Summary: [Trigger warning for a discussion of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence] An important news story has once again put the spotlight on America's problem with domestic abuse and gender-based violence, and it involves (former) Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting then fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an elevator of an Atlantic City casino. Video footage of the incident confirms the couple got into a heated argument, and then somewhere during the course of the elevator's descent toward the lobby, Rice delivered a blow with enough force to seemingly render Palmer unconscious. A security camera from the lobby captures Rice dragging his fiancée's limp body out of the elevator and onto the lobby floor. Isn't this just an isolated incident of a man losing his temper? Since most men and women agree that physically assaulting another person is wrong, what is left to discuss? Here's something to consider: women are victims of rape and assault at the hands of men far more than the reverse. According to the Department of Justice, about 1 in 4 women have been victimized by an intimate partner, and this asymmetry suggests Americans still have much to discuss in terms of gendered patterns of violence. The same is true for only about 7% of all men. To be sure, there are certainly interpersonal details that led Rice and Palmer to quarrel that day, but it is no less true that Ray Rice assaulted Janay Palmer because Ray Rice lives in a society where it is sometimes permissible, and even expected, for men to enact physical violence against women. Sure, in the abstract, people agree it's wrong, but if one listens to how people actually make sense of instances of assault, it becomes clear that assault against women is only wrong with qualifications. For instance, the above video features commentator Stephen A. Smith on ESPN's "First Take" imploring viewers to "make sure we [sic] don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.” As a sociologist, I can appreciate the importance of contextualizing social phenomena, but understanding the causal chain of events that lead to a given conflict is something different than excusing violence or saying the violence is understandable (i.e., morally acceptable). Rather than using his media platform to simply denounce Rice's behavior as wrong, Smith appears to ask his audience to consider the ways in which Janay Palmer was asking to be hit. In the spirit of truly contextualizing the abuse, Smith would do well to ask viewers to consider how a discourse of blaming the victim (also discussed here) perpetuates a state of affairs where women are the overwhelming victims of physical abuse (Note that Smith later offered an apology for his comments).
Submitted by: Lester Andrist