Ronda Rousey admitted to beating up her ex, so should we be outraged?

Eric Adelson
Columnist
Ronda Rousey, left, will face Holly Holm on Saturday in Australia. (Getty Images)

It's a troubling scene: an intimate partner is slapped across the face, punched twice, kneed in the head, and thrown onto the floor. This is the kind of behavior we are all looking to amend, in a new era of domestic violence awareness.

And yet rather few people reacted to this particular situation, even though it was described in the autobiography of one of the biggest stars in sports.

Ronda Rousey wrote in "My Fight, Your Fight" that she slapped her boyfriend across the face "so hard my hand hurt," "punched him in the face with a straight right, then a left hook," and then "grabbed him by the neck of his hoodie, kneed him in the face" and threw him onto the kitchen floor.

Is this a case of domestic violence? That's hard to say without context. The Justice Department's definition of domestic violence is "a pattern of abusive behavior that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner."

We simply don't know if there's a "pattern" here, since we hear little from Rousey about this relationship. Rousey, in Australia for her Saturday fight against Holly Holm, could not be reached for comment.

The boyfriend, "Snappers McCreepy" as Rousey calls him, was purportedly found to have taken nude photos of her. She grew incensed, as almost anyone would, and reacted with force.

"I'm not comfortable with her behavior," said Kim Pentico of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "What I am absolutely not willing to say is she's committed domestic violence without speaking with him and learning more about that relationship."

There is no established pattern, so by the Justice Department definition there is not proof of domestic violence. But that raises other questions about how our society approaches domestic violence. There was no known pattern in the Ray Rice incident, either. There too, we only know of one incident, in an elevator. We do not know what brought it about. Both Rice and his wife deny any prior abuse. So you have one professional athlete who struck his then fiancée and has become a living symbol of domestic violence, and you have another professional athlete who struck her boyfriend (by her own admission) and has gotten hardly any criticism for it.

In fact, Rousey has become a bit of a heroine on the subject, as she was lauded for calling out noted domestic abuser Floyd Mayweather. After she won an award for "Best Fighter" from ESPN, Rousey said, "I wonder how Floyd feels being beat by a woman for once." It was a brave and impactful statement levied against a man who has gone to jail for domestic violence. But then a passage in Rousey's own book got no real scrutiny.

UFC Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Have we been too tough on Rice? Too easy on Rousey?

"I fully accept my bias," Pentico said. "A well-trained, well-toned, football player cold-cocked his fiancée and dragged her out of an elevator without any emotion. It was an assault. It was a violent, blood-curdling assault. If that was my daughter, I would lose my mind.

"I own that there's a double standard here," Pentico continued. "Until the tables turn in our society, it is going to be that way."

Pentico explained, "a woman's fear of a man is different from a man's fear of a woman." And that is true in almost all cases. Men don't fear being sexually assaulted, or attacked as they walk down the street at night, or drugged in a bar. Physical violence and sexual violence are closely linked for women, and not nearly as much for men.

In the situation described in Rousey's book, it's the photos that made her so incensed. So even in this case, there's a sexual power that the man wields over the woman – or at least the fear of that kind of power. No, there is no strict self-defense, but there is a defense of her reputation, even though we never learn why the photos were taken. Rousey is standing up for herself, arguably.

Still, society's attention to domestic violence against women might be undermining a needed attention to domestic violence against men. According to a 2010 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 5 million men had been domestically abused in the prior year. And the same study found 40 percent of cases of severe domestic violence were perpetrated on men. "About 1 in 4 women (24.3 percent) and 1 in 7 men (13.8 percent) have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner," the study found. So the idea that domestic violence against men isn't a major issue is simply untrue. It's a problem too, just one that isn't treated as such.

Ronda Rousey shows off some moves ahead of her fight with Holly Holm. (Getty Images)

"Our society says women have it worse, and that we don't have to worry about men, and that's a huge problem," explained Stephanie Dailey, an assistant professor of counseling at Argosy University in Washington D.C. "There's the idea that men can take care of themselves. That hurts men. It causes men not to report things, and to be confused about whether something is assault or a normal part of the relationship."

"I think there's a stigma that women can't beat up men because in general men are physically bigger," says San Francisco domestic violence attorney Nicole Ford, "and that completely disregards power and control notions. I've heard multiple times [in cases], 'Who will ever believe I hit you? No one, because I'm a woman.' "

If an NFL player acted this way after finding nude pictures, or if a male fighter reacted this way against Rousey, there would be a warranted national outcry. Of course many male athletes are much larger than Rousey, but it's not appropriate to determine the threshold of domestic violence based on a tale of the tape. After all, Rousey's punch could do more damage than that of most men.

So why is Hope Solo's arrest a national story, as was Brittney Griner's fight with Glory Johnson, but not Rousey's reaction to finding those photos?

Perhaps part of it is Rousey's reputation as a fighter. That is what she does for a living, and what she's lauded for. Her fans, both men and women, love her edge and her anger. It was even a storyline in the movie "Entourage," where Rousey made the character Turtle fight her in a ring to earn a date. That was considered cool, even by Turtle, who tore his labrum in the staged scrap. Society mostly applauds a woman who can hand out street justice. The question is where street justice ends and assault begins.

"Any use of violence that's not done in the context of self-defense is not OK," Pentico said, "and people should be held accountable, period."

Ronda Rousey has advanced the definition of toughness, in a good way. But the definition of domestic violence is still evolving, too. And one person's standard of toughness is another person's double standard of domestic violence.

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