Serena Williams is opening her reclusive life to the media again. This time she’s addressing controversial topics in Rolling Stone, including the Steubenville rape case. The tennis phenom claims she’s not blaming the victim – who was assaulted by members of the Steubenville High School football team while incapacitated – but fell into the classic trap of questioning the victim’s actions instead of upbraiding the perpetrators.
The Steubenville case is mentioned on broadcast news while Williams’ is lounging in a pedicure chair. The No. 1 ranked tennis pro first questioned the convictions of Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays before wondering if the victim could’ve prevented her assault.
“Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know,” Williams said. “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”
No Serena, it isn’t different. Rapists rape because they’re rapists. The virtue of the victim will not keep a rapist from raping. Trading mini-skirts for sweatpants will not keep a rapist from raping. Placing the onus of rape on survivors reinforces the thought that victims can prevent their assaults.
Williams has apologized for her comments in Rolling Stone. A retraction statement was published to her blog:
“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.
I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”
Williams’ gift and curse is her visible platform. Critics and women’s rights advocates will bombard her with criticism for empathizing with the perpetrators, but her words echo the mindset of thousands of other women commenting on Steubenville and similar rape cases. Rape culture permeates social institutions from education to politics and law, so it’s unsurprising that Williams is ensnared in it. This is a teachable moment that can prevent future victim-blaming.
Avoid the automatic impulse to fault the woman by following these simple steps:
Hold rapists responsible for raping. Don’t make excuses for their behaviors and don’t condone the gray area of consent.
Don’t tell women to avoid rape or offer safety tips. Excessive drinking and short-skirts is not permission to rape.
Don’t ever imply that a victim is at fault for her own rape. Yes, common sense should tell a woman not to drink until she’s incapacitated. But even if a woman is drunk, a rapist doesn’t have permission to be intimate with her.
When all else fails, pass this popular poster on to the male friends, relatives and coworkers. Teach rapists not to rape. It’s that simple.