Many eyes have turned to Twitter this afternoon to watch ESPN’s “First Take” panelist Stephen A. Smith try to defend himself after a rather ill-conceived comment on the show this morning. Discussing the case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was suspended this week for a February attack on Janay Palmer, the woman who would become his wife, Smith suggested that women as well as men need to think about how to avoid domestic violence.


Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, right, speaks alongside his wife Janay during an NFL football news conference in May. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

“But what I’ve tried to employ the female members of my family, some of who you all met and talked to and what have you, is that again, and this what, I’ve done this all my life, let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions,” Smith said, “because if I come, or somebody else come, whether it’s law enforcement officials, your brother or the fellas that you know, if we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you.”

Certainly not the most articulate statement, and Smith took to Twitter to try to clarify his sentiments.

“Who on earth is denying” that domestic violence is inexcusable, Smith tweeted. “But what about addressing women on how they can help prevent the obvious wrong being done upon them?” Later, he backtracked a second time, saying ” I do NOT believe a woman provokes the horrible domestic abuses that are sadly such a major problem in our society.”

Whatever Smith really believes, he suggested twice that women might be able to do something to prevent their own victimization. It is easy to pose these sorts of questions, particularly when your own safety does not rely on the answers. But I am curious what sorts of ideas Smith has in mind.

Are women meant to be mind readers, anticipating the needs, irritations and rages of the men in their lives, and compensating accordingly to avoid any hint of conflict? What happens when a woman has a reasonable request or complaint that she knows will be met with a dangerously unreasonable response? What happens when violence comes as a complete surprise?

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the dynamics of domestic violence know that women in abusive relationships often return and try to make those partnerships work after initial attempts to leave. Sometimes, they return out of financial need, or feelings of guilt or shame, or genuine love for their partner. I am not sure what Smith would suggest that they do differently or better in the first place, or when they take the risk of coming back to try to mend a fractured relationship.

Fortunately for Smith, he made these remarks at a moment when the New Yorker has opened its archives, giving him an opportunity to read Rachel Louise Snyder’s 2013 feature on a Massachusetts domestic violence crisis center that is trying to find new ways to protect women. Kelly Dunne, the director of the center, told Snyder that one of the reasons domestic violence continues is because we believe persistent myths about the phenomenon.

“We assume that victims incite abuse, or that if the situation at home was truly threatening they would leave,” Snyder wrote. “Restraining orders, when filed, are thought to keep perpetrators away. And, if a woman fails to show up in court to renew a restraining order, the assumption is that the problem has somehow been resolved. ‘We now know that it means exactly the opposite,’ Dunne told me.”

To try to challenge those ideas, and to help target domestic violence cases that she believes are at risk of turning into homicides, Dunne put together a team that let her mobilize resources across a wide array of organizations. Her goal is to keep women and their families not just safe but financially stable, and to make sure that the various organs of law enforcement communicate with each other effectively in managing cases.

Smith based both his initial question on “First Take” and his Twitter follow-up in his own experience, suggesting that he had intervened in a domestic violence situation in his own life. “As a man who was raised by women, see I know what I’m going to do if somebody touches a female member of my family,” he said. “I know what I’m going to do, I know what my boys are going to do.”

But domestic violence should not be a problem that Smith has to take upon himself to resolve. Instead, anyone who is trying to leave a violent relationship (and anyone who is trying to help someone leave) deserves the full and effective protection of the law and support from all the institutions available should the need arise.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.