There are many questions worth asking about domestic violence, something that one in four women and one in seven men will experience in their lifetimes: What can you do to help someone you suspect is in an abusive relationship? Why do organizations like the NFL tacitly protect abusers? Does early learned behavior contribute to intimate partner violence later on? How do race and class play into the way we judge those who experience such violence? What legislation can we enact to protect victims and survivors?
One thing that isn't worth debating -- especially during the Miss America pageant -- is why someone who has been abused decides to stay with her abuser and whether we agree with her decision to do so.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what Miss America judge Kathy Ireland made happen on Sunday night when she asked Miss Florida, "We were all rocked by the video of football star Ray Rice punching his wife Janay. She's standing by him. As a woman, what do you think of her decision?"
Miss Florida's answer, which she was allotted just 20 seconds to deliver, is irrelevant because the question should never have been asked in the first place. Miss Florida was put in a position to either affirm or disagree with Janay Rice's decision to stay with her now-husband, making the conversation -- yet again -- about Janay's actions and motivations, not Ray's.
Viewers quickly called out the misguided nature of the question on Twitter:
Hey #MissAmerica, in a contest that's supposed to empower women through scholarship, let's not ask questions that victim-blame Janay Rice.
— Steph Lanza (@stephanie_lanza) September 15, 2014
— Pippa Biddle (@PhilippaBiddle) September 15, 2014
I call foul on asking a #MissAmerica contestant her opinion of Janay Rice's decisions. That's not her place. That's nobody's place.
— Tijuana L Gray (@TijuanaWorks) September 15, 2014
Questions like Ireland's point to some of the problems with our national discourse about domestic violence. We tend to obsess over victims' actions, despite the evidence that suggests people who leave their abusers increase their chances of being killed by 75 percent. We ask, "Why did she stay?" in lieu of asking the harder, more important question of, "What can we do to prevent so many women (and men) from being faced with that decision in the first place?"
As the winner of the Miss America pageant, Kira Kazantsev (Miss New York), told NPR, when discussing her own experiences with domestic violence: "I want people to stop asking, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ Every woman is an expert in her own case, and there are so many extenuating circumstances that lead to a woman staying with her abuser.”
Let's hope people start asking the right questions -- and taking action.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.