In a candid Rolling Stones interview with journalist Stephen Rodrick, Serena Williams discussed everything from her passion for Green Day to her dislike of workout routines. But, it’s a statement the tennis pro made while getting her nails painted that has social media in a frenzy. As a news-story about the infamous Steubenville rape case flashed on a screen in the salon, Serena questioned the fairness of the convicted boys’ sentencing. (The case involved an intoxicated sixteen year old girl and Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, two boys from a high school football team. The girl was sexually assaulted by the teenage boys, and while she lay unconscious, was carried from place to place in the course of one night, as dozens witnessed, took pictures, and even shared videos. No one intervened on the girl’s behalf.) In the July 4, 2013 issue, Williams states:
“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."
Wait… what? The first thing that struck me about this statement is that it came from a woman who is seen as the very definition of female empowerment and strength. Well, damn! I’m pretty sure Serena just threw every cliché and misconception about rape and sexual consent into that statement. Let’s break it down.
1. “She’s 16, why was she that drunk that she doesn’t remember?”
Why was a sixteen year old drinking at a party? Hmm… Maybe because that’s what most teenagers do when they go to parties. It’s of course, not an ideal or even legal situation but honestly, a very common one. There are people well over the age of twenty-one who get drunk and don’t remember a thing from the night before. That doesn’t give someone the right to violate them. It's also important to note that is impossible to get consent from a drunk person, and most certainly someone who is unconscious.
2. “It could have been much worse. She's lucky.”
Lucky? If you consider being sexually violated, physically abused, and humiliated on a multitude of social media platforms “lucky.”
3. “Obviously, I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position.”
I don’t understand how the victim’s sexual history has to do with what happened to her that night. Anyone can be raped; regardless of their age, their level of intoxication, the length of their skirt, or the number of people they have slept with.
4. “… Unless they slipped her something, then that's different.”
In Serena’s eyes, if Mays and Richmond had slipped the girl a roofie, it would have been a game-changer. Her logic baffles me, but sadly, her words are not uncommon. We need to change the conversation.
The better question is why is do so many of us blame the victim? The first person most people question in cases like Steubenville is the assaulted. What did she do to initiate the attack? What was she wearing? Was she flirting?
All this does is shame the victim, making others less likely to come forward. It also promotes a rape culture. The only people who need to be shamed in this situation are the perpetrators. Instead of wagging fingers at the assaulted, why don’t we teach men not to rape?