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The Miseducation of Serena Williams (and the Rest of America) | The Nation

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Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet

Where race and gender meet, where politics and pop culture collide.

The Miseducation of Serena Williams (and the Rest of America)

Serena Williams
Serena Williams at final match at the French Open, June 8, 2013. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

This is part 1 in my series on the global epidemic of sexual violence.

As a lifelong Serena Williams fan and African-American rape survivor, you can imagine my deep disappointment when I read her remarks about the Steubenville rape victim in the recent Rolling Stone profile: 

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.

Williams suggests she was misquoted, but even so, her words were disarming to those of us who fight for women’s rights, including of course, Williams, who has demanded equal prize money for male and female tennis players. Rightfully, much has been made of the victim-blaming statements, her subsequent apology about her insensitive and misinformed comments, and her reaching out to the victim and her family.

But, I believe Williams’s comments reveal a far more disturbing truth: they are the logical result of growing up in America’s “rape culture.”

Rape culture is the complex set of attitudes, practices, and systems of power that naturalize and normalize rape and sexual violence in the United States.  Because of the dominance of rape culture – in the courtroom and Congress, in the military and our middle schools – many Americans do not even have a working definition of rape and have Pavlovian response to rape victims.

After years of growing up in a rape culture, our knee-jerk responses are (1) to blame rape victims for their attack; and (2) to sympathize with the accused rapists. 

According to Robert Eckstein, an expert in the prevention of violence against women at the University of New Hampshire, one reason for this reaction is: “We don’t want to believe that people who are our classmates, our teammates, and the people we socialize with are capable of this type of behavior.”  Eckstein says, “People sympathize with them and are willing to give them a benefit of the doubt.”

Contrary to public perception, most assailants plan their sexual assaults by targeting and alienating vulnerable victims.  One way of undoing our conditioned responses is by strategically shifting the blame away from the rape victim and emphasizing that role that we all can play, as bystanders, community members, and third party witnesses, in preventing sexual violence.

Today, several bystander intervention campaigns exists all across the country to empower the public to identify these threatening circumstance and intervene before an attack occurs.

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Unfortunately, most of these campaigns are for college students only and do not reach our must vulnerable populations: middle and high school aged students who make up the vast majority of 44% of all sexual assault victims who are under the age of 18.  

While schools are not the only site of the current onslaught of pro-rape rhetoric, entertainment, and legislation that we currently face, they are one of the primary places in which we are socialized into the gender norms and practices. 

By holding each other accountable for perpetuating a rape culture, we might just be able to beat this epidemic one-generation, and a couple of future tennis players, at a time.

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