Skip to main content

In Montana, a case study in rape culture

By Lyn Mikel Brown, Special to CNN
September 26, 2013 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lyn Mikel Brown: Montana teen raped, teacher confessed, then judge gave one month sentence
  • Judge said girl looked older, was in control, teacher had "suffered"
  • Brown: Culture's distorted message about girls gives men like rapist -- and judge -- a pass
  • Brown: Girls struggle to navigate this terrain; judges must be wise enough to understand it

Editor's note: Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., is a professor of education at Colby College. She is the author of "Packaging Girlhood" and co-founder of SPARK Movement, an intergenerational activist campaign challenging the sexualization of girls, andHardy Girls Healthy Women, a nonprofit organization based in Waterville, Me. and dedicated to the health and well being of girls and women.

(CNN) -- A 44-year-old male teacher from my hometown is set to be released after just 31 days of incarceration for raping a 14-year-old girl who later killed herself.

Someone believed Cherice Moralez of Billings, Montana, when she accused her 49-year-old teacher, Sandy Rambold, of forcible rape. He confessed, faced charges and then should have received a sentence commensurate with the crime of rape.

But the legal process played out over three years, and just before her 17th birthday, Moralez, shamed and shunned by classmates, shot herself. District Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced Rambold to just 30 days. (The public outrage that followed caused Baugh to attempt a review of his own sentencing, a move the Montana State Supreme Court denied.)

"He'd suffered enough," Baugh said of Rambold at the initial sentencing, and besides, Moralez, "older than her chronological age," was "as much in control of the situation" as her teacher, he said. "Obviously a 14-year-old can't consent," the judge explained in the wake of public outrage, but this wasn't "some violent, forcible, horrible rape." It wasn't, said the judge, "this forcible beat-up rape."

Where does this bizarre line of reasoning come from? We need only look around for clues at a media culture that regularly tells young girls that growing up means shedding all signs of pink princess innocence for a porn version of sexy. A culture that celebrates Robin Thicke singing, "I know you want it" at the VMAs as Miley Cyrus -- having made the lightening quick transformation from teen role model to sex object, whose job it is to give pleasure to a grown man -- twerks in his crotch.

We reward girls and young women who take off their clothes, tell them that their sexual availability and sexual power are their most important assets. We grant them record deals, reality TV shows, and global news coverage. Once they cross over, slut-shaming and Judge Baugh-like sentences enable men like Rambold to take full advantage -- as long as it's not "this forcible beat-up rape."

Montana judge says he made a mistake
Judge wants do over on rape sentence
New protests over 30-day rape sentence

We rarely hear from young women themselves about what it's like to traverse this cultural terrain. So I asked members of the SPARKteam (girl activists ages 13-22 from SPARK Movement) to talk about what happened to Cherice. What does it feel like to be 14 and want to be wanted, to experience this new kind of power and illusion of control?

Erin, 18, says she immediately identified with Cherice, because "I was her. I remember being 14 and talking to 30 year-olds on the Internet. I was feeling really alone and struggling to come to terms with who I was. I wanted to have some kind of social (and sexual) connection with people. That's what led me to leer in chat rooms and talk to men who were more than twice my age. Maybe they would love me and maybe I could feel less insecure."

Erin knows firsthand how easy it is "to get caught up in your undying feelings for someone, especially someone who is manipulating you into loving them. At 14, you think that you know everything -- you think this person isn't doing anything wrong by having a relationship with you, and that no one understands. He becomes your world. You think that you're in love, when what you're really in is abuse."

"When you're 14," 15-year-old Luci says. "It seems like the rest of the world is against you, especially if, as the judge described Morales, you're 'a troubled kid.' I can get that, and I can see why Cherice found refuge in a relationship with her teacher. When I was her age, there was this one teacher who everyone at my school adored. He saw potential in me that I was too insecure to see in myself. I looked like I could be in college. He treated me like I was grown up, so I thought I was more mature than I really was. But that's the thing: Looking older than you are in no way equals being emotionally mature."

Celeste, 20, implicates Judge Baugh's unquestioned participation "in a culture where representations of Latinas prioritize sex appeal. Baugh's claims speak volumes about the way women of color are hypersexualized. Cherice was only 14, but when Baugh looked at her he saw someone older who was therefore experienced enough to understand, and even control, a sexual situation. She did not fit his image of 'youth' and 'purity,' so this 70-year-old Judge did not see a young girl who was victimized, but a sexually viable woman."

Because the lines are blurred, we need judges who are educated and aware enough to see through the subterfuge of sexism and racism, who do the right thing -- whether in Steubenville, Billings, or my hometown. Whatever else is going on in girls' lives, whatever media messages we all receive about the commodification of their sexuality, we need to send a clear message that rape and sexual assault are crimes for a reason, that justice has nothing to do with how mature a girl looks or acts and everything to do with her suffering and her right to human dignity.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lyn Mikel Brown.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT