Serena Williams’ Steubenville rape victim remark stirs controversy

OPINION - Serena’s comments echo much of what was said when the Steubenville case was national front page news. Those sentiments are alarming whether they’re coming from a high-profile athlete or not...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Who would ever dare to call a rape victim “lucky”?

Serena Williams, that’s who. In a Rolling Stone interview excerpted by Deadspin Tuesday, Serena revealed a startling opinion on the Steubenville rape case, in which two high school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl and electronically sending naked photographs of her.

Serena revealed her perspective on the case while sitting with reporter Stephen Rodrick, who penned a profile of the tennis star for an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone. Rodrick writes:

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.”

Where to start? So much of what Serena said is deeply troubling and utterly disappointing. The notion that the boys’ punishment for rape wasn’t fair. The idea that sexually assaulting a person simply qualifies as “something stupid,” and not the felony it is. The idea that the teenage victim caused her rape to happen because she drank alcohol, and “put herself in that position” to be attacked. Suggesting that her virginity (or lack thereof) may have made her more “rape-able.” The idea that the young girl is “lucky” that her attack wasn’t “worse,” and the complete lack accountability expected from the young men who were convicted of the crime.

An awful position and why?

It’s all so much to unpack. What’s worse, Serena isn’t the only woman who shares this sentiment. She’s probably just the most high-profile (or the most uncensored) one.

Listen. Rape is a problem and it’s a problem caused by the people — mostly men and young boys — who make the conscious decision to force sex on others. It’s a shame that this concept has to be repeated and explained at such an elementary level over and over again — but it does. Because we have a horrid problem in this country — especially in the black community — of thinking that rape is something that women and girls ask for or deserve. It’s even worse when women internalize this way of thinking.

Look at the way R. Kelly’s statutory rape charges were treated over a decade ago — even though the singer was well into his 30s when he allegedly engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor, an alarming number of fans insisted that the 14-year-old at the center of the case was the one at fault. It was common to hear folks deride the teenager, calling her “fast” and insisting that “she knew what she was doing.” Many conversations around the case involved women vilifying a teenage girl, while refusing to hold a 35-year-old man responsible for his actions.

Serena gets taken to task

Thankfully, consciousness of the horror of rape and sexual assault has grown in the 10-plus years since the R. Kelly. Once Deadspin and Jezebel reported on Serena’s Steubenville quote, commenters and social media users immediately took the French Open champ to task. “Let me log off and rip these Serena Williams posters off my wall,” hip-hop journalist dream hampton tweeted.

From ESPN writer Jemele Hill:

Still, Serena’s comments echo much of what was said when the Steubenville case was national front page news — that the girl was asking for it, that the boys were just being stupid, that the punishment was too harsh. And truth be told — those sentiments are alarming whether they’re coming from a high-profile athlete or not. In fact, artist and filmmaker Pierre Bennu was so disgusted with the public discourse surrounding Steubenville that he created an online comic called “Rape Is BAD!” Bennu says he illustrated the strip in the form of children’s book to clearly explain the concept to adults who still couldn’t comprehend it.

Maybe it’s worth sitting Serena down for story time.

**Update** Wednesday morning, Williams posted a statement via Twitter:

“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.

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.”

Follow Veronica Miller on Twitter @veronicamarche