The Soapbox: TIME Shouldn’t Question #WhyIStayed
While the direct blame for abuse rests solely on the abusers, we live in a culture that supports and perpetuates the cycle of violence. It is on all of us to listen, support and validate the voices of those who come forward. Victims shouldn’t feel censored or have their stories dismissed just because there isn’t a direct line solution to their complicated realities. We cannot get to #WhyILeft without confronting the reasons #WhyIStayed.
At first glance, Charlotte Alter’s piece on Time.com, “Instead of Asking Women Why They Stay, We Should Ask Men Why They Hit,” sounds sensible. In 140 characters, it even seemed empowering — almost spectacularly right on the money.
Why are we asking Janay Rice and other victims of intimate partner violence to explain themselves?? Abuse survivors shouldn’t need to justify their circumstances and choices in a hashtag. Shouldn’t we be as shocked and appalled at that conversation as Alter seems to be?
Actually, no. It turns out, she has missed the point entirely.
Alter’s argument had a central premise:
“#WhyIStayed allowed thousands of women to answer a question that shouldn’t be asked of them in the first place. Now that we know, let’s start asking the right questions.”
What she seems to miss is that this question — “Why did you stay?” — and others like it are ever present in our culture. Victims feel them in the eyes and tone of their friends, family and co-workers as well as the media and self-help gurus filling our bookshelves and airwaves. That sort of centuries-old victim blaming can’t be wished away by asking victims brave enough to tell their stories publicly that they shouldn’t have to justify their lives and choices. Of course they shouldn’t; that’s hardly news and saying it this way makes it appear that victims somehow created the question in the first place.
According to Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, in the two days following the most recently leaked Ray Rice video, incoming hotline calls spiked by 84 percent. Ray-Jones told the Huffington Post that hundreds of calls came in from women saying things like, “I didn’t realize this happened to other people.” At the same time calls to the hotline were spiking, a public pushback began against the way the release and perpetual loop of the video were revictimizing Janay Rice. She wasn’t consulted by TMZ or the NFL before the attack was put on display for anyone and everyone to comment on. When she spoke through her Instagram, it was clear she was hurting and that her pain had been largely disregarded in public discourse.
“No one knows the pain that the media & unwanted options from the public has caused my family,” she said. “To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing.”
One group of people understood her emotions, the possible danger she was in now that her abusive husband was suffering real consequences and why her statement wasn’t simply an apology for her partner: her fellow survivors coming forward through #WhyIStayed.
When people tell their true stories, stigma breaks down as those who hear them realize they are not alone. The empowerment that floods someone when they first understand their situation is not unique and can lead to the bravery needed to reach out. Victims feel isolated for a myriad of reasons, the fear of judgment and misunderstanding among them. Abusers reinforce the idea that no one will believe them, that their lives are normal or that the friends they have been isolated from won’t take their calls. Public conversations like #WhyIStayed where thousands speak out, share resources and voice support can create a tidal wave the way one lone story can’t.
“[T]he hashtag has really transformed into a community-led movement to stop victim blaming,” said Beverly Gooden, the woman who coined #WhyIStayed.
Alter doesn’t mention the community building; rather, she appears to think #WhyIStayed has been harmful to the cause of fighting domestic violence by misdirecting the public conversation:
“Social media has enormous power to change the trajectory of a news story, and while the #WhyIStayed hashtag obviously had noble intentions, it might have backfired. In the day following the leak, the hashtag has turned the Ray Rice story into a debate about why Janay Rice didn’t leave instead of why he hit her in the first place.”
Really? The hashtag is responsible for victim blaming? She speaks as though the video invading the airwaves and the internet (whether we or Janay Rice herself wanted it shown in the first place!) wasn’t enough to unleash the misogyny and ignorance that started almost immediately. Brian Kilmeade of “Fox & Friend”s certainly didn’t need a hashtag to quip that the lesson behind the video was “take the stairs.” Rush Limbaugh predictably scoffed that the Ray Rice assault proved that feminism isn’t real and then blamed Janay Rice directly because “She did follow through and she did marry the guy…,” CNN Contributor Ana Navarro tweeted: “Woman in video married Ray Rice AFTER he punched & dragged her? RICE IS DISGUSTING. But as women, we need to love & respect ourselves 1st.” The judgment of Janay Rice’s choices lead directly to the wave of solidarity that #WhyIStayed quickly became.
“The irony of [Alter’s] statement is that the hashtag itself was a direct response to the public criticism of Janay Rice,” Gooden told The Frisky. “Part of the reason the hashtag exploded is because survivors want the conversation to focus on why an abuser is abusive.”
Exactly. The wave of people speaking out — many for the first time — using their voices to unpack the many reasons why people stay with their abusers was an exercise in empowerment. The education available on that hashtag is nothing short of spectacular. People talked about lacking logistical resources such as a place to live; being terrified they and/or their children would be hurt; friends and family not believing them; religious pressure not to divorce; normalized male violence; a lack of options; and more. As abusers aren’t exactly creating hashtags of their own like #WhyIHit or #WhyIManipulate, it seems clear that the conversations in these spaces are driven by survivors, for survivors.
Rather than delve into the “enormously complicated issues tangled up in domestic violence” as she describes them, Alter distilled her point down to a rape comparison. “Just like rapists are responsible for rape, abusers are responsible for abuse,” she wrote. “They’re the ones we should be talking about.”
This approach is beyond problematic. It directly dismisses the victim and their voice as irrelevant, as well as allows for those unfamiliar with the psychological ramifications of physical assault to gloss over the ways an abuser can assert control without raising their hands. Alter is limiting survivor-driven discussion by saying, “Here is what we should be talking about instead.”
As Erin Matson wrote on the blog RH Reality Check, limiting the discussion of abuse to physical altercations reinforces self-doubt and shame
“When I tell people in the course of conversation that I was in an abusive marriage, a common question is whether it was physically abusive or ‘just’ emotionally abusive. This is the worst question. It empowers abuse of all kinds.”
Not every abuser is Ray Rice. Not every victim of intimate partner violence loses consciousness at the hands of their abuser. The brilliance of #WhyIStayed — as well as the conversation that sprouted from it, #WhyILeft — was the way all voices were welcomed and all the manifold forms of intimate partner violence (emotional, sexual, financial, mental, physical) were shared. If your abuser emotionally manipulated you into isolation or used the lack of financial independence they created against you or simply charmed your friends and family into trusting them instead of you, your story was validated by a community of people who really understood.
Policing the language of #WhyIStayed participants removes agency from victims. In an era where we watched the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) be allowed to lapse for the first time since it was passed 20 years ago, we should be encouraging all who are willing to speak up to do just that. All stories are valid; all lives are important. An attempt to silence survivors doing the work of ending the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence because the stories can’t be conveniently categorized or think-pieced by a critic lends support to those who would see VAWA and its programs permanently defunded and dismantled. We very literally can’t afford to let those attempts stand unchallenged.
You can reach The National Domestic Violence Hotline and speak to a counselor 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) in over 170 languages. All calls are confidential and anonymous.
Katie Klabusich is an activist, writer and media contributor who’s work can be found at Truthout, Salon, Bitch, and KatieSpeak.com.