BDSM / dating / Fetish / Gender / media / Rape

Rihanna, Victim Blaming and S&M

It’s #TBT and time for a vintage column. This one originally went up in August of 2012.

Question to Sex with Timaree:

“The other night I was at a karaoke bar, talking to a female patron about singing a Rihanna song. She said she was a Rihanna fan and was familiar with many of her songs. Then, totally unprompted, she brings up the Chris Brown assault and says, ‘I bet she wasn’t totally without fault in that whole thing. She was probably doing some S&M shit to him or being a bitch and biting his dick when the fight started.’

I couldn’t believe this so-called “fan” immediately started blaming the victim! I responded that there is nothing Rihanna could have done that justified Chris Brown choking her and beating her  in such a brutal fashion, but I was so shocked by the whole thing I don’t know if I really conveyed the proper amount of social opprobrium. How should I have handled this situation? I think the fact that the one doing the blaming was a woman (and I felt that she should have been more empathetic) is what threw me off. So what is my duty as a sexual violence hating male in this situation?”

Who is to blame for victim blaming?

Is it assailants who make this case? Sure. Lots of rapists and abusers explain their actions by saying those against whom they offended did something to warrant abuse, that they “asked for” the attack. But they wouldn’t make those arguments if people didn’t buy it.

People, of all stripes, buy into victim blaming. Why?

  • The Just World Hypothesis, a common assumption that the universe is right and fair and bad things only happen if you make mistakes. We cling to this misconception because it provides stability, otherwise it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the pain of life.
  • Because they’ve never been assaulted and like to think that it’s because they were smart and stayed out of trouble.
  • Because they have been assaulted and internalize responsibility, feeling like there was something more they should have done, some sin they should not have committed: they should have fought back harder or not been in the situation anyway.
  • Because they’ve heard women are the gatekeepers of purity and the bastions of civility and it’s their responsibility to keep men from behaving like animals.

Rihanna and Chris Brown have been an interesting litmus test for how we talk about abuse and victim blaming. Young girls, distressingly, are siding with Chris. There’s got to be some reason he did it, right? Guys you’re dating don’t just hit you because they  are insecure spoiled bullies, right? And he could have anyone he wanted so he wouldn’t need to throw a fit to get what he wanted, right? Right?

Talking to cops who work with domestic issues, they describe these situations often as a matter of mutual assault. Both partners crossing the line and getting stupid and violent. But  research indicates there’s usually an instigating party who abuses to maintain control. There are a lot of people who feel entitled to belittle, manipulate, insult and physically attack their partners, completely unprovoked. And while our immediate image of “abuser” might be male, in real life, women are capable of committing intimate partner violence. In fact, people in same-sex relationships are are even more likely to experience abuse… and it’s not just the more masculine partner who gets out of control.

So, basically, it’s not a strictly male-female thing with abuse and victim blaming. Yeah, maybe this person at the karaoke bar could have had more reasons to be empathetic, as a female, but not necessarily. And everyone has the same responsibility to be educated on this stuff, regardless of its application to their personal lives.

Whips and Chains Excite Me

Aside from the fact it’s written with the skill of a 5th grade Social Studies essay, 50 Shades of Grey is terrible because it misrepresents BDSM. Like most mainstream depictions of the BDSM culture, it falsely gives the impression that people aren’t really consenting, and that kinky sex is as random and unpredictable as a PCP-fueled mosh pit. BDSM is more about theatricality and setting the scene than it is about surprising your loved one with a dick bite or a black eye.

Who knows if Rihanna is even into BDSM? She certainly likes to play with the fashion of it and enjoys looking edgy by co-opting bits and pieces, as she and her management team see fit. But that’s totally irrelevant. Her private consensual sex interests don’t have a damn thing to do with the fact she dated an entitled bastard.

But I can see how even her fans might be confused about the situation after  she opted to go back to collaborating with him. That might reinforce those already held beliefs about it being a “complicated situation” where “no one is blameless.” Yeah, sure, no one in the universe is blameless. But the person who starts with the hitting is most certainly to blame for escalating it from a heated discussion to an abuse situation.

When In Karaoke Bars Or Other Places Where Abuse Comes Up

So what should you have done, dear reader? That depends on what kind of relationship you have with the person, the opportunity for real discussion and other situational details. In this situation, you might have done the exact right thing: with your quick answer about no one deserving to be beaten. It’s simple, true and universally applicable, which is especially helpful when we’re talking about events for which none of us were actually present.

One feeling I can’t shake is that she might have been trying to impress you with her chauvanism, her internalized sexism. There are a lot of women who believe a lot of really sexist things and try to get male affirmation by letting them know they’re just one of the good old boys. She could have thought she was being edgy by talking casually about BDSM and dick biting, and she might have thought her anti-PC Dr. Phil-style ‘you gotta expect that kind of consequence’ philosophy would make her look cool. In which case, it’s especially helpful to  let her know that’s not what all men believe.

If you have the time, space and inclination for a full dialogue about it, by all means: have at it. But as long as you register disagreement with victim blaming, rape culture, racism and other bits of social cavemanism, letting those in earshot that not everyone is on board with that stuff, you’ve done your part.

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