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Why She Stayed: Ray Rice Video Sheds Light on Domestic Violence

The extraordinary footage of Ray Rice and his wife is shedding new light on a problem hidden behind so many closed doors.
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The facts were known: Ray Rice punched out cold his then-fiancee, Janay, then dragged her unconscious body out of an elevator. But newly released security footage has made all the difference — not just to the NFL, but to domestic abuse survivors, too.

For most victims of domestic violence, there is no witness, no camera. For about half, there is no police report. So the extraordinary footage is shedding new light on a problem hidden behind so many closed doors.

“Seeing the video makes such a difference,” said Tania Tetlow, a law professor and director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at Tulane University. “Even though we knew these facts before, it was easy for public to minimize the damage done to the victim--to think about domestic violence as vaguely mutual and provoked, and then dismiss it as a private matter that doesn’t matter.”

According to the CDC, one in four women will be abused by their partner in their lifetime, what Professor Tetlow calls an overlooked public health problem. Some women are using the new attention as a chance to educate — on Tuesday the hashtag #whyIstayed was trending on Twitter, followed by #whyIleft.

Renee Norris-Jones was beaten, raped, and repeatedly abused by her husband more than 35 years ago—something she says she still lives with every day.

She remembers watching the news when the original video of Rice dragging his wife’s body out of an elevator surfaced, and seeing NFL Eagles fans interviewed about the video. One man, she recalls, stood with his wife and daughter and said that he didn’t see why the video was such a big deal and that the NFL should let Rice get back on the field. But she has seen a shift since the second video was made public.

“I think educating combats ignorance, so these videos together create a huge learning opportunity for people to get real facts about domestic violence,” she said. “This second video brought a lot of naysayers to the other side, saying, ‘Wait I said let him play, but now I am changing my story.’”

In a way, the video showed what should have been expected: An NFL player knocking his future wife out cold. But advocates against domestic violence say it shows more than that, too.

“I think it shows that a person could end up dead if they continue to take it.” said Saran Cryer, a clinician and therapist for Minnesota based Women’s Advocates. “We have to have this conversation for safety purposes. We have to keep our women and their families safe. This is an opportunity for us to say as a society we want people to be responsible for their behavior.”

And then there were Rice’s statements in support of her husband — both after the initial accusations and again after the video surfaced. "To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing," she wrote on Instagram. "To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass of for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific."

While Janay Rice’s response may seem odd to the public, Cryer said it reflects the nuances of many women who experience abuse and feel the need to maintain their normal lives – however it may look to others.

Indeed, Janay Rice is surely suffering from the media coverage, too.

“This is hideous for her and some media is treating it as salacious rather than as a serious matter,” said Joan Meier, a clinical law professor at George Washington University and Director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project in Washington, D.C.

Meier recalls watching the video on TMZ and seeing comments objectifying Janay Rice and talking about her in what Meier calls impersonal and inhumane ways—even going as far as to comment on whether or not you could see up Janay’s dress as Rice pulled her out of the elevator.

Comments asking why Janay has chosen to stand by her husband, as well as speculating that she hit Rice first, are troubling to survivors and advocates.

“Many folks do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence, how deadly it is, and what it takes to truly escape,” Norris-Jones said. “We have to remember that the most dangerous and potentially deadly time for a victim is when she is thinking about whether or not to leave.”

Norris-Jones did it with help and counseling from Women Against Abuse (WAA), Philadelphia’s leading domestic violence advocacy and service group. She is now a board member.

The group’s executive director, Jeannine Lisitski, says how we talk about Ray Rice himself can be just as troubling and potentially dangerous.

“Some people, including the president, have said that ‘real men don’t need to hit women.’”Lisitski said. “That stigmatizes people who abuse, and is that going to help them reach out to get help? No. Now it makes someone want to keep their actions a big secret.”

Lisitski said that she’d rather give the message that you will not get what you want through violence in a relationship, but that there are positive things that can be done if you have a problem-- things that won’t have to be swept under the rug.

But just talking about the problem is an important first step.

“What I’m excited about is that the NFL is now taking this [the issue of domestic violence] so seriously,” said Professor Tetlow. “That matters enormously, because football is so engrained in our idea of masculinity.”

Now it’s Rice’s turn to move the ball forward, she said.

“I think that Ray Rice has an opportunity here to try and redeem himself, and to try to understand why this matters so much, and show by his actions and not just his words that he’s going to do something about it.” Tetlow said. “That means really grappling with himself and maybe trying to work on the issue in some public way.”

If he does, he might help millions of men and women affected by domestic violence. “This is everywhere, everyday, down the street from all of us,” she said, “and we only seem to care if it’s Mel Gibson or Chris Brown or Ray Rice.”