Over the past week, Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna have been feuding over social media, publicly taking swipes at one another over Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. The media has used a number of terms to describe the stars’ behavior: “viral stunt,” “social media war,” “troubling saga,” and, in the case of some explicit photos shared by Kardashian, “revenge porn.” But there’s a term we should be applying a lot more frequently to this dynamic: relationship abuse.
Though we often treat online attacks as a separate and less serious phenomenon, many acts of online harassment are just a digital form of the in-person abuse many women have been subjected to for centuries. In the case of someone like Rob Kardashian, who has a long history of abusing women, and whom Blac Chyna herself accused of physical abuse in a now deleted Snapchat, it’s difficult to see this latest episode as anything other than an abuser acting out and publicly attempting to humiliate, harm, and abuse his victim as she slips out of his grasp. So why do we have so much trouble calling a spade a spade?
Revenge porn, in particular, is rarely positioned within the larger spectrum of relationship abuse—even its name suggests that it’s a weapon employed to get back at someone who’s done something wrong, rather than a tactic used by abusers to punish and shame their victims. In a culture where “domestic violence” calls up images of battered women and black eyes, a naked picture of Blac Chyna might not seems like an act of violence. But according to relationship abuse experts, this is exactly what domestic violence looks like.
"Abuse is about control,” Sonya Passi, CEO and founder of abuse survivor advocacy group FreeFrom tells me. “Whether that’s controlling someone financially, whether that’s controlling their physical body, whether it’s controlling their career, their reputation, their day to day life, it’s about control.” In the case of revenge porn, that control can take the form of attempting to ruin someone’s reputation; humiliating them very publicly in front of a vast and diverse audience.
The more we talk of 'revenge porN' and 'rocky relationships,' the more we normalize toxic and abusive behavior
“Abusers know exactly what they’re doing,” says Kirstin Kelley, a former domestic violence advocate and domestic violence/sexual assault investigator at Green Mountain College. “They know that friends, family, potential future bosses, potential future coworkers, fans are all going to take [the revenge porn] to heart and assume that it tells us something about this person’s character”—that she’s slutty, or untrustworthy, or somehow stupid for having “let” herself be publicly shamed. “A lot of people will internalize that and go, 'Well, this happened to me because I did something that was wrong and I deserve it.’"
And that sense of shame can send a victim right back into their abuser’s arms, counterintuitive though it may seem. It may be out of fear that their abuser will act out even more violently if they’re not appeased, or a belief that—as abusers often profess—your tormenter still loves you, and they’re the only one who will; but either way, these sorts of public shaming can be an effective tool for reasserting control over a past partner’s life.
What’s particularly notable about Kardashian’s latest actions is their apparent trigger. Shortly before Kardashian lashed out on Instagram, Blac Chyna had been posting on Instagram about how happy she was to be single. Four months post break up, Blac Chyna might seem like a woman who’s successfully gotten free of her tormentor, but in many cases, a breakup just means a shift in the type of abuse. "What often happens is when the survivor leaves, when they are able to get free physically, [is that] the abuser resorts to other forms of abuse,” Passi tells me. “I don’t have access to you physically anymore, but I’m going to torment you through internet.”
“Most abusers want that control back,” Kelley notes. “They want you to re-enter the relationship, and be in a position where they have access to their victim on a regular basis. That’s really what it’s about: I feel better when I can control your behavior.”
Tellingly, Kardashian’s digital harassment isn’t the only way he’s lashing out at Blac Chyna: TMZ reports that he’s threatened to cut his ex off financially, and with the threat of a pending lawsuit, he may have drawn her into years of painful litigation (tactics which can be considered financial and litigation abuse, respectively). Blac Chyna is financially stable enough that she’ll likely be able to survive these attacks—but for many other assault victims, these sorts of behaviors can be devastating.
Which is why it’s all the more troubling that we refuse to recognize these behaviors for the dangerous, damaging, and sometimes life threatening forms of abuse that they are. The more we talk of “revenge porn” and “rocky relationships,” the more we normalize toxic and abusive behavior—and the harder we make it for other victims to get the support and resources that they need to get themselves free from their abusers.