'Why Did She Stay?' Is the Wrong Question
Graphic footage of Ray Rice beating his wife has finally forced the Baltimore Ravens and National Football League to stop their campaign to blame the victim. Unfortunately, the public has no such mandate.
Janay Rice has released a statement on her Instagram account lamenting her husband's punishment and accusing the press of revictimizing her by posting and discussing the video. This, coupled with her repeated apologies for her role in the incident, have caused many to ask the exact wrong question: "Why did she stay?"
I can't profess to know the psychology of any particular victim, but it's important to remember that she is one, and as such, she should not be subject to our collective interrogation. That this is the question being asked shows how effectively the team and the league managed to shape public opinion, and also demonstrates how little we know about domestic violence victims. Lets hope the Rice incident can serve as an opportunity for Americans to learn more about the psychology of victimhood, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and how the way we talk about victims may help or harm those suffering from battered woman syndrome.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the concept of BWS was developed by Lenore E; Walker, who described four general symptoms:
- The woman believes that the violence was or is her fault.
- The woman has an inability to place responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
- The woman fears for her life and/or her children's lives.
- The woman has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.
This often results in a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse, and it's very difficult for people who haven't experienced similar trauma to understand why a victim might remain in a dangerous situation. There are a bevy of different reasons for why victims stay, and a wide assortment of mental gymnastics that a traumatized mind goes through to justify it: He's just blowing off steam; he really loves me deep down; I must have done something to provoke him; he can change.
Abuse is as psychological as it is physical, and a victim's emotional dependence on her attacker is a big reason domestic violence goes largely unreported. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a woman will be hit an average of 35 times before she notifies the police of abuse. Only 20 percent of victims who report are granted an order of protection. And it's not as easy as telling victims to just get out: More than 70 percent of domestic violence murders occur after the victim has left.
For a further, personal understanding of this, I refer you to the #WhyIStayed hashtag that has occupied Twitter with first-hand accounts from survivors sharing their own stories of abuse. Beverly Gooden started the exchange, telling the world, "I tried to leave the house once after an abusive episode, and he blocked me. He slept in front of the door that entire night." "It's not one day he hits you, it's everyday he works hard to make you smaller," Elizabeth Plank tweeted. "I was determined to make it work, wanted kids to have their dad, convinced myself that what he did to me wasn't affecting them," Rachel Miller tweeted. "Because after being stuck in an abusive relationship for awhile I started to believe I deserved all of it," Twitter user kat wrote. "
SBNation's Sarah Kogod has written a compelling account of why she stayed. This chart breaks down many of the reasons victims might stay, from intimidation to coercion to economic abuse to invoking the kids. Some might seem hard to grasp or understand. That's because they are, even -- especially -- for victims themselves. That's what makes the backlash against Janay Rice so troubling. The psychology of an abuse victim is largely a known unknown, and to have a bunch of uninformed commentators make definitive statements about Janay Rice's lack of self-worth or economic dependence on her husband or failure to make smart decisions doesn't just mean we're blaming the victim -- it means other victims will continue to blame themselves, a major roadblock in the healing process.
As Jessica Valenti notes, Janay Rice's reason for staying is her own, and frankly isn't any of our business. What is our business is how it relates to current survivors, how we may learn from this to help future victims. It's easy to get lost in the number of startling, sad statistics around domestic violence, but here's one to keep in mind: 60 percent of attacks occur in the home, where there are no security cameras.
"There is no monolithic psychology of a battered woman," Virginia Duplessis, a senior program manager at the advocacy group Futures Without Violence, wrote in an e-mail. "Every woman has a unique set of circumstances that may prevent her from leaving a relationship. What we do know is this: Women are more likely to be hurt when they are leaving an abusive relationship -- it is a very dangerous time. We cannot purport to know -- or even begin to understand -- the thoughts, feelings, and fears the victim is experiencing. Instead of asking, 'Why did she stay?' we should be asking why Ray Rice was hurting his fiancee."
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