The actress and activist on how video and social media are changing the way we treat women struggling with abusive relationships
When I first heard of the two-game suspension for former Ravens running back Ray Rice because of the assault on his then fiancée, I thought, Great, here we go again. No one cares, he can do anything. And then when I saw the second video of him actually punching Janay Rice unconscious, I thought, this is what happened to me. The only difference was that when I came to, a doorman was carrying me over his shoulder, out of my fiancé’s apartment, and into a car. I remember what my ex-husband told me later, which was that I bounced off two walls and I then was out. At the time, I was engaged to him and living with my mother, but I didn’t go home because I would have had to explain to her what happened. Instead I called a friend and went to her hotel room, but even then, I didn’t say, “He hit me.” I said, “He pushed me.” It’s even hard to admit it yourself. I was embarrassed.
People ask why I didn’t leave after the first time he hit me. But you feel such inner turmoil and confusion. You want it to be only one time. And for three days after that incident I did the right thing. I said: “Don’t call me. I never want to see you again.” But then you start taking his phone calls. Then he asks to see you in person, and you say yes to that. Then you have a big giant man crying like a baby on your lap and next thing you know, you’re consoling him. You’re the protector. One minute you’re running from him, the next you’re protecting him. And being a black woman you feel you want to protect your man. You think, the black man in America has it so difficult anyway, so now you’re turning them in. It feels like the ultimate betrayal. And maybe Janay Rice is feeling a little of that, though I don’t want to speak for her.
The release of this new video is a watershed moment. It’s very difficult for people to wrap their minds around the concept of a man actually balling up his fist and hitting a woman. They don’t mean to dismiss it, it’s just too hard to take in. But the video forces you to take it in. There’s no escaping. You can’t dance around it, you have to deal with it. That’s why video really becomes crucial for this cause, the fight against domestic violence. No matter what people are told, it’s hard for anyone to believe that a man could do this kind of thing unless they actually see it. People say: “That guy is so nice when he’s with me. What did you do? What did you say to him? He’s cool. I play golf with him. I can’t imagine him doing this.” Women are simply not believed.
But if there’s video, you can’t unsee it. It is so deep to actually see what happens to women. And we will see it now because there are cameras everywhere. I remember being dragged down a hallway in a hotel in the Bahamas on a night I thought I was really going to die. Today there would have been cameras in that hall. Someone would know. I would be believed. Now the story gets to tell itself.
Today we are in world where we are far more connected and involved in each other’s lives thanks to social media. Women who are abused can see they’re not alone. I only left my marriage when I felt like I was going to die physically or die emotionally. It’s just amazing what becomes your normal. One day you wake up with a knife at your throat. Another day, your shoes are all torn up. But I did leave and I didn’t take one dime from my husband. I left my house, and I even left my underwear. I just wanted my life. I was very confident that I could make my way on my own. And I did.
Twenty years later, it is different. We have made progress in this journey of empowerment for women. But we need men to be part of it. We need them to say there can never be hitting. Ever. I’ve always believed that when men stand up things will change, and now a football team is saying this behavior, this violence is wrong. We’re still in the middle of this fight, but this moment, this video, will change things. We just have to keep at it.
Givens is an actor, director, activist and author. She divorced boxer Mike Tyson in 1988. She has worked on behalf of women, children and families facing the challenges of domestic violence for more than 20 years. You can read more about her here. Follow her on Twitter @Therocknrobn.