Summer is on its way out, and its departure comes not only with fading light, but with a sense of resignation in the sentencing of convicted sexual offender Stacey Rambold.
A lot has been written about this topic – partly because of the gross and unsolicited comments by the presiding District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh that the girl was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold and acted “older than her chronological age.” Baugh has since apologized for his comments, but his statements leads to concerns that the sentence was reduced because of victim-blaming. This is the case partly because of the unacceptable leniency of the sentence, partly because Rambold was disturbingly given multiple chances to evade justice, and partly because it reveals a glimpse at the brutal reality of sexual assault in America.
The facts: in 2007, the then 49-year-old Rambold had sex with his 14-year-old student Cherice Morales multiple times. Under Montana law, having sex with a minor under the age of 16 is statutory rape – that Rambold was her teacher and abusing his position of authority only makes this more sickening. When Rambold was criminally charged with three accounts of sexual assault, Morales committed suicide, right before her 17th birthday in 2010. Since the prosecution had lost their star witness, Rambold was not sentenced, and instead ordered to complete a sex-offender treatment program. Because he apparently didn’t realize how easily he had gotten off, Rambold subsequently violated the terms of the program, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison by Judge Baugh. What would have been a reasonable sentence was then immediately reduced by Baugh to 31 days – then down again to 30 for one already served. This cannot be emphasized enough: for repeatedly raping a young girl in his care and likely contributing to her later suicide, Rambold was given a total of 30 days in prison.
The defense and Judge Baugh gave several rationales for this decision: that Rambold had already suffered with the loss of his career and marriage, that it wasn’t “forcible, beat-the-victim rape,” and that Rambold had only violated “technical” aspects of his treatment program. Not farcical enough? Court documents show that prior to his assault of Morales, Rambold had been warned by the school to stay away from young female students, despite Baugh asserting that Rambold was at a low risk of reoffending and should face reduced time.
The sentence was immediately lambasted by news organizations. The consequential public outrcry was immediate and overwhelming – over 58,000 people have signed a MoveOn.Org petition demanding that Judge Baugh resign and protesters have routinely gathered outside the Montana courtroom where Rambold was sentenced. On September 6 Baugh apologized for his remarks and reversed his position somewhat, stating that he was seeking to resentence, but the case will now have to go to the appeals court – and the minimum sentence Rambold will face, if the effort is successful, is only two years.
Public outcry was enough to make Rambold potentially face a new sentence. It may have almost been a point of hope in the wash of public slut-shaming around Miley Cyrus (while simultaneously ignoring the racist nature of her act), the all-too-explicable popularity of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” this summer, the closing of family planning clinics across Texas this summer, the online vilification and violent threats against a 14 year old girl who protested these closures with the sign “Jesus Isn’t a Dick, So Get Him Out Of My Vagina,” but there are two problems with the outcome of public protest in these cases.
The first is that the mobilization and organizational capacity to deal with a culturally endemic problem like sexual assault is a monumental task – one that is not suited to deal with the hundreds of thousands of rapes that occur every year. The Steubenville rape case and Raseah Parsons suicide gathered such huge outcries because of their presence on social media and viral status through online news articles and the blogosphere. This is something that most sexual assault cases will never have, because the offenders never make their presence known on these mediums, or because victims do not have adequate support systems to help their case, or because victims don’t seek medical/police intervention in the first place out of fear or shame. In a country where the vast majority of rape goes unreported, it would be dangerous to assume that cases like Cherice Morales’ are unique, and that the obstacles to gaining justice for her attacker originate from one judge.
The second is that these cases are merely a symptom of America’s rape problem, and aren’t going to go away until we address the political and cultural climate that allows victims like Cherice Morales to fall through the cracks. The Rambold case rests squarely at the intersecting lines of consent issues, victim-blaming, and sexism that demark the perfect roadmap to devaluing women, legitimizing aggression as an expression of masculinity, and creating the rape culture that okays a minor or intoxicated person as fair game. The argument is sometimes brought up that these are feminist buzzwords or semantic stop signs in order to signal that one is part of a particular political movement and not support one’s argument with evidence. The many counterarguments to this claim will be addressed in a future column – but the evidence that Rambold’s sentence is representative of a larger societal problem is completely overwhelming.
It’s not just that America has a rape problem, with 200,000 sexual assaults per year, 78% of assaults against females committed by someone they know, only 23% of victims ever getting support from a victim service agency, and one out of six women and one out of thirty-three men experiencing attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes.
It’s not just that conceptions of consent on the political field have somehow become fluid, enabling the establishment of “forcible” rape as somehow more “legitimate,” devaluing the trauma and severity that other sexual assault victims face, as well as proliferating the idea that rape can only occur if someone physically resists and ignoring coercion, intoxication, domestic sexual assault and statutory rape (look on any social media website to find claims that girls are dressing like little sluts these days and are just “asking for it”).
It’s not just that women’s health and the access to care for sexual assault survivors is under attack from multiple waves of legislation that seek to inhibit the availability of sexual health resources.
It’s that of these issues stem from our cultural propensity towards systematically downplaying the severity of sexual violence and devaluing women of all races and class. The Rambold case is notable for the horrifying treatment of the young girl who lost her life in the conflict and the way her attacked has managed to evade any kind of equitable justice, but what is most notable about it is how it’s not notable at all, in the end. Rather, it’s representative of the way that sexual assault is treated within American culture and the American legal system. Rape is endemic not only to our military and college campuses, but happens silently across the country – less than fifty percent of sexual assaults in all contexts are ever reported. When they are, the survivors often find themselves the brunt of public pressure or criticism for dressing or acting a certain way – Morales, Raseah Parsons, and the Steubenville rape victims were all bullied and harassed by their peers after their assaults. Exacerbating the issue is that Baugh’s sentencing only sends the message that coming forward about being sexually assaulted will not be supported by the law. When victims receive the message from all fronts that they are to blame, the offenders themselves are getting another message: they can get away with it.
Rambold was sentenced to a total of 30 days in prison for a plethora of reasons, none of them acceptable. The overarching reason for all of these, however, is that our culture has turned a blind eye to sexual assault long enough that it has become a tacit acceptance. Judge Baugh indicated that Charice Morales was in some way complicit in her assault. And until our cultural conceptions about sexual assaults and the rights of victims change, she will not be the only victim to fall prey to these assumptions.