Rihanna – she of the battered by Chris Brown fame (What? She’s a singer too??) – recently got some new ink done:
Lots of people are questioning the aesthetics of the tiny tattoos but even more are asking what it all means. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s pretty obvious. She was recently victimized, both by her boyfriend and then by the press, and now she’s sporting permanent guns, an overt symbol of power and violence. Let’s not over analyze this.
What is interesting to me is the different ways that victims use to regain their equilibrium after an assault. For me, the real question is, how will Rihanna ever feel safe again?
The immediate answer that most people give to that question is to pursue legal action and put your attacker behind bars where presumably he can no longer hurt you or anyone else and also runs a risk of being assaulted himself – punishment and revenge in one neat rap of the gavel. I can tell you that it doesn’t work that way. For one thing, court cases are not immediate. Chris Brown is not currently in custody despite a substantial body of evidence against him. It may happen. It may not. Either way it doesn’t provide immediate safety. Another problem with the court-as-protection argument is that once a person is victimized, they feel vulnerable on all fronts. It helps if their particular attacker is removed from their vicinity but it doesn’t preclude an attack by someone else.
One of the tools that abusers often use is to put the blame on the victim. I remember the very first thing my boyfriend said to me after he sexually assaulted me: “Do you see what you made me do?” He then went on to say how I was complicit in my own assault (despite being asleep when he started) and how he was really upset about it and that I shouldn’t let this happen again. When I weakly protested, he threatened to kill me and kill himself. I accepted his rationalization. I can’t really explain it except to say that a) it is quite common for victims to accept the blame and b) I was doing what I thought was the safest thing at the time – I just wanted to get out of that car alive. This trick of having the victim take responsibility for the assault is insidious in that the victim then internalizes it as being something they did wrong. And logically, if we did it wrong once, we could do it wrong again and therefore be open to future assaults. It worked like a charm on me.
Another way, very popular in Hollywood, for victims to find a sense of safety is to learn how to protect themselves. Martial arts, learning to shoot, self-defense, and even hiring a bodyguard are popular leading-lady options. This works. But it works a lot faster in the movies. As I am discovering through my own study of karate, it takes a really really long time to get enough skill to withstand a determined attack. It definitely feels good to be doing something proactive to protect myself and gain confidence in my body but right now, as my Sensei pointed out to me, I’m probably more a threat to myself than anyone else. Not to mention that skills learned in a classroom setting are much more difficult to apply in real life, Kill Bill notwithstanding.
A third way that victims seek safety is by comparing their situation with others. I went through a period of time where I was so obsessed with watching movies and shows, talking to other victims and reading books and articles about rape, domestic violence and assault that to the casual observer it must’ve looked as if I were in the throes of a very strange fetish. All this information was a two-edged sword though. If the situation were radically different from mine – say the victim was a child – then I felt safer. However, and this happened far more often, if there were similarities between her and I, then I felt even more vulnerable with my new awareness of all the “could haves” and “might happens” out there. Law and Order: SVU was the bane of my existence. I couldn’t not watch it. And then I wouldn’t be able to sleep without nightmares for days afterward. Eventually this urge dies down but it never quite goes away. It’s the what-if game.
The last and least glamorous, although probably the most common way that victims seek safety is talk therapy of some kind. This helps too although it also takes a long time.
No matter which tactic the victim employs however, this constant mental replaying of the assault (which is both reflexive and retraumatizing) often leads victims to change themselves or their situation in some meaningful way. Some of us move or change jobs or cut our hair. Others lose weight or gain weight. Change our style of dress. Alter our daily schedule. Avoid public transportation or friends houses or walking late at night. Refuse to talk about it. Won’t shut up about it. Start drinking. Quit drinking. And some of us get tattoos of guns.
Some alterations are more effective than others in actually providing protection but every single one of them sends a message: I’m taking my power back. I’m doing something.
I’m going to tell you the truth. It’s been 10 years since my assault and abusive relationship and I still don’t feel entirely safe. A homeless man approached me in a dark parking lot recently and before he could even ask me for money, I had burst into hysterical tears – the panic overtaking me in a way that I am still ashamed of. It’s one of my greatest frustrations in my karate training now is that every time we learn a new move, I silently think “This wouldn’t have worked. This wouldn’t have saved me then.” And yet I am too untrained and too afraid to learn the moves that would have saved me. Unless nothing would have. And that’s the crux of it for me. I will always wonder if there was nothing I could have done to prevent what happened. What if what I did was really the best thing to do in the situation? But I can’t allow myself to think that because that would mean that my assault was inevitable. And if I couldn’t have protected myself then then how can I hope to prevent it from happening again?
I think I’ll get a tatoo of a gun.