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The Roar of the Crowd: Ending the Silence on Domestic Violence

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Gillette Stadium, home of the 2015 New England Patriots Super Bowl champions, holds about the same number of seats (68,756) as domestic violence survivors (66,174) who came out to tell their story of abuse in September 2014.

Today, 9/8/15, marks the one-year anniversary of the infamous “Ray Rice elevator video” released by TMZ. In the video, pro football star Ray Rice was seen with his then-fiancée, knocking her unconscious with a single, hard blow to her face. As horribly upsetting as that video was, it had an unintended, yet fortunate consequence: it got everyone talking candidly about the prevalence of intimate partner violence and abuse in our culture.

The NFL, caught flat-footed, found itself without a playbook strategy to handle the heat after a series of missteps in responding to the backlash. Yet, what happened in those days last September, transcended a sports story, or the nightmare unfolding between a young couple suddenly thrust into the limelight.

Survivors of domestic violence came forward. In droves.

Thousands who’d endured abusive relationships broke out of the closet of shame and stigma and piled on to a viral phenomenon that took off on Twitter and spilled into the mainstream media. Beverly Gooden, a domestic abuse survivor and author, found herself defending Ray Rice’s then fiancée, answering the question: Why didn’t she just leave? Thus, #WhyIStayed #WhyILeft became the clarion call for survivors everywhere to come forward and femmesplain* the complexity of the abusive relationship.

visualization
A visualization of the Twitter conversation with the hashtags #WhyIStayed #WhyILeft**

At this time last year, Big Mountain Data (BMD), was just ramping up on how to address domestic violence with data-driven solutions. The scale of the viral Twitter movement was mind-boggling. The tweets were heart-breaking.

BMD researchers immediately seized upon the opportunity to mine the data and interpret this unique form of primary research unfolding in real-time. As the founder of Big Mountain Data, I was disappointed when we could not find a single sponsor to underwrite this work last year. With the $4 billion spent per year on domestic violence programs, not one sponsor we pitched was willing to get behind this in-depth analysis of what these women actually had to say.

So, we did it anyway, with the help of our friends, because it was that important. Something with historic significance had happened, and we didn’t want to see it just slide off the news cycle or scroll off the timeline to be forgotten like the bad memories of all those survivors who bravely came forward. You can see the results of the project here.

What became interesting about this project is not only the horrific scale of the voices who came forward that day, but the shared frustration amonginfographic_art survivors that it seemed no one really cared enough to solve the problem. And, that women like me haven’t seen significant change in society’s tacit acceptance of domestic violence in the past 30 years of the battered women’s movement.

It’s for this reason, we see the #WhyIStayed #WhyILeft viral campaign as a sea change in the societal conversation around this heinous social epidemic. In these last 12 months, we’ve seen more and more survivors finding each other, connecting to share their outrage and frustration. We’ve heard powerful voices speak out with first-person authority on the issue:

“The hypocrisy of it all is appalling. This is bigger than me, and bigger than hip-hop. This is about respect and awareness. As a result of speaking on my personal experience with violence, I have been vilified. Women survivors of violence are expected neither to be seen nor heard, and the pressure increases when it involves celebrities… In the past, great art was enough to exalt men of their bad behavior, but in 2015 it’s no longer the case. Survivors have a right and an obligation to speak up. We are too loud, too correct, too numerous to be ignored.” — Dee Barnes writing in Gawker.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

But, what’s even more powerful is the scale of the women without any celebrity who are demanding answers, demanding to be heard. The number of survivors who came forward authentically, in their own unique voices, would fill the stadium seats of most NFL teams. And we captured just one snapshot in time. Let’s not forget, too, that only 23% of the adult populationis on Twitter. Next time you see a TV camera panning the jam-packed stands on Any Given Sunday, imagine the faces of thousands of domestic violence survivors in those seats.

Other stories we’ve been tracking include this recent case of a young woman who refused to be silent after being assaulted by her boyfriend, another grassroots movement on Facebook of women coming together to empower more women to come forward out of the shadows, — and one of my favorites — a woman who came forward on video to tell her story. She has a hashtag too: #survivorswillbeheard. In her book, she names her abuser. His name is Mike. What is the probability that Mike is abusing someone else right now? This is where we intend to focus.

Lindsay Fischer, survivor

“Transparency is the antidote to a social epidemic that thrives on secrecy.” — Susan Scrupski

These thousands of women and men who came out to talk openly about domestic violence unleashed a genie who won’t be ordered back into a bottle. In the 12 months I’ve been working in this area, nearly 100 percent of the women I speak to from my traditional technology field have either been victims of abuse, or know someone personally who was affected. Shocks me every time. It plays a role in why so many in my field are interested in helping us tackle this difficult issue and have been helping us pro bono (thank you).

We did this project as a public service. Our organization is not designed to service victims directly. There are thousands of organizations in the country set up to do that. Some are better than others, some are better funded than others. It’s been difficult for us to ferret out the complexities of this field, yet one truth remains constant: it’s not the victim who is the problem. It’s the offender. As even fellow Austinite Katie Ray-Jones of the National Domestic Violence Hotline said in her September 9 headline in the New York Post, “There is only one person to blame in the Ray Rice situation: the abuser.

We’re encouraged that a gigantic, new network of women and men is fed up with the state of domestic violence in America. We hope that includes you. The tide is turning on our culture of tolerance for family violence in all its forms.

It’s at the root of so much that is wrong with today’s society, and that needs to change.

So let’s fix it. The first step is proper identification of the problem.

*Predominantly women came forward, but every intimate partner relationship type is represented in the data.

** Special thanks to Stephane Suisse for the dataviz.

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