Why She Stays?

In the last two weeks, millions of Americans have viewed the footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his then fiancée, Janay Palmer Rice. While this incident has attracted media attention for several months, the visual evidence of the violence has provoked outrage across the country. While arguing in a hotel elevator, Ray strikes Janay, causing her to fall to the ground unconscious. For many viewers, this is the first time that they have witnessed domestic violence. For too many others, this video is a painful reminder of what millions of women face each day. In the United States, one in every three women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Janay is one of 1.3 million women who will be the victim of physical assault by a partner this year alone.

Given the widespread condemnation that Ray has faced since this video surfaced, one would hope that Americans are beginning to take notice of the alarming statistics about domestic violence. However, the media coverage of the Ray's offenses has demonstrated how our culture often forces women to bear the burden for the crimes committed against them. During a press conference held by the couple in May, before the release of the video, the Baltimore Ravens tweeted, "Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the accident."

Since then, Janay has faced constant attacks for arguing with her husband and "provoking" him, for hitting him first, and for choosing to marry him after the abuse occurred. As a society, we should ask ourselves why men such as Ray perpetrate violence against women. Instead, too many people are asking, "how could Janay have let this happen?" Rather than use this moment in popular culture to educate ourselves about the epidemic of domestic violence, we have once again reverted to blaming the victim.

It is this theme that I explore in my book, Ending Domestic Violence Captivity: A Guide to Economic Freedom:

It seems to me the question, Why did she stay? is driven by two other unstated questions. First, is she telling the truth? And second, if she's telling the truth, is she partially to blame? In the absence of another explanation for why she stays, it may be reasonable to wonder whether she's telling the truth about the existence or severity of the abuse. For one who has never experienced or witnessed domestic violence, the idea of her staying in the wake of such atrocious mistreatment might well seem contrary to strong survival instincts, and to a parent's protective role (33).

[However], as tempting as it can be to conclude otherwise, personal flaws are not, in any relevant sense, the reason why she stays. Why does she stay? Despite appearances to the contrary, the decision to stay is not a decision at all. She stays because she lacks the power to leave. In the end, my answer to the question may be distilled to these two words: domestic captivity (37).

While I cannot speculate about Janay's decision to remain with Ray, for most women who experience domestic violence, the decision to leave is not an easy one. Domestic violence is a cycle of power and control in which women experience emotional manipulation and isolation in addition to physical abuse. Women who decide to leave their abusers do so at the risk of increased violence, which can often be fatal. Cut off from friends and family, it is very difficult for victims to find support they need to escape a destructive home life. This becomes even more challenging for women who, like Janay, have children and are financially dependent on their partners. Again, women stay because they lack the power to leave.

This is why I founded Second Chance Employment Services in 2001. A nonprofit organization, SCES assists at-risk women, including domestic violence survivors, in finding meaningful employment. There are no simple solutions to the challenges that women face after fleeing abuse. However, economic empowerment is one of the first steps in the road to autonomy. When women can provide for themselves and their children, they gain not only financial independence, but emotional independence as well. Rather than condemn women for living in an abusive environment, we recognize the complexity of domestic violence and work to provide women with the resources and confidence to escape.

When Vice President Joseph Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act as a senator in 1993, he said "We are helpless to change the course of this violence unless, and until, we achieve a national consensus that it deserves our profound public outrage."

Over a decade later, we are certainly outraged with Ray Rice. However, we have failed to reach a national consensus that survivors like Janay Rice deserve our support and sympathy. We cannot change the course of domestic violence until we do so.

Centers for Disease Control
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Ending Domestic Violence Captivity: A Guide to Economic Freedom (Volcano Press)