After the release of the Ray Rice assault video, everyone had an opinion. Fortunately, the majority of people expressed support for Rice’s wife Janay, and called for him to be removed from the National Football League. There were still some people who chose to victim-blame and support Ray Rice, but those voices were drowned out by a powerful Twitter hashtag, #WhyIStayed, that gave voice to domestic violence survivors.
The hashtag #WhyIStayed, and its companion #WhyILeft, was started by survivor Beverly Gooden. In an essay for Today, Gooden wrote a powerful open letter to the “her who stayed.”
“I understand why you stay. The way he holds you after an altercation? It feels so good. The negative touch followed by a positive touch… it warms you. It makes everything better. Well, everything except the bruises.”
On Twitter, the responses to Gooden’s hashtag from other users were equally powerful. Below is a sampling, included with the permission of the authors.
Thousands (maybe millions, at this point) of raw, honest tweets from domestic violence victims of all gender identities poured in throughout the night. If you were following the tag, each individual tweet was often enough to take your breath away. Even though these stories are difficult to read and sometimes graphic, they are actually an incredibly powerful way for victims to heal.
We know that sexual assault is one of the most underreported of all crimes. Only 20 percent of women and men who are abused by a domestic partner report the abuse to police, and even fewer will ever see justice. Domestic abuse affects millions of women, but few will ever be able to tell their stories. Instead, they suffer in silence until they are able to leave, or something far worse happens.
The visibility of #WhyIStayed is what makes it so powerful. People who had never told anyone about being abused, let alone millions of strangers on Twitter, felt compelled to open up and share their stories. In these stories, we heard a perspective of domestic violence that is rarely represented in the popular narrative. These tweets clearly demonstrated that domestic violence victims are not “weak-minded” or “easily manipulated.” They are strong people of all races, religions, sexualities, and gender identities who are more powerful than the trauma they’ve faced.
What separates these tweets from TMZ’s release of the video of Janay Rice being beaten and dragged by her husband is the existence of consent. Some made the argument that the release of this video was a positive thing, largely because it finally resulted in some punishment for Ray Rice. But what it didn’t take into account was the fact that Janay Rice had never consented for her assault to be profit-making Internet fodder.
But in each of these powerful tweets, there was agency. The people who were tweeting were choosing to tell their stories instead of having their story sold to a sleazy gossip site. There was also a sense of community, from both the people involved in the hashtags and those who simply chose to read and share the experiences of others.
More than anything, #WhyIStayed means that we should be listening to the perspective of domestic violence survivors. Everyone has ideas and judgments about what should (or shouldn’t) be done to prevent domestic violence, but little of that takes the victim’s reality into consideration. When we tell women to “just leave” their abusive partners, we ignore the powerful pull of love, relationships, poverty, and children.
I have no doubt that those tweets helped women who were both past and current victims of domestic violence heal the wounds left on their souls by abusive partners. There is catharsis in openness, especially if that disclosure comes with thousands of supportive people who understand and believe you.