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Pop culture sends a warped message about love

It left a rock at the center of her stomach.

That's what Allison Basinger said after watching Rihanna's latest video, "We Found Love," in an office at Safehome, Johnson County, Mo.'s domestic violence agency.

"I am sitting here in a building where two rooms down from me there are people that have been beaten and raped and in true tragic and hurtful relationships," she says. "They have left home. And watching this video from where I sit is really sickening."

When I watched it, I saw yet another statement from the 23-year-old pop star about the dangers of relationships gone bad. Rihanna leaves the relationship at the end of the video. She walks away from the toxic situation, the drugs, the fighting, the ownership. Many fans have said the video was a musical interpretation of her former relationship with Chris Brown and the beating she survived in 2009.

My gut reaction was to defend Rihanna. It seems every song and video she makes is attacked for not addressing abuse the right way. But isn't she expressing her turmoil and life lessons through her music?


But Basinger says what pop stars mean and what kids take away from their work are two different things. She deals with teens all the time and knows the impact of pop culture on their lives.

Basinger coordinates Safehome's "The Outrage" program. It's an education and prevention curriculum, presented by high school students, that teaches students the dangers of unhealthy and abusive relationships. Every week, she answers the hard questions and hears heartbreaking stories from kids as young as 12 years old.

"If my friend's boyfriend is making her have sex with his friends is that abuse?"


"He said I didn't like him if I didn't send him naked pictures of myself."

Then he doesn't respect you as a person and is emotionally blackmailing you.

"I'll kill myself if we break up."

Everyone feels pain at the end of a relationship, but, like everyone else, you have to learn to stand on your own instead of saying manipulative things.

I pointed out to Basinger that Rihanna walks away at the end of the video. I wondered how that sent the wrong idea. She stood her ground. It's a split-second scene, she reminded me.

That moment is overshadowed by the previous 4 minutes and 36 seconds of passion, partying and sexuality, Allison says.

"The part where her boyfriend smokes the cigarettes and blows the smoke in her mouth? How many high school and middle school students are going to see this video and try this with their boyfriend? Or when he tattoos the word "mine" on her rear? The leaving part just isn't strong enough in comparison.'

She says Rihanna's sexuality often overpowers her message, and pop culture as a whole paints a poor picture of what love really looks like.

Think about Chuck and Blair of TV's "Gossip Girl." Their relationship is emotionally abusive, yet most fans long to see them reunite. Allison says almost every popular teen show features unhealthy relationships, and the blockbuster book and movie series "Twilight" glorifies just that.

She deals with seventh-graders who want a relationship like Bella and Edward's. They think love means you can't function without the other person, that you will do anything for them even if it hurts. She says the relationship twists love into a possessive and overly dependent thing. And we have to stop dismissing these things as entertainment. She says it's an unfortunate portrayal of what really happens.

One in 5 high school students report being abused or sexually assaulted by a partner -- 1.5 million annually. And those relationships don't start out with physical or sexual abuse. They start out intense and passionate, and then emotional abuse weaves in. The possession and verbal abuse grow into physical and sexual assault.

"People like to separate their music and books and TV shows from reality. But I can't separate it, not dealing with what I see every day," Basinger says. "Rihanna sings the words "We found love in a hopeless place," but what she portrays is not hopeless and it is also not love. And we need to start questioning what we call love and what we find entertaining."

Teens, with all their hormones and developing brains, see love and passion in a video like Rihanna's, Allison says. They see love in Chuck and Blair, Bella and Edward and even on "The Kardashians" and "Jersey Shore." And they want that.

Is that what we want for them?