The Baltimore Ravens may have have ended Ray Rice’s contract after the release of a surveillance video that depicted him punching his then-fiancee Janay Palmer, but for many people, the questions are just beginning.
Why would she take some of the blame? Why wouldn’t she just leave? Is she in it for the money?
Janay, who has since married Rice and taken his last name, has indicated that she regrets the “role” she played in the now infamous incident. On Tuesday, she posted a statement on Instagram criticizing the unwanted attention from the public and declaring that “we will continue to grow & show the world what true love is.” Her decision to remain loyal to her husband has confused a lot of observers — including several Fox News hosts, who claimed that women like Janay and singer Rihanna are sending a “terrible message” by remaining with their abusive partners.
But, at the end of the day, domestic violence experts say that’s the wrong way to approach a very complicated issue.
“When we solely focus on whether a survivor stays with or leaves their abusive partner, we place all the responsibility on the survivor rather than holding an abusive partner accountable,” Chai Jindasurat, the programs coordinator for the Anti-Violence Project, told ThinkProgress. “Intimate partner violence is about power and control, and leaving can be an extremely dangerous and frightening option for survivors.”
In fact, according to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, the victims who leave their abusers are actually in even greater danger than they were before. Statistically, separating from an abuser increases a victim’s risk of being killed by 75 percent. Black women specifically account for a disproportionate number of intimate partner homicides, and half of these victims are killed while they’re in the process of leaving their abuser.
On top of the physical risk, there are countless other well-documented reasons why domestic violence victims struggle to break the cycle of abuse. Many of them are financially dependent on their abuser. They often have kids or other familial expectations to consider. Many victims don’t want the relationship to end; they want the violence to end, and their abuser has given them hope that it will. Women of color in particular may resist seeking legal protection because they’re more worried about how the police will treat their partner than they are about their own safety within the relationship.
Nonetheless, it’s hard for people to find sympathy for the victims who don’t leave. “The view that leaving is the answer to domestic violence is so strong that is has become the standards by which victims are judged,” noted a 2008 report produced by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. “Leave and you are worthy of the full range of services and protection. Stay and the resources may be limited.”
That’s exactly what’s going on with the current reaction to Janay Rice — and, on top of that, the judgment about whether she’s a “real” victim is likely also being compounded by racial factors. The trope of the “strong black woman” may make outside observers more likely to assign her blame for playing a part in her abuse.
“I think there’s an expectation that if a black woman was hit, she either did something to cause it or she’ll be strong enough to leave,” Racine Henry, a therapist and doctoral candidate at Drexel University who focuses on intimate partner violence pertaining to black women, explained in an interview with the blog For Harriet this week. “It’s almost like we can’t be victims. We can’t be innocent victims in the way that women of other races can be.”
In response to those emerging narratives about Ray and Janay Rice, activists and survivors have taken to Twitter to explain the realities of domestic violence under the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. By Monday evening, both hashtags were trending nationally, helping to publicize powerful stories of violence and abuse from people who have personally experienced those type of relationships.
Beverly Gooden, herself a survivor of intimate partner violence, started #WhyIStayed because she wanted conversations about the Rices to stop oversimplifying the larger issue at hand. “I felt that people just don’t realize, asking ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ is such a simple question for a very complex issue,” Gooden told the Washington Post.
As the National Network to End Domestic Violence points out on its site, “A better question is, Why does the abuser choose to abuse?”
If you need help, you can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1–800–799-SAFE (7233).