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Serena Williams, it’s never good to blame a rape survivor

Tennis star Serena Williams' comments about the Steubenville rape case only served to shame and blame the teen survivor.
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

Tennis star Serena Williams' comments about the Steubenville rape case only served to shame and blame the teen survivor.

I respect and adore tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, which is why it gives me no pleasure to address this week’s letter to Serena in light of her appalling comments and half-hearted apology regarding the teen girl who survived rape by two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio.

Dear Serena,

It’s me, Melissa.

I was shocked to read your response to Stephen Rodrick of when he asked you about the Stuebenville rape. According to Rodrick, you said:

“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.”

Honestly, I don’t know where to begin, Serena.

There are so many layers of victim-blaming and slut-shaming in your words that if I was feeling snarky I’d suggest you run for Congress, since these ideas make you sound like the “War on Women” Republicans who are running the place.

But I don’t feel snarky, I feel sad.

I’m not sure I can express how much your accomplishments have meant to so many of us over the years. It is not just the sheer athleticism, the brilliant strategy, and the game-altering style of your play.

We are moved by your uncompromising determination to be yourself, to embrace and flaunt your whole bad-ass Serena-ness. When we watch you it lifts us and makes us believe in things bigger than ourselves.

This is why your words stung so much. We understand you are a woman who suffers no fools, abhors weakness, and believes deeply in personal responsibility. We love and respect you for that. But you turned those traits against the victim instead of against the perpetrators!

Imagine if you had demanded personal responsibility from the rapists. If you’d said, “I do not care if a girl is drunk at a party. You have no right to touch her without her consent. I don’t care if you are young and foolish, that is no excuse for rape.”

Those boys should have had parents who taught them better than to victimize the vulnerable. Where were their parents when they were out late at night assaulting a girl? Serena, does it matter to you if the rapists were virgins or sluts?

Healing from rape is a long journey. One of the most painful parts for survivors is having to deal with how much we blame ourselves for being assaulted. For years we tend to believe we caused it, that we are bad, that we are dirty, that we somehow deserved the abuse, that we caused it.

Sometimes we just need someone we love and admire and trust to tell us over and over again, “It is not your fault.”

We can’t hear those words enough, because those are the words that replace the things the rapist said to us. Those are the words that give us back the power and the willingness to go on and to heal. Your life and accomplishments have been a light of inspiration for so many.

Please don’t use your words to push some of us back into the darkness of shame.