By all tabloid accounts, Rihanna and Chris Brown are “on again.” They spent Thanksgiving together. She’s Instagrammming him shirtless in bed and in her arms. They’re showing off matching Rolexes. This week, Rihanna’s new album, Unapologetic, hit No. 1 on the charts. It features a duet with Brown called “Nobody’s Business.”
Rihanna may have forgiven Brown, but most of the rest of us haven’t. We don’t know her personally (even though we sing along to “Diamonds” like five times a day), yet after watching the drama unfold for years, we’re collectively starting to play the role of the friend-of-the-abused, a role that carries its own emotional baggage. While it’s by no means the same thing as being in an abusive relationship, we’re confused, unsure of whether listening to “Nobody’s Business” is a betrayal or support. We nod supportively when she says he’s no longer hurting her, but we scan her face for signs of trouble. We’re still furious with him, even if she’s not.
Earlier this week, Brown stomped away from Twitter after a nasty back-and-forth with writer Jenny Johnson, who called him a “worthless piece of shit.” Many Rihanna fans cheered. But this is just about the worst way to try to support her, says Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “Oftentimes, the survivor is not ready to leave, not sure what to do, confused,” she says, “so the worst thing that someone can do is bad-mouth the abuser, because she’s probably going to go back home to him. The average survivor leaves seven times before she leaves for good.”
I called up Ray-Jones because I wanted some advice for those of us who consider ourselves Team Rihanna in the long, complicated, very public saga of her relationship with Chris Brown. Ray-Jones is used to giving advice to the friends and family of domestic violence survivors — they’re the second-largest type of caller (after victims themselves) to the hotline. “The number-one thing we hear them say is, ‘How do I make the abuse stop? How do I make her pain go away? How do I get her to leave?’ To which we respond, ‘You cannot control any of these things.’”
Most of us know it’s never cool to blame the victim. We know that Chris Brown is the real asshole here. But how do we support her when she just wants us to support him? “It was a weird, confusing space to be in,” Rihanna told Oprah in August about her response to police photos of her bruised and swollen face going public. “Because as angry as I was, as angry and hurt and betrayed, I just felt like he made that mistake because he needed help, and who’s going to help him? Nobody’s going to say he needs help. Everybody’s going to say he’s a monster without looking at the source, and I was more concerned about him.” (The source she was referring to, perhaps, is the fact that Brown’s mother was abused when he was a kid.)
A few months later, when rumors started to surface that Rihanna and Brown were back together, Oprah declared she wouldn’t pass judgment. Privately, many of us rolled our eyes. It sounded like such a cop-out. But Ray-Jones says it’s probably the best course of action in a really tough situation. “I would never attack a survivor for forgiveness, that’s part of her healing process,” she says. “I would never tell someone, ‘You can’t get back with him.’ If that’s what she wants to do, and she feels he’s changed, that’s her choice. And we can’t control her choice, because then we’re no better than he is.” That’s true in every domestic violence situation, but it’s even more true when the woman in question is a celebrity. Most of us — Oprah included — are Rihanna’s distant fans, not her personal friends. We have no right to tell her what to do.
Many times, survivors who return to their abusers work very hard to convey to the world that it’s all okay behind closed doors — and hope that narrative becomes the reality. Recording a duet about their enduring love is Rihanna and Chris Brown’s version of showing up to Christmas dinner together holding hands. “When a survivor returns, there is a period of time when things are better,” Ray-Jones says. “I’m really hopeful that there’s not violence in that relationship, but I have my reservations based on some things that he’s still continuing to do in social media.”
Advocates who fought for the passage of the Violence Against Women Act decades ago had to make a case for why domestic violence is a public scourge, not a private problem. For those of us who consider ourselves Rihanna’s allies, we want to protect her privacy while at the same time publicly calling him out. Even Ray-Jones admits that something about supporting Rihanna’s choice feels wrong. Rihanna and Chris Brown are a very prominent relationship model that a lot of young women, consciously or not, use as a barometer for what is acceptable behavior from a romantic partner.
So, if we can’t blame Rihanna or lash out at Brown directly, what would help?
“I think the collective response has to be, ‘That’s not how we’re going to treat women.’ Men need to hold Chris Brown accountable,” Ray-Jones says. That doesn’t mean name-calling, but it does mean pointing out that violent language toward women, which Brown has exhibited time and again in the years since his abuse of Rihanna surfaced, is never acceptable. “Young people need to see role models who are having healthy relationships,” Ray-Jones says. That includes not just what happens between Rihanna and Chris Brown, but also how we react to them.