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serena williams on steubenville rape victim: ‘she’s 16. why was she drunk?’


Image: Vinod Divakaran

Image: Vinod Divakaran

The Steubenville rape case of August 2012 was given international attention and exposed many of the darker elements of America’s – and the world’s – reaction to and further creation of rape culture. The welldocumented incident involved sixteen-year-old students and budding football stars Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, and the repeated rape and sexual assault of an incapacitated, underage and unconscious schoolgirl. Several of the incidents were captured and shared on social media with extremely disturbing captions and replays of what happened over the six hour period.

As the case went to court, even more was revealed – not just about the case itself, which is horrifying and sickening, but also about the media and society’s views, and the portrayal of rape. The young men in question, Richmond and Mays, were portrayed by the media as young stars who had had their promising futures taken away. Sadly, the media was sympathetic to the perpetrators and their lives and future, rather than to the young girl. Some media outlets even went so far as to blame the girl for the rape.

This case highlighted the manner in which society still blames the victim. It’s horrible to think that anybody should be blamed for being subjected to the things this young girl was over a six hour period, where she was photographed nude, assaulted in a car and taken to a basement where she was repeatedly raped and forced to give oral sex. Victim blaming is simply unacceptable. The victim is never at fault – it’s why they’re called the victim. Victim blaming is a dangerous societal practice, and this case demonstrated how it is still happening with regard to rape.

And now, we have a high profile case of victim blaming related to the Steubenville case. Tennis champion and world number one singles champion Serena Williams has been heavily criticised for what she said recently:

‘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.’

This is demonstrative of victim blaming, and even of a lack of education or realisation of the larger picture around rape culture, which is clearly still so prevalent in the United States and the rest of the world. It is almost an echo of the Delhi rape and murder case in December 2012, when some Indian government officials and leaders blamed the young girl for what happened to her because of the outfit she wore, and the fact that she was out late at night.

Williams, similarly, appears to be blaming the Steubenville girl for what happened to her on that fateful night – she was underage and intoxicated. But there is a massive difference between having poor judgement whilst consuming alcohol, and being the victim of a serious sexual assault.

Perhaps this is not so much an indictment upon Serena Williams, but rather upon the kinds of values perpetuated by society to cause her to say and to believe these kinds of things. Given that Williams is primarily based in the United States, where the majority of the extremely biased reporting took place, the attitudes of those media providers could be said to have been absorbed by US citizens. As Alexandria Goddard, the blogger and social media analyst who brought the Steubenville case to wider attention (she has since been sued for defamation, and still receives hate mail and threats from supporters of Richmond and Mays), rightly states: ‘[Williams] is not doing anything different from what some of the supporters of the student athletes did after the rape.’

It is true to say that Williams should have known better than to comment on this the way she did. As a public figure, she should have known that what she said would be taken very seriously, especially considering the subject matter and the high level of media coverage surrounding the incident.

Victim blaming, which has been the clear motif of this case from the outset, is unacceptable, and Serena Williams’ recent comments reveal that victim blaming does not stop with the media, but is entrenched within society. Something needs to be done by leaders worldwide to stop this kind of attitude being perpetuated even further.

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