There are many barriers to coming forward as a victim of rape or domestic abuse—and it's even more daunting when your attacker is a public figure.
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On September 8, 2014, TMZ published footage of Ray Rice—then a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens—assaulting Janay Palmer, who was his fiancée at the time and is now his wife. The grainy footage shows Rice punching Palmer in the face and knocking her unconscious before dragging her body out of an elevator. The incident occurred on February 15, 2014; Atlantic City police arrested both Rice and Palmer at the time.
After the footage flooded the internet, a deluge of commentators and social media users demanded to know why Janay Rice would stay with someone who had abused her. Many publicly wondered why she would marry Ray Rice; on his September 8 radio show, for instance, Rush Limbaugh asked, "Why did she marry the guy, right? If she got decked like that." (The Rices' wedding took place on March 28, a day after Ray Rice was indicted on third-degree aggravated assault charges for the February incident).
To many domestic violence advocates, the media's excessive scrutiny of Janay Rice's decision to stay with her husband was indicative of a larger issue: ignorance surrounding the barriers domestic violence victims face in leaving their abusers and/or reporting abuse. Social advocate Beverly Gooden, who had been in an abusive relationship herself, felt particularly frustrated with the coverage. "I was tired of the question, 'Why would she stay with him?'" she told Broadly in an email. "And although 'she' was Janay Rice, it really could've been directed at any survivor of domestic violence."
I was tired of the question, 'Why would she stay with him?'
Gooden began tweeting about the realities of domestic abuse using the hashtag #WhyIStayed. "Domestic violence victims often find it difficult to leave abusers," she wrote. She went on to describe her own experience, enumerating several reasons she didn't immediately leave her own abuser: "I tried to leave the house once after an abusive episode, and he blocked me. He slept in front of the door that entire night"; "he said he would change"; "my pastor told me that God hates divorce."
The response her tweets generated was overwhelming: The hashtag sparked a national conversation and resulted in thousands of online testimonials. According to Gooden, who has gone on to work with multiple anti–domestic violence organizations, there are numerous reasons a victim would remain with his or her abusive partner. "Fear of being killed or hurt, belief that we can stop our partner from being violent, economic dependence, lack of a support system, love," she said. "I loved my ex-husband, and I believed him every time he said he wouldn't do it again."
In addition, Gooden said, many victims are aware that their word is the only proof they have that abuse occurred. "The majority of victims don't have video evidence of abuse. Many don't have photos or police reports. I didn't have anything but my word, and that can be a hurdle when trying to leave," she said. "You ask yourself, 'What if no one believes me? How do I prove abuse? What if I don't have scars? What if the abuse isn't physical, but verbal or psychological?'"
You ask yourself, 'What if no one believes me? How do I prove abuse? What if I don't have scars?'
Research shows that, on average, it takes a victim seven tries to leave an abusive relationship permanently. In addition, the most dangerous time for a survivor of domestic abuse is when he or she leaves the abusive partner: 75 percent of domestic violence–related homicides occur upon separation, according to the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness.
According to Jennifer Marsh, the vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), victims of domestic or sexual assault often perceive several barriers to reporting violence or assisting with police investigations. And, when the alleged assailant is a public figure, these barriers can feel even more insurmountable. "Perpetrators are incredibly adept at figuring out what barriers may be effective in preventing a victim from reporting or following up or assisting law enforcement during the investigation," she told Broadly. "There are obviously perpetrators who say, 'Nobody's going to believe you. You're a nobody. Look at me: I'm well respected, I'm talented, I have all these people who will say that I'm a terrific person. Who's going to believe you?'"
Reports indicate that the NFL has tried to cover up domestic violence allegations in the past, although they have since dedicated new resources to addressing the issue. In 2014, former NFL executive Jerry Angelo told USA Today that teams did not discipline players in "hundreds and hundreds" of domestic violence incidents. A month later, the New York Times published an investigation showing that some NFL teams discouraged players' wives from reporting abuse to the police. In addition, the public tends to treat survivors of domestic or sexual violence with suspicion at best and outright hostility at worst. "The sports leagues may be trying with great intentions to change the culture of their organizations, but they're not operating in a bubble," said Marsh. "There are fans; there are people who may continue to not understand the dynamics of assault and abuse and blame the victim very publicly."
People may continue to not understand the dynamics of assault and abuse and blame the victim very publicly.
Marsh noted that the barriers around reporting can be "exponentially greater" when the alleged perpetrator is a public figure. "There could be a national dialogue around your abuse, when really you just want to forget it and move on," she said. For some victims, the publicity is simply not worth it. In April 2010, for example, an anonymous woman who alleged that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had raped her in March of that same year asked that the charges against him be dropped. In a letter, her lawyer stressed that the alleged victim was not recanting her accusation, but rather stating that "a criminal trial would be a very intrusive personal experience for a complainant in the situation, given the extraordinary media attention that would be inevitable." (In a press conference on the same day, the district attorney announced that he would not have pursued criminal charges against Roethlisberger, even if the accuser had not "taken that position," because there was not enough evidence to prosecute.)
As Janay Rice's treatment in the media has shown—not to mention Rihanna's, and that of many of the women who accused Bill Cosby and the women who accused porn star James Deen of sexual assault—victims of abuse are often subjected to as much scrutiny as their alleged attackers. "We've seen a slight shift in behaviors and thinking over the past few years," said Marsh. "But I still think there's a tremendous amount of education that needs to be done because there are so many people who still do not understand the basics of consent or abuse, and they attack victims because of this lack of understanding."
However, Marsh is hopeful that change can and will take place. "The more and more dialogue we have around this issue, the better," she said.
If you have been sexually assaulted and need help, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.4673 or visit the RAINN website. If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit the thehotline.org.