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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT