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In Montana, a case study in rape culture

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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

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."

    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?

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    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.

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