March 23, 2009

What Really Happened in Disturbia

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By now, anyone with a computer and an internet connection has seen the photos of Rihanna after she was allegedly assaulted by Chris Brown the night of the Grammys a few weeks ago. In the wake of this incident, adults and teens alike have struggled to talk to one another about abusive relationships. It is unfortunate that such society needs such an event to provoke this conversation, but what is even more disturbing are the trends that seem to be emerging from the national dialogue.

Several news articles have emerged to shed light on the problem of dating violence, most prominently in the form of the NYT’s “Teenage Girls Stand by Their Man”. The author, Jan Hoffman, tries to capture the debate going on across blogs and in high school halls about dating violence. What she finds is scary: teenage girls are defending Chris Brown, even after they’ve seen photos of Rhianna after the attack, leaked courtesy of your friendly neighborhood gossip rag TMZ.

She has the statistics to prove it.

A recent survey by the Boston Public Health Commission of 200 male and female teenagers between the ages of 12 to 19 revealed that a whopping 46 percent of students interviewed believed Rhianna was responsible for what happened to her. Another 52 percent claimed that both Rhianna and Chris Brown bore equal responsibility for the attack, even though Rhianna’s injuries were severe enough that she had to go to the hospital. The survey also found that 51 percent believed that Chris Brown was responsible for the attack.

Hoffman’s article rightly points out that some of the girls surveyed are “adoring” fans of Chris Brown and may have something of an emotional attachment to Brown. She quotes Valdés Ryan, editor in Chief of Latina, to illustrate the point. “His posters are on the bedroom wall, the last face they see before they sleep,” Ryan said. “They’re feeling, ‘Why is he with her, not with me?”

In light of Brown’s celebrity status, the commission’s findings may be a little bit skewed – would teenage girls be so quick to defend a man who abused his girlfriend if he wasn’t someone they dreamed about dating? Until a similar study is carried out using non-famous people as examples the findings in this study may be a bit exaggerated.

That is only part of the problem.

Many of the articles and studies that have been carried out have only focused on the issues at hand from the girls’ perspective. Some of the people quoted in Hoffman’s article express no surprise that the boys condone Brown’s behavior, but they are shocked that some girls do too.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that boys should not be held to the same standard as girls when it comes to condemning violence. In Jezebel, commenter moderator Hortense writes, “Perhaps ‘we’ve gone wrong’ by being so apathetic towards the reaction of young men here. If it’s not surprising that boys are quick to forgive Brown, doesn’t that signal a problem? Why is it only the girls who are expected to be outraged, horrified, and willing to take a stand against dating violence?”

It’s a big question to ask and one that needs to be addressed. Have we taken the “boys will be boys” attitude too far and what does it mean that we expect men to act in a way that is unbecoming of their gender? What does it say about our society on the whole that we still believe that men are inherently violent?

By the numbers…

Hazelden Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to help people with addictions through the recovery process, recently issued a press release indicating that one in five teens in a serious dating relationship report being abused by his or her partner.

The Liz Claiborne Inc., Tweens and Teen Dating Abuse Survey (Warning – .doc) for 2008 found that nearly half of teen girls who have been in a relationship (48%) say they have been victims of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse by their boyfriends.

According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, estimates range from 960,000 incidents of violence against a former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend per year to three million women who are physically abused by their husband or boyfriend per year.

Many of the teens surveyed indicated that technology was only causing tensions to escalate even further in relationships as partners constantly text and call to find out where their boy or girlfriend is. A Public Service Announcement about “textual harassment” uses a boy dressed up in an over sized cellphone following a girl around all day to get the point across that stalking the one you love is not only uncool, but creepy.

At college campuses across the country, 39%-54% of dating violence victims remain in physically abusive relationships.

What is clear is from these statistics is that teenagers and adults, both men and women, do not have healthy models for relationships to emulate. If any good has come of the Chris Brown-Rhianna incident is that it’s finally bringing these malodorous realities to light.