The volume of victim-blaming sentiments expressed in reaction to the video of Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, Janay Rice, is not surprising. The question of why she subsequently married Rice, or more generally why victims of domestic violence stay with their abusive partners, is arguably the most common question asked by both well-meaning allies and men who deny the frequency and severity of men's violence against women (in the latter case, usually followed by statements that men are victims too, erasing the impact of men's violence). Fox News anchors' defense of Ray Rice and the minimization of his violence was easily anticipated. Largely, rather than ignorant curiosity, the tone of media stories and online comments has consisted of statements of judgment toward Janay Rice. I'm not sure the intent of the asker makes a difference. The answer is widely available with a two-second Google search. Or, starting yesterday, on Twitter.
What I found astonishing and disheartening was how widespread victim-blaming reactions were – even by people whom I thought would know more about the power and control dynamics present in an abusive relationship. Janay’s actions have been dissected to determine whether she struck Rice first, spat at him, was yelling and/or using profanity, or was inebriated at the time. Some of the same people who condemned the New York Times for characterizing Michael Brown (killed by Ferguson, MO police) as "no angel" are quick to question Janay Rice's actions in the moments before Ray Rice struck her unconscious. Damon Young, writer for Ebony.com, pointed out these contradictions better than I ever could:
I wonder if they realize saying “She might have hit him first” is no different than saying “Well, Michael Brown might have been high.” I wonder if they know that thinking this is all just a plot to disgrace Black men is the exact same thing as thinking George Zimmerman was just persecuted by overzealous race-baiters. I wonder if they’ve grasped that their unblinking support of Rice, even in the face of overwhelming visual evidence, makes them spiritual twins with the Staten Island teachers wearing t-shirts in support of the precinct that has seen two unarmed Black men die at their hands in the last year. I wonder if they realize arguing it was a fair fight between Janay Palmer and Ray Rice -- who, along with being a professional football player, is a trained boxer -- is as stupid as arguing Michael Brown was “armed” because he was 6’4 and 300 pounds.
As with the intense scrutiny of Brown's actions and character, the attacks and examination of Janay Rice miss the point. Just as the mass incarceration of Black men evidences systemic racism in our society, men's violence against women is a social problem much larger than whatever happened in that particular elevator. The intuitive reaction to protect a Black man from being maligned in the national media as a monster is well-founded. My (not yet published) research reveals systemic differences in online news articles about White and Black male celebrities who perpetrate domestic violence. We also know that Black perpetrators of violence face greater sanctions than White abusers. The defense of Black men at the expense of (Black) women who are victims of domestic violence is a trap of simplicity which obscures the reality of the intersectional nature of oppression.
In order to be heard, survivors have been vocal on Twitter this week using the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Their collective reaction to build community and fashion whatever megaphone they can in order to be heard is critically important. It educates well-meaning individuals about the complexity of domestic violence (although, I doubt it does anything to silence those deeply committed to misogynistic ideology). It brings survivors' reality out of the shadows -- to quote Vice President Joe Biden, reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act: "The only way to change this culture was to expose it . . . the best disinfectant is sunlight." Yet, this is still a defensive action, a response meant to justify women's actions and their agency to survive.
Real progress would be evidenced by a national conversation about how we are all part of the problem that perpetuates men's violence against women. We are part of the problem when we lose sight of the bigger picture and narrowly focus on a snapshot in time of two people in an elevator. We are part of the problem when we don't challenge friends' Facebook posts that judge Janay Rice for wanting the violence against her to stop but not her relationship. We are part of the problem when we're quick to judge survivors' actions. We are part of the problem when we argue violence against women is a problem within the NFL and ignore the larger scale of the social issue. We are part of the problem when we demand a one-size-fits-all solution. We are part of the problem when we opt to stay silent when a colleague uses fancy language to repeatedly make victim-blaming statements. We are part of the problem when we promote marriage as a solution to men’s violence against women. We are part of the problem when we call for strong criminal sanctions without listening to what survivors of domestic violence need and want. Continuous rehashing of the video, especially without moving to constructive solutions, is part of the problem.
Alternatively, we are part of the solution when we donate to victim advocacy groups. We are part of the solution when we ask friends about their relationships and truly listen. We are part of the solution when we advocate for policies that support survivors of domestic violence. We are part of the solution when we demand funding for research that identifies and evaluates prevention strategies. Real progress on this issue would be meaningful societal action to work to prevent men's violence against women and pervasive efforts to be part of the solution.
The lackluster response to National Football League (NFL) player Ray Rice assaulting his fiance spotlighted the problem of pro football players perpetrating domestic violence. Although Rice's actions received widespread attention (chiefly attributable to a graphic video of him dragging his unconscious fiance from an elevator), he is only one of many NFL players in the headlines for committing violence against their female partners. Although football players are arrested at lower rates than the public at large, relative to the national average they are arrested at higher rates for domestic violence.
In response, the NFL recently announced more severe sanctions against players who perpetrate domestic violence. They will now face a 6-game suspension for a first-time offense and a lifetime ban for a second offence (although this could be appealed after a 1-year suspension). Given the complexities of domestic violence, I was curious how an "offense" is defined. According to ESPN, the definition is as follows:
A league source told ESPN's Andrew Brandt that discipline would be triggered by adjudication of a player's case, such as a conviction or plea agreement....To be counted as an "offense," a player would not necessarily have to be convicted in a court of law, but each incident will be judged on its own merits.
Many domestic violence charges are eventually dropped, making the broad definition of "offense" critical to taking a meaningful stance against perpetrators of abuse. Unfortunately, an unintended side effect of the NFL sanctions may be more pressure on victims to recant their allegations in order to protect the perpetrator from these penalties (similar consequences resulted with the implementation of mandatory arrest laws when victims call 911). It is also quite common for domestic violence incidents not to be reported to law enforcement at all and thus some perpetrators will continue to evade accountability, but this is a great start.
By taking violence against women seriously, the NFL has a real opportunity to bring public awareness to the issue of domestic violence. For instance, the graph below shows Google search trends for the term NFL compared to the phrase domestic violence. Domestic violence is dwarfed by interest in the NFL, so much that domestic violence barely registers on the graph.
To get an even clearer picture, I looked at Google searches for domestic violence, Peyton Manning (the number one quarterback in football, my family members in Colorado informed me), and the Seattle Seahawks (last year's SuperBowl winners). As shown, in the last couple of years, Peyton Manning and the Seahawks garner substantially more web searches than domestic violence.
Of course, it could be argued that a larger proportion of the population are football fans than are experiencing domestic violence, which would account for the disproportionate interest. However, given that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, most everyone knows a survivor of abuse and could theoretically be speaking out, seeking resources, finding organizations to volunteer at or donate to, or simply educating themselves.
Although the new attention to domestic violence by the NFL is a great first step, we have a long way to go. One need to look no further than the top two comments on the ESPN article announcing the NFL's revised sanctions for perpetrating domestic violence:
I applaud the NFL's efforts to lead on this front, but it will take more than this one institution to change the culture of violence against women (as evidenced by the comments above). All men who abuse women need to be held accountable for their violence. The high visibility of NFL players' violence may rest on racist imagery of Black men as criminals, rather than a widespread cultural shift in action to combat domestic violence. Calls for sanctions for other public figures who commit violence against their partners is noticeably quiet.
For now, how the NFL leads on this issue when put to the test is not yet clear. The enforcement of the policy comes with considerable discretion of the commissioner. It appears as if San Francisco 49ers Ray McDonald will be the first to test out the new penalties. Unfortunately, the NFL will likely have many chances to get it right. Some are already expressing skepticism that the new rules are substantial or will be lasting, among them Ian Crouch in The New Yorker:
Yet the N.F.L. world will move on, and sooner than we might think or hope, just as it has moved on from other incidents of off-the-field violence and tragedy. It probably already had, for the most part: fans in Baltimore cheered Rice during his first preseason game, less than two weeks after his suspension was announced. (Forgive, forget, first down!) The pressure will not always be on Goodell to act swiftly and strictly. The new rules also allow him to be selective in the way he pursues such cases and in how he issues punishments.
I am reminded of a rough season in the Seattle Mariners' history. As the first major league baseball team publicly committed to raising awareness of violence against women with its "Refuse To Abuse" campaign, the team traded for a player who was charged with committing rape. In reacting to the fallout, Nan Stoops -- Executive Director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence -- concluded:
With Refuse To Abuse™, the Mariners agree to be held to a high standard. We applaud that. We expect them to “walk the talk” and we know they will stumble. After all, learning and changing is a slow, painful process.
I also have my doubts, but I am glad the NFL is making a first step. Of course, many questions remain. Do the sanctions shape/reshape the public discourse on domestic violence? If so, how? Who becomes characterized as a criminal/abuser and who is portrayed as making a mistake? Do other sports organizations or other public institutions increase their accountability efforts? Are the penalties effective in reducing domestic violence in the NFL or do fewer victims call for help when they need it and/or recant their allegations to shield their partners from the consequences for their career? Only time will tell.
How we talk about domestic violence matters because it frames how we think about it as a social problem and in turn, how we create solutions. Reporting of celebrity domestic violence is an excellent place to start in changing this conversation.
Today's example is brought to us by CBSNews who reported that actor Michael Jace murdered April Jace, his wife, yesterday. Below are my suggested corrections.
George Zimmerman is a couple of weeks late for Domestic Violence Awareness Month (it was October) but it's close enough.
Zimmerman was arrested (again) today for domestic violence. The July 2013 article in The Nation by Salamishah Tillet is one of the best reads on understanding Zimmerman's pattern of violence in the context of racism and sexism and I highly encourage you to read it. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Zimmerman was arrested for these violent actions:
"George Zimmerman was arrested Monday after he cocked and pointed a shotgun at his girlfriend, shattered a glass-top table, then pushed her out of the house and barricaded himself inside after she ordered him to move out, according to the Seminole County Sheriff's Office."
As details unfold, many pieces of the story reveal a fairly typical pattern of escalating domestic violence: he's been arrested before, he escalated when she asked him to leave (breaking up is often the most dangerous time in a domestically violent relationship) he denied he broke anything, he threatened her with a firearm, and so on. Zimmerman also called 911 after the police responded to "tell his side of the story". In an unimaginative and predictable fashion, Zimmerman opens his argument with this:
"I have a girlfriend, who for lack of a better word, has gone crazy on me." George Zimmerman
I've never met a domestic violence survivor whose partner has not called her crazy and/or told others that she's crazy when confronted with his own violent actions.
While the circumstances of the 911 call are horrific and tragic, rarely does the public get an inside view of a problem that mostly takes place in private. The audio recording of the 911 conversation is certainly an opportunity for some domestic violence education. I encourage you to listen to the recording and see if you can identify the common characteristics of abusive men, as described by expert Lundy Bancroft in his book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men:
I'll simply conclude with a plea to keep the conversation focused on Zimmerman's actions as this event continues to be reported. I fear the conversation will immediately digress into victim blaming statements about why anyone would date Zimmerman given his violent past. Please refrain from this misplaced questioning of blame and responsibility and remind yourself (and others) that her actions should not be on trial. Zimmerman made choices (and continues to make choices) to be violent and abusive and should be held accountable for them.
Every October is both Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The simultaneous events mean that domestic violence (DV) victims' advocates spend the month trying to compete with the "Go Pink" commercialization of breast cancer activism. The charts below, show that DV advocates aren't imagining the significant hurdle they must climb to reach public consciousness. According to Google Trends, the number of searches on breast cancer far surpasses google searches for domestic violence (see graph below).
Yet, to put the challenge of generating DV awareness in greater context, interest in Chris Brown is much greater than either women's health issue (as measured by google searches- see graph). Domestic violence barely even registers and breast cancer only seems to get a bump in attention during October. It's really not surprising that DV activists latched on to Chris Brown perpetrating domestic violence as an attempt to create some awareness.
Follow #DVAM on Twitter this month for more information about DV and how you can do your part to raise awareness.