In an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone, tennis star Serena Williams sounds off on the Steubenville, Ohio rape case:
Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. 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.
Let’s tread carefully here, shall we? I don’t want to pop off on Serena without pausing a beat to really process this. Perhaps some guidance from one of my feminist heroes will help:
Just, before the stupid starts, Serena Williams can be a strong Black woman & an athletic pioneer AND wrong on #Steubenville comments.
— ShelbyKnox (@ShelbyKnox) June 19, 2013
I’m just envisioning the white feminist piece condemning @serenawilliams for not living up to #fem2 ideals. NO. We MUST critique w/ nuance.
— ShelbyKnox (@ShelbyKnox) June 19, 2013
Okay. Important reminder to check my white privilege and white feminist privilege. Duly noted. Thank you, once again, Shelby Knox for your wisdom.
Now, let’s try to get through this.
Let me start by saying that I admire both Williams sisters and respect their achievements. In truth, I can’t stand tennis, but I have watched more than one match featuring a Williams sister. Far more important than that, however, is the impact they have had on sports and on shaping kids — of all genders — as to what and who you can be in this world. There is no doubt in my mind that countless children of color have looked at Serena and Venus and thought, “They look like me. Maybe I can do that, too.” And that will mean more in the history books and in the collective consciousness of our society than any match, any record, any status that either Williams’ sisters achieve.
Now let’s move on to this quote.
There’s no way around the fact that it reeks of rape culture. The central tenet of rape culture is, of course, that rape is inevitable and the only way to avoid being raped is to be a “good” girl. Serena actually touches on these with her comments about being too drunk (bad behavior), possibly not being a virgin (aka slut), and that the victim “shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.” These are classic denials of rape culture (as well as constant threats of rape culture). The victim should have known better. The victim should not have been drinking. The victim should not have been wearing those clothes. The victim should have known that teenage boys just can’t help themselves.
This is not new. We’ve heard this all before.
I won’t deny that I’m disappointed in Serena Williams’ complicit approval of rape culture standards. But we are where we are, right? So this is a teachable moment for Serena, and by proxy, our entire society:
- Being female does not make rape inevitable.
- No matter what the victim was doing, it is not the victim’s fault: Even if s/he was drunk, dressed “slutty,” a virgin, not a virgin, dancing, a wallflower, being bitchy, flirting, making eye contact, smiling, skinny dipping, lesbian, playing the tuba, filing a brief, walking down the street, has a vagina …
- Boys/Men are not biologically driven to rape. Or to put it another way: Rape is not the default setting for male.
- Even “good” people rape. [Editor’s note: By “good” (note quotes) I mean when people say, “So-and-So couldn’t rape someone because he’s a good boy.” People rape-splain it away by saying someone is a “good” person. But the truth is you can’t tell if someone is a rapist even if they seem like a “good” person.]
- Even “good” people get raped. [Again, being a “good” person or a “bad” person has no bearing on whether or not someone is raped. People get raped, regardless of value judgements about who they are, what they do, or how they live their life.]
So now that we have that sorted out, let’s move on to the next problem here. Serena’s comments are predicated on shaming (whether intentionally or not) the victim, rather than focusing on the problem: That our culture punishes those who are raped and offers rape-splaining for those who do the raping.
So the lesson here — and the one that the Steubenville case keeps giving us examples of — is that no matter how good a role model you are, no matter how many barriers you crack, no matter how good a feminist icon you are in many ways, you can be wrong on rape culture. Very wrong.
And this just goes to show how deeply ingrained rape culture is. The automatic threat to someone trying to dismantle rape culture is a to threaten that they will get raped. The automatic position of someone confronted by the reality of rape culture is that they deny it. This is not that dissimilar to the tactics of racists who increase their racist vitriol when confronted by the fact that they are racist. Or by misogynists who decry the reality of things like the so-called War on Women by then doing something really anti-woman.
To be clear: I am not saying that Serena Williams is pro rape. I am not saying that she is threatening rape. But she most definitely is rape-splaining away the horror of what happened in Steubenville as just another “boys will be boys” episode. Serena is indoctrinated in rape culture, like we all are. Just like Louis C. K. was. And like Louis, I hope that Serena can take the backlash about her comments as a teachable moment. Learn from this. Grow. And in the future, do better.
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