Friday, September 12, 2014

#WhyIStayed: A First Step Toward Ending Stigma and Silence

The latest hot topic in the world of football is more than the typical chatter about a player being traded to a new team. This week, TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching then-fiancé Janay Palmer in the face and dragging her out of an elevator. Rice has been fired from the Ravens and put on indefinite suspension from the NFL.

This incident has raised many questions about violence among football players and the NFL’s role in keeping such incidents quiet. But some people have been asking a very different question: After that level of abuse, why did Janay Palmer still marry him? Why did she stay?

This is quite possibly an important question for Janay’s friends and family to ask, so that they may better understand her situation and evaluate if she requires assistance or protection. Media outlets and football fans who ask this, however, are twisting this story to place at least some of the blame on the victim. Questioning why she stayed implies that it is somehow her fault, because she did not leave sooner.

Writer Beverly Gooden found this completely unacceptable and bravely chose to speak out. In an interview with Mic, she explained:

When I saw those tweets, my first reaction was shame. The same shame that I felt back when I was in a violent marriage. It's a sort of guilt that would make me crawl into a shell and remain silent. But today, for a reason I can't explain, I'd had enough. I knew I had an answer to everyone's question of why victims of violence stay. I can't speak for Janay Rice, I can only speak for me.

Thus began the hashtag #WhyIStayed, and its companion #WhyILeft. Thousands of people have shared their stories on social media, explaining the various reasons why they felt trapped in abusive relationships, and the reasons why they left. The ‪#‎WhyIStayed campaign is a powerful movement drawing attention to the issue of domestic violence and emphasizing that it is not the victim's fault.

But as I was reading through #WhyIStayed posts on Twitter, I realized that this movement to decrease stigma is, in itself, steeped in stigma. Many compilations of these tweets have been constructed and shared, often under the heading “Abused women share their stories”. Are women the only ones sharing? Did the person creating the compilation only include the stories of women? If so, why?

Domestic abuse is not always man to woman. Women abuse each other. Men abuse each other. And yes, women abuse men. A man is not weak or a "sissy" because he is abused any more than a woman is. He needs help and protection the same as any victim of abuse.

WebMD states that more than 830,000 men experience domestic violence annually. The site estimates a much higher figure: 5.3 million men. Often, people dismiss this type of violence, claiming that the man should be able to fight back or stand up for themselves. This is a dangerous double standard that leaves these men even more at risk.

Many are using this campaign as a springboard to promote women’s rights. One Twitter user (who will herein remain anonymous) posted:

#INeedFeminismBecause people are faster to ask why an abused woman stayed than they are to ask the man why he hurt her. #WhyIStayed

The general sentiment is spot on. Don’t blame the victim for staying; blame the abuser for their actions. But making it gender specific is only increasing the differentiation between genders. Perfect equality between genders would not stop people from asking this question. “People are faster to ask why an abused man stayed than they are to ask the woman why she hurt him” is just as valid a concern.

Other posts have encouraged parents to raise their daughters to stand up for themselves and their sons to respect women. Again, good advice that should not be gender specific. Everyone should stand up for themselves and everyone should respect each other. In fact, gender specification in this case actually implies that women are somehow weak and require the protection of men, which seems to directly oppose ideas of gender equality.

Promoting the assumption that domestic abuse is perpetrated by men against women simultaneously paints women as victims and men as villains. Many men who would otherwise be sympathetic to an anti-abuse message are put off by the idea of being seen as a potential threat. This blog post emerged from a Facebook conversation, wherein one man voiced the following opinion:

Everything I've seen has been very [gender] specific too. I agree that what Ray Rice did was despicable, but it makes it harder for me to jump on the bandwagon and support it as I should as a male if I feel the whole gender is being attacked.

The #WhyIStayed campaign is a wonderful first step toward shining light on a terrible problem that is too often hidden. However, by promoting gender stereotypes, it obscures its message. Even worse, by mostly ignoring men who experience domestic abuse, the campaign is unintentionally contributing to their silent shaming. Domestic violence is not a feminist issue; it is a humanist issue. It can happen to anyone and everyone experiencing it deserves support and help.

**NOTE** If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to one of the many wonderful organizations available to help you.

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