serena williams and the victim blaming mentality
The piece below was originally written for Black Feminist in 2013, but in the age of #MeToo, it seems worth a revisit. Despite the current form of the campaign, the idea originated over 10 years ago. Activist Tarana Burke initiated MeToo when, as a youth worker, she encountered a young woman’s story of abuse. MeToo started as a Movement directed primarily at girls and young women of colour who were survivors of abuse and assault. As the media takes over making meaning, it is necessary to keep in mind where the heart of the Movement lies – and to not let ongoing violence against young girls and women fade behind bright lights.
Another week, another ‘insensitive’ remark by another ‘careless’ celebrity.
In a recent Rolling Stone story, Serena Williams commented on the Stubenville rape case (trigger warning), questioning the fairness of the sentence received by the two then high-school boys convicted of raping a 16 year old girl:
"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." The justifiable outrage towards the victim-blaming nature of her comment has since led Williams to apologize to the survivor and her family, adding:
"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."
So, was this champion of women’s rights (dare we suggest, of feminism) merely careless in her comments? Perhaps. But let’s be honest. Careless, ‘insensitive’ remarks are rarely just that, and are, more often, symptomatic of a social ‘common sense’. Should Williams – as a woman, and in particular a black woman – have known, have understood, better than to abide by such ‘common sense’? Perhaps. But I have long learnt that ‘identity’ has, for better or worse, no co-relation with critical consciousness or culpability; that, regardless of where we come from or how we identify, critical consciousness is the effect of principled practice. And while I do reject the essence of her comment, it is hard for me to completely discount it because there is perhaps something of that shaming that resonates with my own experiences.
That sexuality – as sexed/gendered identification, performance and desire – so pervades all forms of social relationships renders it a tricky topic to address. Most often, it seems these conversations take the easy way out, demanding behavior that stays closer to the ‘good/virginal’ side of sexual scale and cautioning against the ‘bad/slut’ end. The problem, of course, with this form of engagement, is its own gendered nature. The ‘boys will be boys but women should know better’ attitude allows men a certain kind of social existence – a certain degree of ‘play’ even – that it categorically denies women. Williams’ comment compounds this denial through an additional layer of youth shaming. Her demand for ‘age-appropriate’ behavior puts an additional burden of responsibility on the survivor. But, the larger issue at stake, in my opinion, is the silencing or dismissal of youth sexuality in general.
Conversations about sex and sexuality cannot be about teaching kids to control or ignore their sexuality – about ‘waiting’ – but rather about how to acknowledge and embrace their desires while yet being mindful of how this desire is made manifest by and to them. Instead of reinforcing ideas of good and bad sexuality, we need to of the naturalness of desire, of the need to explore and experiment – and yet to recognize and respect one’s own levels of comfort and safety. Instead of normalizing sexuality, especially male sexuality, as always posing an imminent danger, we need to teach how to engage it, yet without feeling pressured and without the fear of being called names. And, most of all, we need to speak to the real possibility of violence, of how to recognize and confront it, and how to get, or support each other in getting, out.**
This is a struggle, traces and reflections of which we are confronted with in the everyday – in comments that we hear walking down the street (a compliment is not always a compliment); in comments made by friends and family (a joke is not always just a joke), those that we choose to confront and those that we choose to ignore (for we too must survive) – and sometimes, oftentimes, in those that we make ourselves. And, moreover, the lines between words, emotion and action are, oftentimes, too fine for comfort. The problem with victim-blaming rape discourses is not just the gendered distribution of ‘responsibility’, but rather the decoupling of rape from other ‘lesser’ everyday forms sexual violence.
When I hear of cases such as Stubenville, I wonder what it feels like to be the parent of the victim-survivor. Do I wish that I will never have to know? Absolutely. But I also realize, terrifying as it is, that I cannot guarantee that will never happen to my child. The implication of ‘bad parenting’, in Williams’ comment, or the tacit ‘maybe she was asking for it’, individualizes the blame for a social problem. But that, then, leads to another equally disturbing thought – what if I were the parent of one of the perpetrators? Is there any guarantee I will never find myself there? Can ‘bad parenting’ be considered the cause of one being a rapist? Are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ sufficient explanations for describing rapists?
Watching the video (trigger warning) from the Stubenville case filled me with anger and disgust, no doubt, but also with a deep sadness; sadness not for boys’ ‘ruined futures’, but for their bravado – the utter lack of care and comprehension of the baseness of their words and actions, of what they had become in those moments. Teaching boys ‘not to rape’ is more than merely teaching respect for women. Or more precisely, teaching respect for women is, ultimately, about self-respect – about teaching how to negotiate your sense of self, your self-expression, despite all that may influence you otherwise. Indeed, regardless of gender, conversations about rape and rape prevention – about safe relationships and expressions of sexuality – are as much about self-esteem and integrity, about individual strength and collective responsibility, as they are about sex and ‘other drugs’.
** I write this addressing heteronormative relationships because of the particular case being discussed. Issues of sexual abuse and rape pervade queer and other forms of non-normative relationships. Conversations around healthy sexuality and especially resistance to shaming are, no doubt, necessary here as well.