The Story of #WhyIStayed

“What bothered me most was that the question was ‘why did she stay?’ and not ‘why did he hit her?’”

Beverley Gooden on Good Morning America, September 10, 2014

On February 19, 2014, TMZ posted video footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his then-fiancé, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The incident had taken place just a few days earlier, on February 15. On March 27, 2014, despite his plea of not guilty, Ray Rice was indicted on a charge of third-degree aggravated assault and was suspended for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season.

Janay Palmer legally became Janay Rice the next day:

RB Ray Rice got married Friday night to Janay Palmer. Ceremony had been planned for couple of weeks. Got indicted Thursday, married Friday.

Adam Schefter

The case was prosecuted by the State of New Jersey, which later dropped the felony assault chargers against Ray Rice when he agreed to court-supervised counseling.

Months later, on Monday, September 8, 2014, TMZ posted leaked security camera footage of what happened in the elevator, and it was graphic: Ray Rice can be seen punching Janay in a blow that immediately knocks her out. (Sidebar: The New Yorker recently did a deep dive into how TMZ obtains footage like this.)

The video showed clear, undeniable physical abuse, and the media and the public reacted.

Much of the conversation was focused on Janay, rather than on her assailant.

how stupid is #janayrice ray probably bought her some jewelry to shut her up they deserve each other

Connie Corbett

It wasn’t just individuals who were partaking in the victim blaming. On the show “Fox & Friends”, Fox News hosts seemed to make light of the abuse. Host Brian Kilmeade laughed while saying, “The message is, take the stairs.” His co-host Steve Doocy smiled as he added his two cents: “The message is when you’re in an elevator, there’s a camera.”

View Video on Youtube

Janay, who doesn’t have a Twitter account, posted the following message on Instagram:

Beverley Gooden and The Inception of #WhyIStayed

At the time of this news, Beverley Gooden (Bev for short) was a 31-year-old human-resources manager at a nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina. It had taken her a year to leave her own abuser, now her ex-husband, and she knew from personal experience that it’s not so easy to “just leave”.

She was frustrated by the tone of what she was seeing in the news and reading online.

So she took to Twitter, sharing her story using a hashtag she made up: #WhyIStayed.

She encouraged others to share their stories, and the response was swift.

As posted by CNN, “By Tuesday afternoon, the hashtag had been used more than 46,000 times, according to Web analytics tool Topsy, captivating participants and observers alike.”

Even the National Domestic Violence Hotline joined the conversation:

Powerful, brave stories #WhyIStayed. Thank you to all who are sharing. We are here for you.

National DV Hotline

“I felt good, that there were so many people that related to it, but at the same time I felt bad that there were so many people that related to it," Bev told TODAY. “They’ve lived it and I’ve lived it, so there’s strength in community, but at the same time it’s like, wow, it’s such a big issue – so, it’s a combination of the two.”

Brands Beware

DiGiorno’s social media manager made the unfortunate mistake of misappropriating the trending hashtag, unintentionally acting as a cautionary tale for others:

Example of a brand using a trending topic without understanding the context #Advertising #SocialMedia #WhyIStayed

Scott Paul

They deleted the tweet quickly, but the damage was done. It sparked a tangential conversation about how brands should—and, perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t—play in the world of social media.

#WhyILeft and #WhenILeft: An Evolution

 

Conversation With Bev, on NPR's All Things Considered:

Cornish:

Bev Gooden, one of the criticisms of your initial posts were that it kind of kept the focus on the victims. And similarly with these, that the idea is still kind of having the victims explain instead of focusing on maybe why the perpetrators are acting the way they do. How did you feel about the way the conversation evolved online?

Gooden:

Well, I think the development of the additional hashtags #WhenILeft and #WhyILeft was kind of the natural progression of the conversation. I was afraid at first that it would detract from the women who may not have left and kind of isolate them again. But I think with all the criticisms, the key for me is that #WhyIStayed isn't an endorsement of staying in an abusive relationship. You know, rather it's simply providing an answer to society's question. They asked and we answered. There are many reasons why someone would stay. And domestic violence isn't cut and dry. It's not easy, you know, to just say well, he hit you, you'll leave. It's very complex.”

Many Twitter users were inspired to share not only the story of why they stayed in an abusive relationship, but what eventually led them to leave.

And some Twitter users simply encouraged their followers to pay attention to the conversation:

Get into #WhyIStayed and #WhenILeft. Survivors are telling their stories. Instead of assuming & shaming, read and listen. #domesticviolence

Reagan Gomez

Beyond Twitter

In the social media world, the #WhyIStayed conversation took place almost entirely on Twitter. However, media coverage of the hashtag was extensive, in large part due to Bev’s advocacy, who penned an article for the NY Times and even appeared on a British news channel.

Some members of the media were inspired to share the story of their personal experiences with domestic violence using their own media outlets, including Meredith Vieira on her talk show and a CNN staffer in an article posted on their website.

Ray Rice And Janay Rice Today

Shortly after the in-elevator footage was posted online, the Baltimore Ravens released Ray Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. The NFL, and particularly commissioner Roger Goodell, was harshly criticized for not responding more strongly to the initial footage and the indictment that took place earlier that year.

In August 2015, both Ray and Janay Rice spoke with ESPN, insisting that he deserves a second chance to play in the NFL.

Hashtag Activism: Does it Matter?

In a lengthy one-on-one interview with ESPN’s Jemele Hill, on November 5, 2014, Janay Rice said, “We know our incident led to very important discussions to hashtags of ‘why I stayed’ and ‘why I left.’ If it took our situation becoming headline news to show domestic violence is happening in this country, that's a positive.”

#WhyIStayed was named TIME’s #3 hashtag of 2014, was included in Forbes’ list of top social change hashtags of 2014, and was listed as one of the best moments for women in 2014 by the Huffington Post.

 

But, as NPR’s Audie Cornish said to Bev:

Cornish:

“People can argue that this doesn't really change the lives of women who are still enduring domestic abuse. And what's your response to that?”

Gooden:

“You know, I think the beauty of hashtag activism is that it creates an opportunity for sustained engagement, which is important for any cause. So you never know what a hashtag has inspired someone to do off-line. You know, the hope is that the hashtag will inspire action. There was a woman who - I think it was two weeks ago now - she tweeted to me that #WhyIStayed helped her get out and stay out. And if that's not direct action, I don't know what is.”

Resources

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a wealth of resources on the topic, including explanations of the obstacles to leaving abusive relationships. They respond to calls 24/7, 365 days a year: 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233).

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