The show Fox and Friends had an unusual takeaway from the video of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his wife, Janay, in the face and knocking her unconscious in a casino elevator: "Take the stairs."
The show's hosts, Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, also disparaged women like Rice and Rihanna for “sending a terrible message” by staying with their abusers. In a segment on Newsmax, retired-neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-commentator Ben Carson suggested, "Let's not all jump on the bandwagon of demonizing this guy. He obviously has some real problems." Obviously!
"And his wife obviously knows that," he added, "because she subsequently married him."
Soon after, women began flooding Twitter with the hashtag #WhyIStayed to show why leaving an abuser is harder than it might seem.
The writer Beverly Gooden kicked it off with this:
I had to plan my escape for months before I even had a place to go and money for the bus to get there. #WhyIStayed— Beverly Gooden (@bevtgooden) September 8, 2014
Many more followed:
#WhyIStayed ....because I thought I was a strong person who loved a damaged person and only I could help him.— Ashley (@sashleyham) September 9, 2014
I was determined to make it work, wanted kids to have their dad, convinced myself that what he did to me wasn't affecting them #WhyIStayed— Rachel Miller (@ReIgniteRomance) September 9, 2014
#WhyIStayed Because after being stuck in an abusive relationship for awhile I started to believe I deserved all of it.— kat (@9LivesofKat) September 9, 2014
Because good church girls persevere and overcome. #whyistayed— Akoua Deloire (@AfroIvoire) September 9, 2014
#whyistayed because I "knew" no one else would want me. I was "lucky" that he chose me. I finally left because he almost killed me— thriftymaven (@thriftymaven) September 9, 2014
The anecdotes reveal the startling diversity of the predicaments of domestic-abuse victims.
Most women will experience physical abuse at some point in their lives, and most assaults of adult women occur at the hands of an intimate partner. But once it happens, the options for most women are few—and bad.
In 1999, law professor and domestic violence survivor Sarah Buel offered up 50 obstacles to leaving, most of which remain unchanged. She points out that the end of the relationship can be just the start of the most serious threats. A battered woman is 75 percent more likely to be murdered when she tries to flee than if she stays.
Welfare is the major safety net for single moms, but its monthly benefit levels are far below living expenses for a family of three. In a study of Texas abuse victims, the number-one reason cited for returning home was financial, Buel writes.
In a cruel twist, the women who have the least access to resources are the most likely to be victimized: One study found that men who refused to give their partners money were almost 10 times more likely to be abusive than men who allowed their spouses to help manage household earnings.
Legal aid and emergency housing are also scarce.
“Almost 99 percent of the survivors we work with need some form of legal assistance, but we have very few attorneys who will take pro bono cases," one New Hampshire activist told the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Many shelters have months-long waiting lists and lack translators.
Often, inept local officials perpetuate the problem. A massive recent investigation by the Charleston Post and Courier in South Carolina found that the state's domestic violence epidemic partly stems from a legal system in which "a man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense."
And those are just the systemic problems—the ones policymakers can actually do something about. Things get even more complex at the individual, psychological level.
Some victims face cultural forces that urge "standing by your man" or giving the children a father. Others have such low self-esteem that they don't see themselves as destined for or worthy of something better. Then there's love: More than half of domestic-violence victims still see their partners as dependable. Victims might think they deserve it, as Janay Rice hinted at a press conference in which she expressed regret for "the role she played in the incident."
"Many others suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, one symptom of which is dissociation, which often creates such profound detachment from the reality of the abuse that sufferers scarcely remember being hurt at all," Harvard Medical School psychologist Craig Malkin wrote. The prevalence of PTSD among battered women has been found to be as high as 68 percent, while it's only about 1 to 12 percent in the general population. "Dissociating victims can't leave the abuse because they aren't psychologically present enough to recall the pain of what happened."
Using fMRI data, psychologist Alan Simmons has found that victims of intimate-partner violence have similar brain activation patterns as people with anxiety disorders and phobias. Many of these women live in constant fear of being beaten again and are forced to operate like day-to-day survivalists.
“It’s not a sign of weakness," Simmons told Glamour. "It’s akin to what happens to the brain during war.”
People like Rihanna obviously don't have the money problems that many domestic-violence victims have. Janay Rice might not have, either. But it's clear that the dynamic between the abuser and the abused is more complicated than people who don't live in a toxic stew of love and fear can know. So perhaps they shouldn't pretend to ... on national TV.