I woke up today to a Twitter filled with women sharing horrific stories of abuse under the currently trending #WhyIStayed hashtag. Click here and try not to be staggered by the sheer NUMBER of them. Hundreds and hundreds and thousands.
Peppered through the feed, however, was a link to a Time's op-ed piece by Charlotte Alter headlined "Instead of Asking Women Why They Stay, We Should Ask Men Why They Hit." Charlotte argues that #WhyIStayed "Puts the focus on victim's behavior instead of the abuser's." Some of her followers even started calling for #WhyIHit and dropped #victimblaming, condemning the new trend.
After using a crowbar to wedge off the palm that had reflexively smacked my face, I watched the Ray Rice video. Monstrous, we all agree on that. But what Alter seems to be suggesting (with good intentions) is that we shift the dialogue away from the experience of the woman whose head hit a metal bar and was dragged out of a public elevator like a body in a mob movie, and instead to hone in on Ray Rice. What made him do that? Why? How can we get him to stop?
Totally valid questions. What Alter is failing to see is that #WhyIStayed is the first step towards that understanding.
We live in a world where the word "feminist" has a connotation of a bra-burning psychopath bitching about problems that don't really matter. A HuffPo/YouGov survey shows that a pathetic 20% of Americans identify themselves as feminist. 63% said they were "neither a feminist or an anti-feminist" which I take to mean that most people don't think women have anything to complain about anymore, and that they should be happy in their new paradise of equality.
The experiences of these women expose a horror that most people are completely ignorant of. It shows the ugliness and chauvinism that thrives behind closed doors all around us. You can't read the #WhyIStayed tweets and pretend there's not a problem anymore. We need to hear these stories over and over, for as long as they continue to happen. We can't begin to talk about how to stop abuse until we as a nation acknowledge that there's a problem in the first place.
Nobody is suggesting that the behavior of these women on Twitter are wrong or that they are deserving of judgment. They were all thrown into impossible situations. It's important for men to read about these experiences and say to themselves "I don't want to be that guy."
We as an American culture have done a decent job of stigmatizing physical abuse towards women as evil, but we've left a gray area with emotional, financial, and mental abuse, which surely must be the seeds which produce the former. We need to see that people are hurting every day or we won't feel any impetus to stop it.
#WhyIStayed is the right question, because the next question it inevitably inspires is "How Can We Change?"