Is Serena Williams a Rape Apologist, or Were Her Comments About the Steubenville Rape Victim Just an Extremely Bad Choice of Words?

Serena Williams, tennis extraordinaire and french-speaking francophile, put her foot in her mouth when she made some unfortunate comments to a reporter when questioned about her position on the Steubenville rape case.

Ms. Williams comments on the Steubenville rape and subsequent trial come from an interview she gave several months ago for a profile in Rolling Stone:

We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV—two high school football players raped a 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. “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.”

After the inevitable uproar–why the heck did Serena refer to the victim’s virginity status????–Ms. Williams issued an apology:

“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,” Williams wrote. “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.”

Personally, I think that Ms. Williams was simply speaking off-the-cuff when she replied to the reporter and that, failing to choosing her words carefully, she did not communicate her ideas in a thoughtful manner. Well, we all speak off-the-cuff occasionally and end up being misunderstood. Speaking without a teleprompter and not carefully measuring your words in advance does not make someone a rape apologist, as some are calling Serena in the aftermath of having her remark widely reported.

Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to win best director at the Sundance Film Festival and the film maker responsible for the recently released documentary of Serena, ‘Serena VS,’ has previously spoken about Serena’s open support of women’s rights. DuVernay has been quoted as saying that one of the reasons she wanted to make a documentary of Serena was to “unpeel this layer of her [Serena’s] activism and feminism that most folks didn’t know about.” It would be a shame if the comments Serena made months ago in an interview were to distract people from delving into the tennis player’s feminist roots via DuVernay’s documentary.

I haven’t seen the DuVernay documentary but, looking at Serena’s record, I do believe that it is safe to say that Ms. Williams has in fact done her share to shine a spotlight on the need to advance women’s rights, black women’s rights in particular.

Having said all that, must also say that there is a nugget of truth in what Serena said, although she undoubtedly said it all wrong. That nugget is about the need for women to be smart and, specifically, to do what is in their power to protect themselves from harm by avoiding getting drunk to the point of becoming unconscious.

How many times do we have to read about a girl/woman getting sloppy drunk and then being raped or otherwise assaulted before it becomes common knowledge and widely accepted that drinking to the point of oblivion is not a good idea–not for girls, not for women, not for men, not for anyone?

When I was a teenager and I wanted to go out later than my parents thought was sensible or hang out with people that my parents thought were a little too old for me, my parents refused my request to go out or to hang with the people I wanted to socialize with. I asked my parents why they did this to me–didn’t they trust my judgement? Did they think I knew how to pick my friends? My father told me, “It’s not you that I don’t trust, it’s those other people that I have a hard time trusting.” In other words, boundaries are not just about keeping the good things in, boundaries are about keeping the bad things (and bad people) out.

So when a Serena Williams implies that drinking to the point of becoming unconscious is a stupid decision, she isn’t blaming the victim as much as she is saying that it is wise to do what you can to keep yourself out of bad situations.

The Steubenville rape victim was so only 16-years-old and so drunk she become unconscious.

Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott was allegedly sexually assaulted while passed out drunk at a house party. Ms. Pott’s later committed suicide.

Fifteen-year-old Retaeh Parson’s was also allegedly gang-raped while drunk at a party. Parson’s also later committed suicide

Approximately 70 percent of rapes involve drug or alcohol use. How many young girls have to be raped while drunk before we admit that the rape culture problem, at least in part, stems from an underage drinking problem and a binge drinking problem?

Rapist don’t care that you are a feminist. Rapists don’t give a sh*t about rape culture. RAPISTS ARE JUST LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO RAPE. And it would behoove the smart girl/woman to do what she can to protect herself from rapists until the day comes where there is no longer as such thing as rape culture and there are no more rapists. The world had not reached the end of rape culture–yet–and until the world does, a woman should avoid easily avoidable dangerous situations–situations such as getting drunk to the point where you have no idea what is going on.

I think that telling women to ‘use good judgement’ and to ‘drink responsibly (if you are legally allowed to drink; otherwise, don’t drink AT ALL)” can coexist with the knowledge that even if a woman does drink irresponsibly she is not responsible for the criminal actions that other people commit against her.
Jamila Akil is a Senior Editor at Beyond Black and White. Follow her on Twitter @jamilaakil

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