What we need to remember when we talk about domestic violence

We were all horrified when, earlier this fall, footage leaked of NFL running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious in an elevator. Rice was put on indefinite suspension and the world watched as Janay defended her fiancé and stood by his side.

Since then, Janay has married Ray (becoming Janay Rice), Ray’s suspension has been lifted, and the two are currently making the publicity rounds, in what appears to be a joint-effort to repair Ray’s image, presenting him as a viable option for potentially interested NFL teams.

Janay Rice recently sat down with the Today Show and ESPN’s Jemele Hill to talk about her relationship with Ray Rice. Whether or not you agree with Janay’s decision to stay with Ray or her refusal to see herself as a victim of domestic violence, there is a lot to think about and plenty of opinions swirling. Here’s what to remember when talking about this issue.

Janay Rice is Far From Alone

1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In the United States, more than 4 million women experience physical assault and rape at the hands of their partners and 1 in 3 homicide victims are murdered at the hands of their current or former partners.

Domestic violence is not a rare occurrence in America. In fact, these disturbingly high stats would certainly be much higher were it not for the disturbing truth that most domestic violence incidents are never reported.

We Can’t Blame The Victim

“I know there are so many different opinions out there about me,” Janay Rice told ESPN.

One of the most unsettling truths to come out of Ray Rice’s act of violence is that the media has placed an overwhelming amount of responsibility on Janay’s shoulder’s for standing by Rice’s side, defending him, marrying him. At a certain point, this focus on the victim’s actions and responsibility just becomes victim-blaming. The public shouldn’t be asking “Why would Janay stay?” we should be asking “Why would Ray abuse?” We need to reserve our outrage for the aggressor, it’s unacceptable to point fingers at the victim. When we victim-blame, we convince victims that the only person they have to blame is themselves.

The Choice To Stay Or Leave Is Complicated

While talking about why she chose to stay with Ray, Janay offered the following during her recent interview with ESPN:

“Ray accepted responsibility from the moment we left the police station. … At first I was very angry, and I didn’t know what to say. This came out of nowhere. Nothing like this had ever happened before. I knew it wasn’t him. But as angry as I was, I knew it was something that we could move on from because I know Ray. I thought about our daughter. When she comes in the room, it’s like nothing is going on. We knew it was definitely going to take work, and we knew we had to be by each other’s side.”

Of course we want victims of domestic violence to remove themselves from dangerous relationships. That said, to ask the question “Why doesn’t she just leave?” is a reductive and unhelpful response to a situation that deserves our utmost compassion. It may seem difficult or even impossible for the victim to end her relationship, leave her home, turn her back on family members and loved ones, uproot her life. It’s not an easy decision, and it’s not a choice that can be made without ramifications. To simplify the situation is, at best, insulting the victim, and at worst, dehumanizing her.

Before we think of asking “Why did she stay after he hurt her?” we need to ask “What can we do to end domestic violence?”

Image via ESPN