Sunday, June 23, 2013

Serena, Steubenville, and the question of complicity


Serena Williams’ off-handed, unsolicited comments about the 16-year-old who was raped and humiliated by a group of Steubenville athletes ended up raising so many hackles that Serena was forced to issue a public apology. During the latter, she went on and on about her long fight for women’s equality: “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”.

Really? I had no idea Serena was such a feminist! Since when? I need proof. I do remember her sister Venus sticking her neck out to argue passionately on behalf of women’s equality on the tour while Serena partied her ass off in Hollywood. But Serena has always appropriated that which first belonged to Venus, so her new feminist claims are likely no different.

What forced Serena into an apology was the harsh public outcry over her implication that the 16-year-old victim was complicit in her own victimization. Most disturbingly, Serena even went so far as to query the 16-year-old victim’s virginity: “…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…”


At heart Serena seems to be alleging that victims are complicit in their own crimes. That they put themselves in a position to be victimized. This is a view that seems to be ingrained in this culture.
It’s 1988 all over again and Jodie Foster is pleading for justice in “The Accused”. It’s the whole, ‘if you were drunk, you deserved it’ argument. And apparently, if a victim is not a virgin, well then it’s open season.

Jehovah forbid that we should hold men accountable for their behavior. It’s girls and women who have to not put themselves in the position of getting themselves raped. In Serena’s view, what happened to the victim was that she got “lucky” (as in, it could have been far worse). But what happened to the poor perpetrators was “unfair”.

Since when did tennis not require its players to have a moral compass? At this rate, Serena might as well become a member of the Republican Party’s Team Rape. Such victim-blaming notions are unacceptable coming from anyone, male or female, but are perhaps more damaging when uttered by the top woman in tennis.

I would like to believe that if I had ever raised a son, he would have turned out to be the kind of teen who, upon seeing a 16 YO friend blotto out of her mind, would have escorted her to her home without incident. Or called her parents to come get her.

At the very least, I would want any teen that I care for to not give in to bystander apathy and do nothing. Because, in such situations, doing nothing makes you just as culpable. If all you did was laugh and mock as this girl’s body was violated and pictures taken to share with others – then you are just as culpable as those who raped her.

My point being that I get Serena’s comments about the role of parents. But her comments should not only apply to the 16 YO victim’s under-aged drinking, but also to the teen perpetrators. In the same spirit I could ask what kind of parents produce sons who, upon realizing that their 16 YO female friend is drunk out of her skull, do not respond with caring and kindness but with an urge to exploit?

But at the end of the day, it is unfair to blame parents because such blame implies that the teens who commit these acts are somehow different, out of the ordinary. They are not. This is the bystander effect in its worst form. These are crimes of power, of exploitation, yes. But they are not being committed by monsters but by ordinary teenagers who think what they are doing is funny and cool. They could be any teenager – these guys and their victim – from any town, at any party. That is what is scary about these kinds of events.

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