Why do we still insist women share responsibility for “provoking” their abuse?

There’s a particular kind of irony when Whoopi Goldberg, who 29 years ago starred in a film that featured intergenerational domestic violence, makes comments in support of ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith regarding the very lenient two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens Running Back Ray Rice for knocking his then fiancee unconscious and dragging her into an elevator.

On Monday, Goldberg offered her two cents: “If you make the choice as a woman who’s 4 foot 3 and you decide to hit a guy who’s 6 feet tall and you’re the last thing he wants to deal with that day and he hits you back, you cannot be surprised!” Then added, “I know I’m going to catch a lot of hell, and I don’t care. But you have to teach women, do not live with this idea that men have this chivalry thing still with them, don’t assume that that is still in place.”


After receiving widespread criticism from Twitter and beyond, Smith has since apologized for his comments, and ESPN also suspended him for one week. Roxane Gay observed in a Tumblr post the following:

“Smith’s bullshit was galling on so many levels but for women, this is not a new message. Our job, throughout our lives is to not provoke men into beating us, raping us, cat calling us, whatever. Men, so many people would have us believe, simply cannot control themselves so it is our job, as women, to not only live our own lives but make sure men don’t hurt us. [...] Some pundits have said that Rice’s wife, then fiancée, struck him and he was simply defending himself. He has the right to defend himself but I am unclear as to when self-defense becomes knocking a woman unconscious. I am particularly unclear about how a professionally trained NFL football player who outsizes his partner significantly, cannot make a different choice.”

I keep looping on the word “choice”. I fail to understand how an NFL player would make the choice to strike the woman he loves. I fail to understand how Smith and Goldberg would argue that women provoke violence committed against them. The violence committed against women is a choice by the perpetrator of that violence. You don’t have to hit your partner. You don’t ever have to lay your hands on anyone. There is always a choice.

Smith’s original comments and now Goldberg’s reflect a common view–similar to one I heard many times when Chris Brown viciously assaulted Rihanna in 2009: What did she do to provoke him? For the past 3 years, I have used Anna Holmes’ 2011 NYT essay “The Disposable Woman” to teach how to structure argument essays to college freshmen. When students (men and an alarming number of women) read Holmes’ essay, they are often shocked at their ignorance about Sheen’s history of domestic violence, yet search for absolution for Brown’s behavior. They say things like “we don’t know what she did to provoke him” or “we weren’t there” or “she must have provoked him because…” I later share the police report that details the nature of Rihanna’s injuries. When they consider the report and Holmes’ essay, they begin to unpack a realization they hadn’t considered before: Couldn’t he have walked away without laying any hands on her? They begin to wonder how Brown could have made a different choice.

“You told Harpo to beat me,” Miss Sophia says to Celie, confronting her in the cornfields in the 1985 film The Color Purple. In the scenes proceeding, Harpo bemoans his strong-willed, independent-thinking wife, seeking the counsel of his violently abusive father and a terrified, submissive Celie. Harpo, reluctant to accept his father’s counsel, looks to Celie, who affirms Mister’s advice. What we learn later is how horribly it all goes down. Celie is played by Whoopi Goldberg, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the role. It’s a bit of a mind-fuck to process Goldberg in 2014, doubling down on Smith’s comments in this way. Goldberg of 2014 echoing Celie of the 1985 film, saying that women provoke their own beating. Goldberg’s Celie was my earliest introduction to resisting a culture that normalizes violence against women. Now Goldberg is telling all of us that’s what we get?

I don’t know why we’re still doing this in 2014. I don’t understand why anyone would continue to latch on to the idea that women share equal blame for their abuse. I don’t know how there are men and women–online and in our communities–who claim we have to teach women to anticipate and behave in ways that won’t warrant assault and who don’t realize they’ve justified the actions of the assailant. I don’t know why we aren’t culturally embracing a different choice.

What I do know is that the NFL’s decision lacks teeth, and shows how little it regards the safety of women. When a player’s six-game suspension for smoking weed is a greater penalty than for assault, the message is clear to me: the consequences for making bad choices are simply different when women are involved.

sm-bio Syreeta McFadden wonders what Miss Sophia would say to Goldberg today.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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