National Post Barbara Kay: Serena Williams was right the first time

National Post - Thursday June 20th, 2013

Serena Williams joins impromptu game of table tennis at Heathrow Airport in London.

Tennis champion Serena Williams is one tough cookie, and she has on her when she’s angry what my mother would have called a “mouth.” I am thinking of the time at the 2009 U.S. Open when she threatened to shove a ball down a line judge’s throat because she disagreed with his call on a foot fault. Yep, when that woman has a strong opinion, I wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end of it.

And yet apparently there’s one opponent perceived by Williams to be so formidable, so invincible, so intimidating that, when faced with the possibility of a public showdown with her that could end in her humiliation, Serena won’t even walk on the court; she just throws in the towel and admits defeat.

That opponent’s name is Political Correctness.

Williams is only in this mess because she was busy playing tennis and missed out on Gender Studies 101.

From England, where she will defend her Wimbledon singles title, Serena has just announced that she is “deeply sorry” for some words and phrases she used in a Rolling Stone profile in which she discussed the infamous rape of a 16-year old girl, which took place at a house party in Steubenville, Ohio, photos and videos of which were circulated online.

According to Rolling Stone, Serena said the teenager “shouldn’t have put herself in that position” and was “lucky” she did not suffer a more serious assault. She also referred to the convicted attackers as “the accused” rather than the “convicted” (something the interviewer should have corrected her on immediately, so she could retract), and called the rape a “tragedy” for the families of both the victim and the two football stars who were sentenced to a year in juvenile detention in March.

Williams made the remarks after watching a news report of the event during one of a series of interviews with Rolling Stone. She is quoted as saying, “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year old girl and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: don’t take drinks from other people.” And “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’s a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”

Except for the mistake she made about the accused boys having been convicted, I don’t see a single thing in these remarks that require a public apology. What Serena is guilty of is expressing common sense and an instinctive understanding of how human nature works when social and cultural boundaries are breached amongst young people partying with no adult supervision, with limitless access to intoxicants, living in the moment, susceptible to peer pressure and thoughtless of what consequences will arise from their actions.

And is it not “stupid” to get blind drunk under circumstances in which it is a given that sexual activity is going to take place? We have now witnessed in the news more than a handful of stories with exactly the same narrative curve. A girl is so blind drunk she cannot remember what happened to her. Sex is taking place in front of others. Boys are not only taking advantage of the girls’ vulnerability, they are flaunting it, with not a single person stopping them or suggesting that what they are doing is wrong. Nobody in the room considers what is happening “rape” at the time. They consider it rape when the photos go viral, and the girl quite rightly feels humiliated.

Williams is right that it is a tragedy for both the families of the victim and the assailant. I know people whose son raped a girl. They are fine people, upstanding members of our community. Their son’s behaviour was not their fault, but their lives were shattered anyway.

Something very sick is going on in teen culture, and nobody wants to talk about it, because while boys who violate alleged sexual taboos may be condemned without mercy, it is forbidden to criticize girls, no matter how foolishly they behave.

Williams is only saying  what she would tell her own daughter and what most of us would tell our daughters: namely, that boys are different from girls; that getting drunk and watching or participating in group sex sends a strong atavistic signal to the male limbic system; and that everyone has to take some responsibility for his or her own behaviour in situations where the normal rules of decency and propriety have been vacated.

Williams is only in this mess because she was busy playing tennis and missed out on Gender Studies 101, in which she would have learned her catechism on what may be said and what may not be said about girls or women.

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