Editor’s note: this article contains content related to sexual violence.
To this day, I remember the photos.
I was 12 years old when Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty, a 20-going-on-21-year-old pop artist from Barbados, suddenly canceled her performance for the 51st annual Grammy Awards. Despite the fact that I was hardly a Rihanna fan at the time, I found myself intrigued by the news. I remained concerned as the story unfolded rapidly, bursting forth like a phoenix from a fire. But my curiosity quickly changed to disgust when from these sensationalized flames emerged a disturbing account of intimate partner violence.
Suddenly, photos of Rihanna — her face bruised and contorted at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown — were blasted across newspapers, websites and television screens across the country in what I cannot help but see as a grotesque invasion of privacy. Through it all, I could not help but wonder: How did a “verbal dispute” escalate to the point that bodies were battered? How could Brown, a rising musician from a small town in Virginia with so much “potential” commit such a horrible act? What man is capable of procuring so much rage, fury and coldness that he can, with a flash of his fist, induce so much suffering in a woman he is supposed to “love?”
I did not feel any sense of resolution or justice — and I certainly do not feel these things when I think of the incident now — when Chris Brown was sentenced to five years of probation, one year of domestic violence counseling and 1,400 hours of “labor-oriented service.” My disappointment stemmed from the realization that no amount of “restorative” measures could compensate for the wounds Rihanna sustained. As both a public figure and survivor, her entire personal life and social network was dissected by the jaws of an entertainment-thirsty public, most of whom could only imagine the way the incident affected her.
But even then, she would be expected to maintain the trajectory of her career while Brown was allowed to retain his. I could not — still cannot — fathom how some can idolize a man capable of such violence and even refer to him as an “artist.” There is nothing artistic about domestic violence in the slightest, and nothing compensatory about a two-minute YouTube apology.
Eight years later, I continue to think about Rihanna’s story as a symbol of a more widespread issue. At its core, domestic violence is based on skewed power dynamics, intimidation and coercion, and affects individuals of all gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, age ranges and ability statuses.
Domestic violence remains one of the most misunderstood forces in our society. Both in high school and at the University of Michigan, I have heard my peers argue against a survivor’s credibility based on “what she was wearing,” “how much she was drinking” and even her inability to “read cues.” These statements contribute to a culture of blame that both silences survivors and overlooks the accountability of perpetrators.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline estimates that one in four women and one in seven men over the age of 18 have faced severe physical violence from a partner at some point in their lives. However, domestic violence can also manifest itself in other ways — including economic abuse, threatening relationships between a survivors and their children, forcefully isolating a partner and using coercion to manipulate a partner’s emotions. Yet, I know from my own personal experiences that these forms of violence are rarely shown in media.
During my first semester at the University, I enrolled in a women’s health class that challenged me to look beyond this dramaticized lens. I was touched by the words of Heidi Sproull, a clinical social worker whose experiences involved working with survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence. Through a narrative that was both vulnerable and powerful, Sproull reminded us that the body is not an open book, but a sacred space that can be vandalized by forces of coercion and control.
To this day, I reflect on this course and the way that it further inspired me to learn more about domestic violence. Since then, I have pursued more coursework in gender and health and volunteered for our campus’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. I have learned from fellow students and volunteers that domestic violence is hardly a “one-size-fits-all” crime; rather, one that is influenced by race, class, sexual orientation, tribal affiliation, citizenship and ability status. I have come to see that we cannot understand the gravity of domestic violence without considering the unique backgrounds and experiences of the survivor.
As students at the University, we must consider our campus’s culture surrounding domestic and sexual violence. While as many as 20 percent of female undergraduates have experienced some form of “unwanted kissing, groping, digital penetration, or oral, vaginal, or anal sex” according to the 2015 Campus Climate Survey, less than 4 percent of cases will be reported. We have to ask ourselves: What does it mean to truly be the Leaders and the Best? As our University approaches its 200th birthday, we still have a long way to go before our campus community is active in the fight against intimate partner violence and rape culture.
As someone who has neither experienced nor directly witnessed domestic violence, I write this piece from a place of immense privilege, and perhaps one of some distance. But nonetheless, I am driven to write about this issue because I dream of living in a violence-free world. I aspire to live and participate in a community where domestic violence is regarded not as a “woman’s issue,” but as a human rights concern. I recognize that eradicating this issue — given President Donald Trump’s attitude toward the Violence Against Women Act — mandates that we question deeply rooted social doctrines regarding consent, masculinity, gender and sexuality.
But perhaps most importantly, I ask that we — as a campus community, rather than individuals — challenge our discomfort rather than abandoning it. When we recognize that domestic violence is anything but a “private” matter to be isolated behind closed doors, we can take a step forward in promoting a space that is safe for all. I am steadfast in my belief that no college campus, city, state or nation can consider itself fully developed as long as domestic violence persists.