As opening gambits for offering an opinion about the rape of an unconscious sixteen-year-old girl by two of her peers go, Serena Williams’s ‘I’m not blaming the victim, but …’ must be a serious contender for all-time worst.
Williams was giving her thoughts on the now-infamous Steubenville case, in which the young woman in question was raped and assaulted by two high-school boys, while others took photos of her during the assault and shared them via various social networks. The rapists were convicted and received the minimum possible sentence for their crimes (one and two years respectively). American media coverage of the trial focused heavily upon the ‘tragedy’ of the boys’ blighted futures.
During an interview conducted in March for a Rolling Stone feature which became available on their website yesterday, Williams questioned whether the rapists’ punishment was ‘fair’, described their crime as ‘[doing] something stupid’, called the victim ‘lucky’, wondered ‘maybe she wasn’t a virgin’ and concluded ‘she shouldn’t have put herself in that position’. That’s a lot of awfulness to fit into 129 words.
Williams has since issued a statement on her official website to declare that she is ‘deeply sorry for what was written’ – not, one notes, what she said, or as Williams would have it, ‘what I supposedly said’. She also referred to the tried and convicted rapists as ‘the accused’. It is of course possible that Williams was misquoted (although the journalist, Stephen Rodrick, claims to have the interview on tape). If she wasn’t, well, maybe Williams shouldn’t have proffered an opinion on such a sensitive and distressing subject. Maybe her parents should have taught her not to watch TV and talk to journalists at the nail salon.
Oh, I’m not blaming you, Serena, but it sounds a lot like I am, doesn’t it?
What is truly sad about what Williams said was that it’s an all-too-familiar refrain. Media reporting of rape almost without exception always focuses on the victim; where she went, how she was dressed, her sexual history, whether she was drinking. As if women do not have the inalienable right to live their lives as they choose without becoming the victims of such horrific violence. As if there is anything that a sixteen-year-old girl could possibly say or do which would justify the actions of those boys and their classmates.
As for Williams’s comment, ‘maybe she wasn’t a virgin’, I don’t even know how to approach that: was Williams suggesting that if the girl had been a virgin, had been ‘pure’, she would not have been raped? If so, then Williams, by reading the girl’s rape back into her past to retrospectively implicate her sexual morality, is engaging in an act of doublethink as old and as disgusting as the classical belief that a woman who failed to commit suicide after having been raped must have consented to the act.
It is, perhaps, especially upsetting to hear this from a woman whose talents and determination have made her an inspiration for so many others and who sees no apparent contradiction between making these statements and insisting that ‘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’. A woman, moreover, who has been the target of this kind of victim-blaming: I remember an occasion on which Williams was criticized for ‘hypocrisy’ after she used a somewhat revealing photo as her profile picture the week after a man was arrested for stalking her. Again, though, it’s as unsurprising as it is sad.
In my opinion, its roots lie in women needing to believe on some level, in order to stay sane, that society has rules and that following those rules will keep them safe; hence the drive to interrogate the behaviour of a victim so that we can tell ourselves that we would not act like that and therefore it won’t happen to us. Acknowledging the truth – that rape can happen to anyone, be perpetrated by anyone, at any time and in any circumstances – is simply too traumatic. We’d never leave our houses (not that we’re safe there either). How are women supposed to live in a world in which they could be raped in the back of an ambulance by two paramedics, as happened in a case I know of? Reassuring ourselves that we’re safe by policing our own behaviour and that of others is a deeply conditioned response.
Let’s make this clear. A man does not stalk and harass a woman and violate her personal space because there are photos of her on the internet in her underwear. High school boys do not rape girls and publicly boast about it because teenage girls get drunk. Those acts happen because they are committed by sick or sadistic individuals who know – and this is important – who know that they are very likely to get away with their crimes because the first questions asked will be about the victim and her behaviour. (I know women can commit rape and men can be the victims of it; I’m using ‘her’ for convenience.) The Steubenville survivor didn’t ‘put herself in that position’, in the back of that car, in that basement; she didn’t strip herself naked, subject herself to violence, or share documentary proof of what had taken place with her peers and the world at large. The rapists did that.
If responsibility can be placed anywhere else, it rests with the rape culture we live in which glamorizes sexual violence, objectifies women, conceptualizes masculinity as fundamentally violent and uncontrollable, punishes those brave survivors who do report their rapes to the authorities and goes to increasing lengths to intimidate women in the name of keeping them safe while neglecting to educate men on what constitutes consent and how not to rape.
What Serena Williams said both reflected and perpetuated that culture. It furthered myths about rape and rape victims and trivialized a criminal act by describing it as doing ‘something stupid’. Those boys did not yield to a momentary impulse when they saw a target of opportunity; they made a series of decisions, they negotiated the logistics of carrying around an unconscious girl, stripping her naked and subjecting her to an assault that lasted for hours. The vast majority of teenage boys, finding themselves in a room with an unconscious girl, would not behave like this.
Getting so drunk you pass out can be ‘stupid’; raping someone and then receiving a mere one or two years in juvenile detention is ‘lucky’. Not the other way around.
I respect Serena Williams enough, as an intelligent, adult woman, to believe that she’s more than capable of making up her own mind and resisting the impulse to passively reflect the prevailing culture. That many other people share her opinions, whether they are willing to admit it or not, does not make those opinions any less reprehensible. She’s entitled to her thoughts, and entitled to express them. I’m entitled to be profoundly disappointed.