Tennis star Serena Williams ignited outrage this June by suggesting that the 16-year-old victim in a highly publicized sexual-assault case should not have drunk herself into oblivion before the assault. The girl had been downing large quantities of hard liquor during a 2012 high school football celebration in Steubenville, Ohio. Against her friends’ advice, she insisted on accompanying two star football players with whom she had been flirting as they drove from one party to another over the course of the night. At one point, after throwing up on herself, she removed her blouse; one of the boys gave her his jacket. She woke up the next morning with no recollection of the previous night. Only through her peers’ Tweets and Facebook postings did she learn that the two players had penetrated her digitally at one party (where, according to a witness, she had been kissing one of them) and had photographed her naked. One of the two defendants was sentenced this March to a year of incarceration for sexual assault; the other got two years for sexual assault and for taking the photographs.
Williams opined on the case during an interview with Rolling Stone. “I’m not blaming the girl,” she said, “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.” The online reaction was immediate and furious; Williams had justified “rape culture,” many agreed. The closest anyone got to engaging with her musings was a Daily Beast posting that linked Williams’s remarks to—what else?—her inevitable interactions with white racism, the “harsh reality” of which allegedly induces in African-American women an extreme ethic of self-reliance to counter the universal indifference to their misfortunes.
Predictably, the tennis champ issued swift apologies for being “insensitive and hurtful” and claimed that she had lacked “all the facts.” Never answered in the uproar over Williams’s alleged sexism was the question: What should the Steubenville victim have done that night? Nothing different, apparently. The same goes for Williams’s suggestion that the girl’s parents should have taught her prudence about drinking. That, too, was beneath notice.
The Williams scourging is a clarifying cultural moment. It should be conceptually possible to separate the issue of the boys’ culpability from the question of whether the victim had the power to avoid the assault in the first place by behaving responsibly. Parents tell their children not to get into strangers’ cars not because they think that a stranger would be justified in abducting a child who did so, but because not getting into a stranger’s car is the best way to avoid kidnapping. But the triumphs of feminism and sexual liberation mean that, despite the claim that strong women can do it all and have it all, one may never, ever suggest that they can avoid date rape by exercising sexual and alcoholic self-control. Doing so risks shifting attention from the one truth that we must always keep before our eyes: the ubiquity of male power, which renders women—everywhere and always—helpless victims. It also risks reviving norms of female modesty that feminism has labeled oppressive relics of patriarchy. The taboo on any acknowledgment of how reckless behavior creates the precondition for date rape means a females-only right to participate in the crude, sexualized world of Girls Gone Wild, without any responsibility for untoward results.
During the Steubenville trial coverage, we heard constantly about “rape culture” and the perils of social media. The episode was actually about an out-of-control drinking culture and an attendant hookup culture. Indeed, many girls drink themselves blotto during parties precisely to lower their sexual inhibitions. The Steubenville defendants certainly deserved punishment for their ugly actions, but Williams was right to bring up the question of the victim’s contributory negligence. Virtually every case of date rape can be avoided by the practice of self-respect. Williams should have stood her ground.