Rihanna’s on-again, off-again postassault relationship with fellow hip-hop star Chris Brown–I guess technically it’s still an alleged assault–has set off a deluge of commentary about why women stay with violent men. Some feminists think one shouldn’t even ask the question: battered women already know people think they’re weird and complicit; what they need is nonjudgmental support. Moreover, focusing on the victim masks the more important question, Why do men abuse women? Indeed, there have been plenty of articles expressing horror at teenage girls who side with Chris and blame Rihanna for “provoking” him–but none that I’ve seen look closely at their male classmates (or parents). Leaving aside those who claim that women abusing men is just as big a problem–check the comments beneath just about any online post by a woman about abuse–we take it for granted that, sure, men will hit, so it’s up to women to run away.

No wonder middle schoolers take a blasé view–look at the adults. Here in New York, Democratic State Senator Hiram Monserrate has been charged with slashing his girlfriend’s face with broken glass, requiring twenty stitches. Although the woman described the attack to doctors at the hospital, and her account was backed up by pictures from a security camera outside Monserrate’s apartment, his supporters staged a rally featuring a woman who claimed to be an advocate for battered women, and the party is considering raising funds for Monserrate’s defense. Surprised? This is the party led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who made rape charges against his aide J. Michael Boxley go away, according to the alleged victim; two years later, Boxley pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct (no jail time) after being charged with raping another woman.

Why do women stay? It’s a question that rankles feminists because it sounds exasperated and accusatory. In Slate, for example, Linda Hirshman argues that empathy is “the soft bigotry of low feminism”–victims should just get a grip. (To be fair, it’s hard not to be disappointed that Monserrate’s girlfriend now supports his improbable story that he slipped while bringing her a glass of water.) But another problem with the question is that it implies that we don’t know the answer, or rather, answers. In fact, we know a lot. There are practical reasons: economic dependence, fear of child custody loss, having no place to go, no network of support. There is fear that the man will kill her if she tries to leave–indeed, experts say that’s the most dangerous time for a woman. And there are emotional factors, too: learned helplessness, low self-esteem, despair. Batterers are good at isolating their partners from friends, family and other sources of support and help, and at making them feel worthless, ugly and stupid. When we express bewilderment that a woman could stay with a man who hit her, we forget that physical abuse isn’t like being punched by a mugger; it takes place in a context of ongoing emotional abuse and manipulation.

For a firsthand account that makes these dynamics painfully clear, check out Leslie Morgan Steiner’s Crazy Love (St. Martin’s Press). Steiner, who writes for the Washington Post on issues of work/family balance, describes her four-year relationship with her violent first husband with harrowing immediacy. Unlike most battered women, Steiner came from privilege: her family was well-off; her father was a judge. She was fresh out of Harvard and working at Seventeen when she fell for “Conor,” a dashing eight-years-older broker she met on the subway. Steiner was inexperienced and vulnerable, with troubles of her own–alcoholic mother; remote father; teenage bouts of anorexia, drugging and drinking. Within months, Conor had become her whole world. He quickly cut her off from her friends, alienated her mother, and persuaded her to quit her job and move to Vermont. By the time he hit her, five days before their wedding, his unpredictable rages had worn her down. Soon, he was beating her, choking her, pushing her down the stairs, throwing food at her and pointing a gun at her head. Some batterers are profuse with apologies and flowers; Conor never acknowledged laying a finger on her.

And yet, she loved him. Even more, she felt sorry for him. He had grown up poor in South Boston; like many abusers, he came from a violent, chaotic family and had been abused himself. It took her a long time to see that she couldn’t save him, that in fact the best thing she could do for him was to leave. Even then, it was only after he nearly killed her that she overcame her shame, guilt and terror, called the police and filed for divorce. That a woman might stay with her batterer because she pities him and wants to rescue him from his demons was a new insight for me. But it makes sense: women are brought up to empathize with men, to be caregivers, to see themselves as wise and mature, and men as “little boys,” as Steiner frequently describes Conor. What battered women need, Steiner writes, are “empathy and courage to help,” the very qualities they waste on their abusers. Not averted eyes–or moralistic lectures masquerading as feminism, either.

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Vacation From War.

Once again, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German peace and human rights organization, is gearing up to run its summer camp for kids of all ethnicities in the Balkans and its sessions in Germany for Jewish Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. Nation readers have become a mainstay of this effort to bring young people together for an unforgettable summer of fun and friendship. $150 funds one child’s stay and makes you a godparent, but checks of any size are warmly welcomed. Make them out to Vacation From War and mail them in care of me at The Nation, 33 Irving Place, 8th floor, New York, NY 10003.