Video of NFL's Ray Rice punching future wife prompts questions about her behavior
Women are sharing stories of domestic violence, using hashtags
A writer started #WhyIStayed to show why women stay in abusive relationships
Experts: Reasons women stay in abusive relationships are "varied and complex"
Editor’s Note: Talk show host Meredith Vieira is the latest public figure to share her story of domestic violence inspired by the social media movement #WhyIStayed. We’re resurfacing this story from September 9 explaining the origins of the hashtag. “It’s not just an issue with the NFL, it’s an issue in all of our lives,” Vieira says on her show.
As media outlets Monday circulated security-camera video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, many wondered why the woman – now his wife – would remain with the fallen NFL star.
The answers came in a rush, on Twitter.
By Tuesday the social media platform was flooded with affecting stories from women explaining why they remained in abusive relationships and why they finally left.
Writer and domestic abuse survivor Beverly Gooden said she started the campaign #WhyIStayed on Monday because she wanted to “change the tone of the conversation.” Gooden said she married her husband after he hit her because she loved him – and, she wanted to “protect” him.
“I was thinking about him and not myself, and I think that’s the story of a lot of people out there,” she said.
“The hashtag shows that there are people out there who have lived this, and like me, have come out of this.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the hashtag had been used more than 46,000 times, according to Web analytics tool Topsy, captivating participants and observers alike.
The tweets came in response to stark footage showing Rice knocking out Janay Palmer in February in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, hotel elevator. The video shows him knocking her to the floor and then dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator.
The couple went forward with their plans to marry. Rice underwent pretrial diversion instead of facing criminal charges, and the NFL suspended him for two games – a punishment criticized by many as too lenient.
But the incident returned to the the spotlight Monday with the release of the elevator video. Amid the public outcry, people began asking questions about Janay Rice’s motivations. Why didn’t she leave? Why did she marry him? Why did she stay?
Janay Rice posted a statement on Instagram on Tuesday defending her husband and criticizing the media and the public for making her family “relive a moment in our lives that we regret everyday.”
And on Twitter, the stories reflected many of the reasons domestic violence victims stay in abusive relationships.
Eventually, people began sharing why they left, in an evolution that added dimension to the conversation, feminist and media critic Jill Filipovic said.
Hashtag campaigns often focus on “raising awareness” without providing solutions or activist strategies, Filipovic said.
When it comes to helping women in abusive relationships, we need to understand why they stay in the first place, “instead of contributing to the stigma of staying by shaking our heads and asking why,” she said.
If a woman knows that her actions will be picked apart “she has little incentive to rock the boat and make a change,” Filipovic said.
“The power of this hashtag is that abuse survivors volunteered the answer to the ‘why did she stay?’ question so that, hopefully, friends and family members of other survivors won’t have to ask they can just provide support.”
The reasons women stay in abusive relationships are “complex and varied,” said Sandra Hawken Diaz of Interval House, a Toronto women’s shelter.
“Too many people assume that if a woman is in an abusive relationship that she is making a choice to stay, and that she has the power to end the abuse if she just leaves,” she said. “We need to begin to understand, support and believe victims – not blame them.
“Instead of asking why doesn’t she just leave, we should be asking different questions when we read those headlines. We should be asking, ‘Why is he abusive?’ or ‘How can we break the cycle of violence?’ or ‘How can I support her to be safe?’”
Fear is one reason partners stay, especially if children are involved, said Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Ray-Jones, who is not connected with the Rice incident, offered some general thoughts on what motivates victims of domestic violence when it comes to staying in the relationship or leaving.
“The fear a woman feels is real. The threats her partner makes are real. When a woman’s husband tells her he will kill her if she leaves, she believes that. We all know it is possible, we see the stories on TV and the Internet,” she said.
Domestic violence resources
In most domestic violence situations, the abusive partner blames the victim and the victim believes it, Ray-Jones said.
“Outside the home, this man appears to be a great man. Many woman describe it as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde: ‘Great guy to everyone else, so I must be the problem,’” she said.
Ray Rice’s fame could have affected his wife’s decision-making, Ray-Jones said.
“I can’t imagine how Janay Rice may have felt. Fans were blaming her on social media, sportscasters made comments somehow indicating she must have provoked the violence, and then she has to sit next to her abuser and apologize,” Ray-Jones said, referring to a press conference earlier this year. “We would never ask a person who was mugged on the street to apologize for walking down the street where their assailant was.”
Love and hope also can play into the dynamic, she said. The abusive partner is not abusive all the time, and the victim sees the person with whom she fell in love.
“Victims remember how it used to be and they see that person throughout the relationship. The abusive partner continues to tell them that they will change, that the abuse will not happen again,” she said.
“Everyone deserves a relationship that is based on dignity and respect. We want victims to be able to reach out and talk to an advocate so they know they have choices.”