Another weak victim?

Photographer: Jerod Harris/WireImage

A Mighty Victim Upends the Domestic-Violence Debate

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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There's a new face of domestic violence in sports, and she's challenging conventional notions of victims and survivors.

Ruthie Bolton, former WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, revealed for the first time last week that she lived for years in an abusive marriage. Addressing a roomful of attendees at the espnW Women in Sports Summit, Bolton spoke openly about her struggle to reconcile her strength on the court with her lack of control in her relationship.

"Everything I had on the court, I earned that, I could grasp that," she said. "I couldn't grasp the power of guilt, the power of fear in my marriage."

She hid the abuse from her friends, family, teammates and coaches. Ultimately, she could no longer hide the marks on her face from her family, but she continued along in her marriage, and even renewed her vows after the 1996 Olympics. And so "Mighty" Ruthie Bolton began to internalize her own abuse, believing she deserved what was happening to her and feeling guilty that she couldn't stop it.

"I remember telling my family, 'Don't tell me I'm mighty. I'm a terrible wife,' " she said.

She said her breaking point came when, after she received some encouragement from her father, her then-husband explicitly threatened her life.

Bolton's story adds yet another dimension to the complexity of victimhood -- at a time when Janay Rice's decision to marry Ray Rice is often more scrutinized than his act of beating her. With so many people asking, "Why did she stay?", others still have offered baseless hypotheses, invoking played-out tropes of women to argue that she was just weak or she just wanted his money or the attack must not have actually been that bad.

The image of the "weak" victim has particular staying power in a culture that still thinks domestic violence is merely about physical strength and rape is merely about sex. Both are about power, sometimes physical but often psychological. Last month, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey caused a bit of controversy when she answered a particularly leading question from TMZ, saying things would have been "much, much different" had she instead of Janay been in the elevator with Ray Rice. While there's nothing wrong with a woman who is capable of defending herself doing so when attacked, it's problematic to assume that physical strength precludes one from being a victim, that the only women at risk are the frail and fragile.

Bolton defies this flawed line of thinking; you can't really get away with accusing a victim of being weak (or money-grubbing, for that matter) when she's the professional athlete in the relationship. (She also served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves.) Her career depended on her alpha personality, her confident demeanor, her physical and mental strength -- all of which show just how illogical and inexplicable the dynamic of abuse can be, especially to the victim.

In Bolton's case, it seems it was actually her stubbornness and strength of mind that caused her to stay in her marriage for so long. She was no stranger to overcoming the odds, having been turned away by coaches telling her she'd never make it as a professional basketball player. Having proved them wrong, she believed she could do the same with those who doubted her marriage.

"I didn't tell my family about my abuse because I felt like I could make it work, like I did in basketball," she said.

And once she did open up, it didn't change her approach. "The more people told me to leave, the more it made me want to stay, the more I was going to fight to make it work," she said. "I felt like I had to fix it."

I talked with Bolton after her appearance at the event, and she said she's coming forward with her story now to show people that there's no singular face of domestic violence -- that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. She hopes she can help other victims come forward with their stories, turning her focus to her WNBA family. Bolton said she's in talks with the league to help them with domestic violence outreach and education. Given the statistics on the prevalence of intimate partner violence, it's safe to assume that in a league of 144 players and numerous female coaches and staff, other women might be suffering in silence as Bolton did for years.

As with the psychology of victimhood, the path to survival isn't a straight line. Bolton said that even if she had received some form of domestic violence education, she probably still wouldn't have left her husband immediately. But she would have been more willing to talk openly about her abuse with her teammates and coaches, creating the kind of support system that ultimately helps a victim out of her situation. Perhaps she would have reached her breaking point sooner; perhaps not. In any event, Bolton wants to show others that as difficult a journey as it can be, there is life after abuse. 

"I'm not speaking as a victim," Bolton said. "I'm speaking of victory."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net