Your Gold Digger Domestic Violence Narrative Is Bullshit
Just because a victim doesn't want to testify doesn't mean there was no crime. This is a simple idea that media and society can't seem to grasp.
Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
Last July, Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy was found guilty of throwing his girlfriend, Nicole Holder, into a bathtub, pulling her by her hair, choking her, and throwing her onto a couch covered with assault rifles.
"He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me," Holder testified. "I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said just, `Do it. Kill me.'" According to Holder's testimony, Hardy had previously threatened her that "if I took food out of his family's mouth he was going to kill me." When informing Hardy of the ruling, Judge Rebecca Thorn Tin said, "the court is entirely convinced Hardy is guilty of assault on a female and communicating threats."
Hardy's legal team appealed the conviction, and Holder stopped cooperating with the prosecution. Tali Rosenblum, the assistant district attorney general in Davidson County, Tennessee, explained that prosecutors can try cases without the victim's testimony using other evidence, such as pictures or videos from the crime scene, witnesses, defendant's statements, and prior victim's statements that are exceptions to hearsay laws. But if this evidence doesn't exist or is insufficient, then prosecutors have to either compel the victim to testify or drop the case. In Hardy's case, the prosecution determined they needed Holder's testimony to win the appeal, so the conviction was overturned.
Public focus quickly shifted to the reported settlement between Hardy and Holder. Nobody is talking about Hardy threatening to kill his girlfriend if she "takes food out of his family's mouth." Instead, they're talking about her Facebook page.
Some members of the sports media world were predictably quick to jump on this. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote, "Hardy didn't comment upon leaving court today, but if he needs to see where part of the $13.1 million the Panthers gave him last year ended up, all he needs is to log onto a computer." ESPN reporter Adam Schefter tweeted his version of a joke:
(For what it's worth, Holder was not an "alleged" victim. Hardy was found guilty.)
The implication is clear: Holder was after money and once she got it, she skipped town. Naturally, this tidy, theatrical narrative ignores the vast majority of domestic violence cases where a victim has to weigh a host of complexities in an attempt to return to normal life.
It's impossible to know what Holder's motivations were, but hesitance to cooperate with the prosecution in domestic violence cases is not at all uncommon. "I remember victims call the day of [the trial] and they're terrified," Brian Pinero, chief programs officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told me. "They're terrified because they've got to be in this courtroom with this person who's hurt them."
Maya Raghu, senior attorney for Futures Without Violence, told me that the most common reason victims stop cooperating—or never do in the first place—is fear. "They're afraid for their safety or safety of friends and family members."
This fear, of course, is why many victims don't report domestic violence in the first place. The threat can be explicit—as in Greg Hardy's case—or implicit, that their life will be worse without the perpetrator. Sometimes, victims are worried about how they will survive financially or provide for their children. "A lot of it can be monetary or financial in that if their abuser goes to jail, maybe they'll lose child support. Maybe they'll lose a financial piece and they can't afford to do that. Maybe that person will lose their job and that woman will lose her insurance if she's on that person's insurance," Tracy DeTomasi, vice president of Domestic Violence Services at YWCA Nashville told me over the phone. "There may be a lot of other consequences for her or her children or her family."
According to Pinero, DeTomasi, and Raghu, love still plays a big part in the victim's decision-making. "There's still love in that relationship even when it's abusive," DeTomasi said. "So they don't want to do something where they would hurt someone that they love by convicting them of a crime."
Most reporting on domestic violence cases—particularly in the sports world—fails to confront these human emotions. The cases are painted as black and white: either the perpetrator is a bad man or the victim is lying. Naturally, these broad strokes miss most of the story and lead to a lot of victim-blaming, as Florio and others exhibited. But a victim changing his or her mind about whether they want their abuser to go to jail doesn't mean the abuse isn't real.
According to Pinero, the Domestic Violence Hotline gets 23,000 calls a month, yet so many media members are quick to latch onto victim-blaming narratives that are so rare in the first place. "I truly believe that people are victim-blaming when they're saying this or even assuming there has to be a financial angle that they're operating from. That's the worst kind of victim-blaming."
Worse, this kind of public shaming affects the decisions of other victims who may be considering whether to report domestic violence. "People are always judging their actions and their motivations and [victims] absolutely know it," Raghu told me. "They weigh what all the options are and have to make the best decision for themselves and their safety."
It doesn't take long to see the perpetuating cycle at play, particularly in high profile cases. A victim reports a crime, experiences backlash from the perpetrator and the public, second-guesses her decision to report the crime in the first place, decides she doesn't want to go through the grueling, intrusive process anymore, and then is accused of making the whole thing up. Other victims see this treatment and are hesitant to report domestic violence in the first place. Or, as Raghu summarized, "victims can't win either way."
Still, Pinero sees some reason for optimism, particularly in the last year as a result of widespread coverage of the Ray Rice abuse case. He thinks the awareness is high enough that nobody can claim ignorance anymore, and the cases don't fade in time like they used to. Cases like Hardy's, which used to rarely make ESPN's front page, are now routinely covered. "I think people are going to have to deal with this."