The disturbing video of former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocking out then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino elevator in February, which surfaced last week, has sparked much soul-searching about domestic violence. But no aspect of this story has been more controversial than the role of Janay, who married Rice after the attack and has stood by him. Can she be faulted for her stance, or should she be seen as one of many victims who find it excruciatingly difficult to get out of an abusive relationship? And, most explosive: Does she bear some responsibility for her own violence and is she getting excused because of her gender?
These questions are relevant not only to this case but also to a broader understanding of domestic violence. And they have no simple answers.
While it is true that battered women often stay with their abusers because they are fearful and psychologically trapped, not all violent relationships are alike. No one knows the details of the Rices' marriage; to deny Janay Rice all agency and choice based on one (incredibly ugly) incident is hasty and even insulting.
Meanwhile, there are those -- including women -- who claim Janay Rice bears equal blame for the incident. National Review columnist A.J. Delgado sparked an outcry when she told a radio show Ray Rice may be the "bigger victim of domestic violence," since he only punched Janay after she repeatedly attacked him.
In response, feminist pundits such as Slate.com's Amanda Marcotte argued that the elevator video shows how wrong it is to equate male and female violence in relationships: Janay Palmer may have slapped her fiance, but he was never in any danger when he knocked her out with a single punch. Marcotte cites a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study which shows that, while men and women report experiencing partner violence at similar rates, women are about four times more likely to report being injured and more than three times more likely to report feeling fearful.
While I believe women's role as aggressors in domestic violence has not received enough attention, Ray Rice is not a great poster child for male victimhood. Janay Palmer may have initiated the violence, but his response was vastly disproportionate (and the video does not support the claim that she was the sole attacker before the punch). His apparent unconcern after he knocked her out makes him even less sympathetic. However, it should not be taboo to say that Janay Palmer's actions -- which look like lashing out in anger, not self-defense -- were a contributing factor.
Besides, not all men are football players, and even some women considerably smaller than their male partners can gain the upper hand by using weapons and the element of surprise. Men can also be put at risk by the prohibition on using force toward women, even in self-defense.
The CDC study may underrate the harm men suffer from domestic violence (possibly because men are more embarrassed to report injuries and fear, even in an anonymous survey); other studies have found that as many as a third of the injuries are to men. And while Marcotte says it's overwhelmingly violent men who control and dominate women, the CDC study actually found that both sexes experienced "coercive control" by their partners at similar rates.
We should all welcome more awareness of domestic violence. But true awareness requires a fair look at the facts, beyond the shibboleths of either traditional chivalry or gender-war feminism.