The vivid graphic of a fist in the face quickly dispatched the platitudes we offer for domestic violence, especially when it involves a superhero.
It unhinged the “she could have just run” line of reasoning — one that is still prevalent today in the attitude toward child victims of sex trafficking.
The video of Ray and Janay Rice has sparked long overdue re-engagement with the reality of domestic violence as opposed to the words about it now ensconced in law.
Ray is not the first partner to abuse his fiancee, nor is Janay the first woman to stay with a violent spouse. The scene that unfolded in the TMZ video that has racked up 900,000 views is the same scene that plays out in homes across America each day.
So, why did it take this video to reawaken a nation?
The answer is complicated. The outrage is due, in part, to Ray Rice’s celebrity status as a football hero and the graphic video’s power to eliminate ambiguity. There is little room to make excuses for him. Perhaps it is an indication we still have the capacity to recognize injustice and label it as something that should have consequences for the perpetrator, even if he is an object of our hero worship.
But much of the intrigue comes from the uncomfortable, lingering question: Why did she stay? It’s the question everyone feels guilty asking but secretly wonders. Twitter is ablaze with the trending #whyistayed. The reasons victims attribute to staying in a relationship of intimate partner violence include isolation from others, lack of financial independence, broken self-esteem, fear of escalated violence and the psychological bond to the abuser that such trauma creates.
Historically, the term commonly used for domestic violence was domestic disturbance. The violence was masked as simply a “disturbance” that was a private matter. Today, laws and language have evolved to call it what it is: violence.
Progress has been made in addressing domestic violence. Shelters have been built, programs implemented, awareness campaigns launched. Yet countless women still stay in relationships of intimate-partner violence.
Why? Despite laws, we haven’t offered them the justice they deserve. We still blame the victim and fail to recognize abusers as criminals. We still ask why she didn’t leave.
Rice was initially handed a two-game penalty. Only after the video became public did he face a meaningful consequence. Yet supporters arrived for a Feb. 11 game sporting his No. 27 Baltimore Ravens jersey. Some have opposed the NFL’s decision to release Rice, calling his actions “a mistake” and suggesting that everyone “deserves a second chance.” For them, a win for the Raven’s carries higher value than justice.
The social indifference toward the violence of child sex trafficking lies on a dangerous parallel path.
In 2000, the Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed, defining sex trafficking with a child as the exchange of any item of value for sex acts with a minor under 18 years old. Until recently, however, the crime was more commonly identified as child prostitution. Because of that label, children were arrested, criminalized, racking up criminal histories that included prostitution before they were old enough to vote. Similar to domestic violence, society often placed the blame on the victim and the perceived freedom of “choice.”
We want to believe a wife chooses to stay with her abusive husband rather than recognize that escape comes with the very real threat of murder. We also believe child sex-trafficking victims choose to engage in prostitution to make money. We conveniently overlook the trafficker taking the money and issuing beatings if she doesn’t meet her quota.
The idea that a trafficked child carries enough agency to choose to engage in prostitution but must be protected from other potentially life-threatening decisions, like joining the military, drinking alcohol and renting a car, is illogical and hypocritical.
Like a victim of domestic violence, trafficking victims are kept in isolation, barred from education, unable to obtain employment that will provide financial independence, struggle with extreme abuse and broken self-esteem and live in a constant state of fear. Then, we wonder why the victim doesn’t exercise her “choice” to leave.
A Valley woman says she was snared into a life of prostitution at a young age. Now, she’s trying to help others before it’s too late.
Sadly, whether a celebrity engages in domestic violence or exploits a trafficking victim, the long arm of the law seems to be too short to reach his pedestal.
New York Giants linebacker and Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor purchased sex with a 16-year-old girl from a trafficker operating in New York. In an interview with Fox News’ Shepard Smith, Taylor describes the victim as “a working girl who came to my room.” Under federal law, Taylor could have received 10 years in prison.
Like the fans with Ray Rice jerseys and sympathetic TV interviewers, there are those who say we should go easy on the offenders. And by extension, the pass we give to people like these should be applied to any abuser who similarly claims it was “just a mistake” or “I just couldn’t help myself.” Shopping for sex with a child is never just a mistake — it is a violent crime against that child, and when authorities fail to adequately penalize offenders, they actually encourage the violence.
For child victims of sex trafficking, nothing will change without the kind of public outcry generated by the video of the attack on Janay Rice.
As the Super Bowl approaches, it is encouraging to see key leaders in the sports industry launching offensives against this crime. The “Arizona’s Not Buying It” campaign, organized by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, includes Derrick Hall, president/CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks; Anthony LeBlanc, co-owner/president/CEO of the Arizona Coyotes; Jason Rowley, president of the Phoenix Suns; sportscaster Mark Lewis; and Kurt Warner, a retired NFL quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals.
There are men across the nation who shop for sex with children and believe it is just what men do. As Taylor says: “I’m not the cause of prostitution. Sometimes, I make a mistake.”
For these men, Arizona’s law enforcement has a message for you: If you come to shop … plan to stay.
Linda Smith is founder and president of Shared Hope International.