When aspiring model Mori Montgomery posted photos of the horrific injuries she allegedly sustained at the hands of her boyfriend, she shocked cyberspace. But she may have done more than that. Her courage may play a role in ending the stigma that often silences survivors of domestic violence.
Besides actual violence, the silence that accompanies domestic violence often can be just as destabilizing and damaging to families and communities. In a landmark 2006 article Essence magazine highlighted the startling rate of family violence in Prince George’s County, Md., an affluent enclave with a sizable black population. The fact that so much pain was occurring within a community that looked so perfect on the outside jolted many, and resulted in one of the first candid public discussions of the way silence and shame perpetuate violence in communities of color. Subsequent articles in the wake of the Essence article in outlets like the Washington Post highlighted community-wide campaigns to better address the issue. But silence and the stigma that accompanies victims who speak out have remained obstacles in efforts to end domestic violence.
Yet social media is increasingly giving victims a voice. In January social media was credited with saving the life of a woman allegedly beaten by her husband. After the assault, he ripped out the phone line. The victim then photographed her injuries and posted the photo on Facebook with the message, “Help please anyone,” leading her friends to call the police and to her husband’s arrest.
According to Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, more abuse survivors are using social media to document and expose their abusers. Victims “are posting videos on YouTube, Instagram [and] Facebook attempting to capture the abuse and call out the partner’s behavior,” she told The Root. But while this may seem empowering to some victims and their supporters, Ray-Jones advises caution. Her primary concern is that such exposure can provoke the rage of an already dangerous person, and potentially put the victim at greater risk. She advises victims to seek assistance and alternative strategies for documenting and reporting abuse from advocates at the anti-domestic violence website loveisrespect.org.
But one could argue that silence is just as dangerous. When singer Rihanna was assaulted by her then-boyfriend, fellow singer Chris Brown, the Internet was filled with accusations that she provoked him. Many of those doing the accusing were women. It’s possible that if more of the women criticizing Rihanna had a friend or family member who had previously shared her story of surviving violence, like Mori Montgomery has, some of those women would not have judged Rihanna so harshly. Perhaps seeing a sister, cousin or classmate’s story on social media would have made the issue more real and would inspire victims to talk about their experiences and about solutions for prevention, with each other and with their sisters, cousins, daughters and sons.
So while social media may not be the best tool for fighting domestic violence, it is certainly an important one nonetheless—not just for documenting violence, but putting an end to the silence around it.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.