#WhyIStayed: A Lesson in Empathy

Domestic violence is incredibly common. The statistics are staggering: In the U.S. one in four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime. Internationally, domestic violence kills more people than war. Yet domestic violence and violence against women is generally misunderstood and mischaracterized by individuals and the media, focusing on victim-blaming and excuse-making. Depictions of domestic violence are sensationalized, rationalized, and ignore the reality of victims’ experiences. It’s no different when celebrities are involved. Cue the Ray Rice conversation.

When reports came out that Baltimore Ravens former running back Ray Rice punched his then-fiancee, Janay Rice, in an Atlantic City casino elevator knocking her unconscious, the overwhelming response from the public and the NFL was to ask what she did to provoke him. Too often this is the first question raised when a woman is abused.

Feminist Twitter, particularly female football fans, responded with outrage over Rice’s actions, the Ravens’ subsequent press conference, and the NFL’s uneven punishment for domestic violence and sexual offenders as opposed to drug abusers.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other officials jointly questioned the couple about what happened, then scheduled a press conference where the Ravens live-tweeted her apology for the “role that she played the night of the incident.” Ray Rice, on the other hand, received a standing ovation from Ravens fans and cited “my trials and tribulations” and “everything I went through” throughout his response. To some observers, evidence that the the couple later got married meant that Janay Rice did, in fact, deserve at least some blame.

This past Monday morning, TMZ released the full security camera video of the assault. Almost immediately, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely.

Many NFL fans on Twitter have noted this video contains no new information, and terminating Ray Rice after its release was a blatant attempt to save face. It didn’t work. It’s clear at this point that the NFL not only grossly mishandled the case, but merely continued its record as a massive profit-making, image-conscious institution that has a record of condoning DV.

Those who question Janay Rice’s apology during the joint press conference don’t take into consideration the binding circumstances. Rice was interviewed publicly, in front of her abuser, all while her abuser’s career hung in the balance; solely dependent upon her corroboration of the mutual blame story.

Now that the video of her assault has been shared with the world without her consent, she’s had to relive that traumatic night in Atlantic City. Public ‘proof’ or visual evidence of abuse is usually what’s required for a victim of domestic violence to receive any trace of justice. In this case, so-called ‘justice’ came as a result of PR acumen to preserve the NFL’s image.

Tuesday morning, Janay Rice responded via her private Instagram account to the video release and the decision of indefinite suspension.

Given the circumstances, it is counterproductive to judge and condemn Janay Rice’s life choices. But while the public should respect her decisions as hers to make, advocates should also continue to speak out against lenient punishments for domestic abuse and educate people about why it’s so difficult for victims to leave.

Enter, #WhyIStayed.

The lack of concern for Janay Rice spawned the hashtags #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft, and #WhenILeft. Blogger Beverly Gooden started this Twitter conversation to address the fact that even after the disturbing video was released, some people were apathetic towards Janay Rice while others continued to blame her.

Read Beverly Gooden’s reasons for starting #WhyIStayed on her blog and in the Washington Post.

As all of these women can attest, there are many valid reasons why victims stay, including psychological, emotional, cultural, legal, and economic reasons. The notion that the responsibility is on the victim to stop or prevent violence, paired with inadequate institutional responses are what make DV stigmatized and often deadly.

Women who are victims of DV often feel they are on their own and no one will believe or support their stories; these beliefs are not entirely unfounded. Laws like nuisance ordinances reinforce a belief of hopelessness, and further enable abusers to isolate and control their victims.

A recent victory over nuisance ordinances in a Pennsylvania town may indicate progress, but that’s only one town among many. We need more policy victories like these along with a change in cultural perception.

That’s what make hashtags like #WhyIStayed so significant. Social media highlighted stories of DV in front of millions of people, and American institutions like the NFL can now be widely held to account for their blatant attempts to cover up violence against women.

We can’t afford to continue ignoring domestic violence. With victims’ and advocates’ voices amplified, ignorance will no longer be an excuse and apathy will no longer be tolerated.

(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)

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