Holed up in an 8th floor suite of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, Chris Brown managed to stay reasonably clear from the majority of press and public following his alleged attack on girlfriend Rihanna. Not until days later did he release a statement of apology, and according to the LAPD, we will likely never see his mug-shot . While it is fair to say Brown's image has been criticized, his privacy, in many instances, has been preserved.
We cannot say the same for Rihanna. Going where no major news outlet had yet gone, The LA Times revealed Rihanna's identity as the victim, calling it "fair game." Immediately, many charged Rihanna to report and prosecute, claiming she had to do it for the "restoration of her own self-esteem." A week later, a bloodied and beaten picture of her was leaked on TMZ with the appearance of an official investigation photo, probing a LAPD internal investigation . And when I didn't think it could possibly get any worse, yesterday, the NY Daily News ran a story entitled "Chris Brown learns anger management; could Rihanna use it too?," inferring that Brown's violent attack might simply have been a reaction to Rihanna's temper.
This is hardly the first time a victim's identity has been revealed and her actions questioned by the media, and unfortunately, I doubt it will be the last. Other nationally publicized cases involving Kobe Bryant and the Duke Lacrosse players have also broken the privacy of victims, and have lead many to ask: What did she do? What was she wearing? How did she act in the past? Why would she put herself in that situation?
Ultimately, these questions boil down to one: "What did she do to deserve this?" This rationalization of violence cuts deep into the fear and uncertainty that so many of us have about domestic and sexual assault. It stems from the ultimate denial that these horrendous crimes are real--and even worse, that they can happen to anyone, anywhere, unprovoked and unplanned. Admittedly, it is terrifying to think that if Rihanna, an international superstar, could fall victim to such violence undeservingly, then it could just as easily happen to any one of us.
However, imposing these questions and invading the privacy of a victim-- celebrity or not-- to pacify our fears and provide us an explanation of assault is wrong. Instead of investigating a victim's actions prior to their assault, let us take the time to educate not only our women but also, our men on what assault is. Rather than questioning the character of each woman who does not report, we must examine our system that makes it so incredibly difficult to report: the societal shame, the media blame, a lack of access to resources, a perceived absence of efficacy in our criminal justice system. It is only with education, involving men in the conversation, and reducing barriers to reporting that we will see a decline in violence against women in our world.
Domestic and sexual violence are crimes of power, not passion. They see the largest rates of recidivism and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the lowest reporting rates of any crime. 60% of sexual-assault perpetrators and 40% of domestic violence perpetrators will never spend a single day in jail. The amount of power that is taken away from a victim during an attack like this is immeasurable. So while it is fair to say that we should encourage reporting, we must also realize the ultimate choice to report a case should rest in a survivor's hands.
While the epidemic of domestic and sexual violence on our women is unequivocally a public issue, the choice of whether Rihanna should be the next celebrity-turned-activist must be hers, and hers alone. Shame on the LA Times, the LAPD, and the New York Daily News for this ultimate denial of privacy. Cases like these will only make it harder for survivors of domestic violence, 1 in every 5 women (and 1 in every 3 African-American women ) in the U.S., to find the strength to step forward.