In the wake of her ridiculous comments about the Steubenville rape victim, tennis great Serena Williams issued an apology, but it only seemed to make matters worse.
I was upset on the bus this morning, and I couldn’t figure out why. I ran through the mental list of things that might be the root of my anxiety, work stress, friend quarrel, excessive to-do list, but none of the usual culprits were responsible. It wasn’t until I opened my inbox full of frustration that I figured it out. That vaguely nauseated feeling, that twinge at the back of my mind that something was not right in the world, it was Serena Williams.
Yesterday, Rolling Stone published a profile of the semi-reclusive tennis star in which she idly commented on the Steubenville rape case. The case, in which two teenaged boys were convicted of raping a drunk girl and photographing and texting about the assault last August, received national attention. According to the profile, Serena commented on the TV coverage,
“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.”
I read it twice and felt sicker than I’ve felt about rape culture in a while. That’s saying something, because I feel pretty sick about it most days. People say horrifying things about sexual violence all the time, but coming from her, it feels exponentially worse.
Serena has always been my favorite. She’s so unapologetically strong and doesn’t seem to worry that her muscles make her unfeminine. She’s my personal antidote when fitness headlines berate us into believing that being healthy is the same as being skinny, and that bulky muscles are to be avoided. She confronts racism and sexism on a daily basis and responds to it by being incomparably excellent. I have always admired that.
I am giving her too much credit, though, which I now realize with ferocious clarity. I think back on what I’ve read, and while I admire her athleticism and skill, I realize I know nothing about her philosophy or worldview. I always assumed that her on-court play spoke for her, but I didn’t actually know if she believes what I believe about gender and equality. Turns out, she doesn’t.
She issued an apology on her site today. It includes this: “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 my life for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields—anything I could do to support women I have done.” She seems to be suggesting she was misquoted, without actually accusing Rolling Stone outright.
From my perspective, even if the words were poorly transcribed, her message was very, very clear.
Here is what I hear in her commentary:
- Rape is “something stupid.”
- Who is responsible? The girl and her parents for not teaching her to not drink so much.
- She was too drunk to be respected.
- She put her self in the position to be assaulted.
- Virginity is somehow related (though I don’t understand exactly how).
Here is what I don’t hear:
- Rape is a crime. Rape is a bad thing to do. Rape is wrong.
- Being excessively drunk is irresponsible for boys too.
- Men and boys should not rape.
- Nobody deserves to be raped, under any circumstances.
I wonder about the conversations she’s having with her PR folks today. I wonder if any of them, or anyone in her life, is able to say to her, Serena, it’s not just the words that were wrong, or the way that Rolling Stone transcribed them. It’s the thought that’s wrong, girl, it’s your attitude that’s the problem. If I were in that room, here is the apology I would have written:
To young girls everywhere, and boys, and old folks, too, I’m sorry. To 25-year-olds who envy my biceps and my backhand, who admire my commitment to my craft, who grunt like I do when they play hoping it will better their game, I’m sorry.
In the wake of my comments to Rolling Stone, I’ve had a lot of conversations about rape culture and sexual violence in this country. I’ve done some reading and reflecting. What I said was wrong. Nobody deserves to be raped. It does not matter what you are wearing, or what you are drinking, there is nothing you can do that entitles someone else to your body. Nothing. Period.
I said in my comments that this is a tragedy, and I stand by that. It’s a tragedy that boys think girls exist for their pleasure. It’s a tragedy that we blame victims of violence for their mistreatment instead of the perpetrators. It’s a tragedy that we think so little of boys and men that we expect inhuman behavior at the first opportunity. It’s a tragedy that we think so little of women and girls that we expect them to be used like objects.
There is plenty of tragedy to go around, and we all have a lot to work on. I apologize for my part in contributing to rape culture. I promise, I have learned from this.
But that’s not the note we got, and that’s not the story she told. My friend commented on Facebook that Serena’s abnormally isolated childhood partially explains her views. I wish that were true, but we know plenty of normally socialized adults who believe this too. Some of them are judges, congressmen, generals and leaders of industry. It’s not just Serena, it’s everywhere, and we have a long way to go.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.