rihanna compassion for future abuse leads to a slippery slope of victim blaming. We live in an abuse culture, where women and men are made to feel that they were at fault when they are abused, where my partner once blamed me for being sexually assaulted at a party. I was told I was "scum" and a "cheater" for letting my assailant's hand over my mouth and muffle my sobs -- like the women who are called "sluts" for dressing a certain way and told that behavior invites rape. They are told they are "asking for it."

Such victim blaming ignores the fact that this is a system. Victim blaming alleges that the problem isn't the society that defends abusers, silences survivors, forces victims to internalize their self-hatred and oppression and trivializes this cycle of abuse. The problem isn't that other women thought so little of Rihanna for getting beaten up that they went on Twitter to invite Chris Brown to hit them. The problem is Rihanna for putting herself in that situation and not fitting our idea of how a woman should behave. A complicated issue gets boiled down to her perceived lack of intelligence: "How can she be so stupid?" How can you ask that? This misses the point.

In the comment section of Ricco's article, two respondents gave perfect voice to this line of thinking. User "Lubey Doo" wrote, "It would be cool if someone whipped her ass because they were mad at her getting back with the guy that whipped her ass." If this isn't enough for you, someone named "Bootney Lee Farnsworth" (which I hope to God isn't his real name) added, "Hopefully this time he finishes her off." This idea of corrective abuse to teach abuse is symbolic of a society that shows a zero tolerance policy for women who act outside of popular expectations, one where we constantly ask women to be judged for our approval, to be "liked" by meeting those expectations. As Jessica Valenti recently put it, "she...with the most likes wins," and a little girl can't even shave her head without half of America freaking out about it.

This problem isn't just about Rihanna, and you don't have to like her or follow her music to care about supporting women's choices. The problem is that we refuse to treat women as adults capable of making their own decisions and mistakes, that we paternalistically govern women's lives (in public or in private), that we obsess over what they do with their bodies, that we lord over them by public forum and blame them for not being perfect. We say we care about women's choices, and if we do, we need to stand in solidarity by using this moment to start meaningful dialogues around the systemic issues women face. Instead of holding Rihanna accountable for being abused and shaming her for it, we need to create a world that reduces harm and allows those who need to it seek help. We don't need to ask anything of Rihanna. We need to ask it of ourselves.

Note: An earlier version of this appeared at Thought Catalog, and you can check it out on their website. You should also check out the great think pieces being written on this issue across the web, from women and especially women of color. It's important all voices be heard and considered in this dialogue.