When the video of Janay and Ray Rice surfaced, I couldn’t help but watch, over and over, the flimsy push Janay gave Ray. Or his reaction: to punch her, to drag her like she was nothing.
“Women should expect this,” the person who shared the video on Twitter added. “Don’t hit men and they won’t hit you.”
I’m sure the person who retweeted that comment into my timeline thought they were highlighting a random stranger’s stupidity, but it reminded me of the way my ex-fiancé used to taunt me.
Get the facts delivered to your inbox.
Want our news sent to you every week?
“I don’t abuse you,” he would tell me. “You hit me first, remember?”
I had, after 468 days of incessant humiliation. It was another day out of 468 that he’d followed me out of the house and screamed to passing men how they could have a “go” with me since I was such a whore. On another day, he called me “bitch” more than he said my name. Yet, because I’d slapped him, after 468 days of degradation, somehow he thought his treatment of me didn’t constitute “abuse.”
On Monday, when I saw that tweet about the Rice video, I felt rage and weariness flare up in my chest. I was tired of explaining how abuse works—that a victim trying to defend herself does not excuse months of emotional or physical violence. I was angry that I’d always feel like a lone voice in a sea of victim-blaming. As I was about to log off silently, I saw a woman sharing a story on Twitter of how her abuse got worse when she dared to even block a punch. She’d hide in the bathroom tub, she said. I started to shake.
I am miles away, and years removed, from sleeping in the tub with the glass door pulled close just so I could have another barrier between myself and my ex-fiancé, but I started to shake.
The stories started to pour into my timeline, some from people I’d never seen talk about domestic violence before. They had all been empowered by the #WhyIStayed hashtag, which Beverly Gooden started in response to the Rice video. A victim of domestic abuse herself, Gooden wanted to change the discussion from blaming Janay Rice to expressions of solidarity among other survivors.
Too often, people mistake staying in an abusive relationship or situation as a tacit agreement to being abused. After the video of Rice publicly emerged, some argued that because Janay didn’t leave, she had negated her right to safety. These people have never been in the position of watching the person you love lie at your feet, crying and begging you to stay. They’ve never experienced what happens when your abuser discovers, too early, your plan to leave.
I, along with other victims of abuse, contributed my experiences to #WhyIStayed and its counterpart, #WhyILeft, to combat that culture of condemnation—to demonstrate that leaving an abuser is often not so easy as just picking up and walking out the door.
We as a society rarely question why someone abuses. Instead, we question the abused. We ask how they caused it; why they put up with it; why they don’t fight back. This is done with such thinly veiled disgust that victims are forced into silence and denial. It makes admitting the fact that abuse is even occurring into a nearly impossible ordeal.
When the man I thought I’d marry first became abusive, his excuse was that my best friend was a man, then because I am bisexual. He’d monitor my every interaction with both men and women and accuse me of wanting to “go full dyke.” If I’d stop having so many friends, he told me, he’d be less insecure and the fighting would stop. This, I told myself, wasn’t abuse. It was just really, really bad outbursts that he couldn’t help.
And when we started having sex to ease his fear that I’d leave him for a woman, I told myself that wasn’t abuse either. I’d seen what abuse yields. This wasn’t a black eye. It was simply something I should do, he’d said, if I really liked men.
Every inch I gave made me feel smaller, less like myself. But, I told myself, at least I wasn’t one of those weak women—one of those about whom everyone asks, “What is wrong with her? Why does she stay?”
I stayed, then, because I didn’t think it was abuse, and because I didn’t want it to be. I stayed because the ways in which we talk about victims as confused and pathetic didn’t fit me. I knew something was off, but I tried to fight it every day.
Before I fully admitted to myself what was going on, I found myself in my school’s mental health center one day, staring at manuals on domestic violence. Suddenly, I couldn’t move.
He’d never hit me. That was a point he’d reiterated the previous night, when he’d broken down my bathroom door and found me cowering in the tub. After going to school, then work, I’d fallen asleep and been late to answer when he came to my apartment at 3 a.m. Even worse, I’d fallen back asleep while he was talking.
He’d stood over me and poured an entire pitcher of cold water on me. We fought; I tried to kick him out, and he grabbed me by my shirt. Somehow, I broke away and locked myself in the bathroom. It didn’t keep him out. When he found me in the tub, he sneered.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he asked. He laughed. “You look so fucking stupid right now, Les. What are you doing in the tub?”
I didn’t answer at first. Then I thought better of it. “I was scared.”
He put one leg on the side of the tub and put his face so close to mine that he was all I saw.
“I ever hit you?”
Pushing my head up so it bounced against the tile, he asked, “I ever … fucking … touch … you?” Each word was punctuated with a harder push until the faucet was digging into my neck. “I never put my hands on you.” He pushed one final time. “Get out the tub.”
I stayed there, though, until the expression on his face told me not moving would lead to much, much worse. He watched me walk back to the bed, and to avoid more violence, I mumbled an apology.
“How it starts,” the pamphlet I found the next morning read, “is he controls your friendships and who you can talk to.”
That was the first time I’d consciously allowed myself to think that his behavior was more than expressions of insecurity. But I stayed because even a self-help manual defining abuse said this was just the beginning; it wasn’t abuse yet. I thought I could still change the course of the relationship. I had no choice. I was undocumented. I needed help paying my rent, buying groceries. I needed him.
I stayed because when the police came they did exactly what he said they would: nothing.
“Do you want to press charges?” the cop asked. She looked up from her notepad, almost bored and strangely annoyed. I was crying pretty hard still, and it only seemed to make both cops more angry with me. I hated that I couldn’t compose myself.
She repeated the question and shifted her weight. I could see my ex handcuffed between two other officers. He caught my eye.
“Les, you’re really about to do this?”
“Hey! You don’t talk to her,” one barked. He grabbed him by his neck and pushed him towards the hallway.
The female officer spared a glance his way and gestured to my apartment. My table was overturned, and coffee was dripping down the wall. “He do any of this?”
“Will he get in trouble?” I asked.
She sighed and wrote something down. I tried to explain that what she had mistakenly taken as concern for him was actually fear for my own safety. I whispered, “If he gets in trouble because of me…”
She responded loudly so he could hear, “What you say can send him to jail. Did he do this?”
“He didn’t do it. It was like that.”
I wouldn’t meet her eye. I looked down at my feet and the eggs around me. I thought, “Hopefully he heard that. Hopefully he’ll remember that.” He wouldn’t.
He’d broken into my apartment, destroyed my things to scare me, smashed my phone to keep me from calling anyone. And he would only remember that I screamed for help, that it was my fault he got in trouble. They took him away, and he was back the next day.
Still, I stayed because abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum. As my ex became more controlling, even showing up to my job, everyone around me said his behavior wasn’t that bad; my co-workers even joked that it was a sign I was “too good” to leave. There exists a culture of minimizing abuse, so we don’t recognize it until it gets to be extreme. And then, we are held responsible for staying.
The discussions that #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft fostered reminded me that only abusers can prevent abuse. It’s their sickness; it’s their cross to bear. For me, the hashtags and dialogues were less about raising awareness and more about reaffirmation for victims: They were a message that we neither earned this nor were at fault for staying when we had no choice.
When we are silent about abuse and its many manifestations, it thrives. It doesn’t just allow our abusers to continue their behavior; it leaves us vulnerable to believing that we deserved the violence.
So even if Janay Rice’s story fades from the 24-hour news cycle, this is a discussion we can’t stop having. In a world where people blame the victim first, we have to continue reiterating that the question of why they stay doesn’t matter. “How do we keep them safe?” does.