Ray Rice

Photo of Ray Rice by Keith Allison, used under a Creative Commons license.

On Monday, TMZ Sports released a video that shows (now former) Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancee/now wife Janay Rice in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino.

It’s not the first video that has surfaced. Rice initially received a paltry and widely criticized two-game suspension for the same February incident when a clip of Ray dragging an unconscious Janay out of that elevator was made public earlier this year.

On Monday, Rice was released from the Baltimore Ravens and suspended from the NFL indefinitely.

Yes, that’s right. It took a graphic video published by fucking TMZ to convince the NFL to finally hand down the overdue punishment it should have handed down in the first place. In other words, it took “proof.” It took proof because we live in a culture in which women are not be trusted — especially women who stand by their man.

The video – which was released without Janay’s knowledge or consent — has been widely circulated. Most news stories have linked to it; hell, even CBC’s The National aired it during its Monday night broadcast. It’s absolutely sickening to think how many times the attack has been replayed, her brutalization being consumed in real time by a hungry public. And every time it’s clicked on and shared, she’s dehumanized a little more. Because as Katie McDonough powerfully asserted at Salon, “Janay Rice isn’t a person in this footage. She is just fodder for the news cycle, a prop to teach (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell and the NFL a lesson.”

Writes McDonough:

If we want to game out possibilities about what this video will “do,” it’s conceivable though not likely that this could shame Ravens head coach John Harbaugh into stepping down or create enough bad press that Goodell will resign. It’s also possible that the millions of people who are now watching the video may “learn” something about the realities of domestic violence that they previously couldn’t grasp. (It’s also possible that they will simply tweet about having watched it and move on.)

It’s obvious from the narrative that emerged on social media that people definitely DO NOT grasp the realities of domestic violence. See, for example, the rampant victim-blaming. “How could she marry him?” “Why doesn’t she leave?” Why doesn’t she get a restraining order?” “Why doesn’t she press charges?”

For every “why” there is a “should.” “She should leave” is a common refrain, the working assumption being that she has the means to do so. “She should go to a shelter,” is another one, the working assumption being that shelters are plentiful and accessible and not completely overwhelmed.

The victim-blaming is deafening, but it’s not surprising. As Hannah Giogis writes in the Guardian, “victims of abuse have always been forced to recount their traumas to audiences more intent on policing their victimhood than finding justice.”

And if they are a public person — or romantically involved with a public person — then their trauma is also exploited. When Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna in 2009, the horrific photos of Rihanna’s bruised face —leaked by LAPD officers (you know, the people you’re supposed to go to for help) and disseminated by that bastion of journalism, TMZ — were not only circulated widely on the web without her consent, they were also reprinted in magazines and newspapers all over North America. Usually, they appeared in the Entertainment section. And money was made on the back of a domestic violence survivor.

Some would argue that if there is an upshot to Rihanna — and now, Janay Rice — unwittingly becoming the poster girl for domestic violence, it’s that it got people talking about domestic violence, a widespread problem that we, as a culture, don’t really talk about. And make no mistake, it is widespread: according to Statistics Canada, police reported about 78,000 incidents of violence against women by current or previous intimate partners in 2011, including those by spouses (common-law and legally married partners) and dating partners. Between 2010 and 2011, rates of partner homicide rose 19 per cent. Like sexual assault, intimate partner violence is under-reported and highly stigmatized. GEE I WONDER WHY.

I agree that a dialogue about domestic violence is vital. But it angers me that, in order for this important conversation to happen at this level, it’s at the expense of women like Janay Rice, who have to have their privacy violated and their safety disregarded. She did not “come forward.” She did not “open up.” She is not leading this dialogue.

So how can we get the issue of domestic violence more productive airtime that doesn’t involve grainy elevator footage from TMZ? Well, first we need to get survivors talking — on their terms. To do that, we need to make the world a less cushy place for abusers. We need to stop asking them why they stayed and start asking tough questions about our culture.

Such as:

Why is it easier to believe, as Giogis posits, “that a woman ‘provoked’ catastrophic violence from a supposedly otherwise peaceful man than it is to come to terms with the fact that a well-liked public figure is abusive”?

Why are we so quick to assume that a survivor is lying?

Why do we silence survivors by telling them how they should or shouldn’t act, often based on assumptions as opposed to lived experiences?

Why do we minimize survivors’ experiences when they don’t act the way we want them to?

Why do we need to see graphic pictures and video in order to believe a survivor?

Why – and this is the big one – do we insist on defending/apologizing for abusers by focusing on the actions/inactions of survivors?

And if someone STILL wants to know why women stay, I suggest they check out #WhyIStayed. Started by writer Bevely Gooden, the Twitter hashtag has prompted many domestic abuse survivors to share their own experiences. Their reasons for staying are as complex as they are numerous. #WhenILeft, meanwhile, offers insight into just what it takes to get out.

Janay Rice posted this statement on her Instagram account today:

I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I’m mourning the death of my closest friend. But to have to accept the fact that it’s reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that the media & unwanted options from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is! Ravensnation we love you!