Heppler: Outdated myths about sexual assault persist

After 14-year-old Montana resident Cherice Moralez survived being raped by her teacher and was subsequently shamed by her classmates, she took her own life. Yellowstone County District Judge G. Todd Baugh made several controversial comments including how Moralez was “as much in control of the situation” as Stacey Dean Rambold, her 49-year-old rapist. Baugh’s misogynistic remarks are only a microcosm of the victim-blaming attitudes widely held by society.

Following Rambold’s reduced sentence from 15 years to 31 days, protestors rallied for Baugh to resign. On Wednesday he followed with an apology, which only highlighted his startling beliefs. Though he acknowledged in his apology that a 14-year-old could not consent, he qualified that “It was not a violent, forcible, beat-the-victim rape, like you see in the movies.”

The attitude that rape is something that plays out with strange men in dark alleys is a dangerous one; while it certainly can happen, rape happens far more often by acquaintances in familiar settings, according to One In Four USA, a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent rape. The fact that a friend or an authority figure is a rapist could keep victims silent.

In March, Ohio’s Steubenville High School football players Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays received minimum sentences for raping a 16-year-old girl. As the case made national news, some public figures preferred to see an intoxicated girl as asking for it rather than to see their star football players as rapists.

Similarly, Baugh seemed to believe that, since Moralez was raped multiple times, she must have allowed it to happen. He also seemed to hold the idea that the rape was more permissible, as she seemed “older than her chronological age,” and a “troubled young girl.”

Baugh has expressed the troubling belief that past sexual experience translates to automatic consent, and unfortunately, he is not an anomaly. This dangerous misconception is reminiscent of the Lolita narrative, in which a young girl is portrayed as an experienced and irresistible temptress. When this sort of attitude leaves the realms of fiction, it becomes easy for rape apologists to gloss over the fact that a minor cannot legally consent.

Betsy Karasik writes in The Washington Post that sex between teachers and students should not be a crime because students can be “sexually mature.” She treats statutory rape as a lesser sort of rape while ignoring the emotional implications of a predatory relationship.

There is a clear imbalance of power between teacher and student, as there is between boss and employee or doctor and patient. Just as the Steubenville rape victim could not consent while intoxicated, Moralez could neither consent under an imbalance of power nor as a minor.

It is imperative to educate youth about the nuances of what consent is and what it is not. The ideas spewed by Baugh and Karasik contribute to rape culture in immense ways; they seek to invalidate the seriousness of rape and sexual assault, particularly when it involves those unable to consent. It creates the idea that if “no” is not explicitly stated, there is no reason it could have been rape. The victim is ultimately blamed for what has happened, and that blame often takes the form of how much alcohol she has consumed or what she looks like: clear manifestations of misogyny.

Understanding the fact that a victim cannot be at fault is an important first step to breaking down victim-blaming attitudes by those in power and ultimately ending a culture in which it is acceptable to normalize and condone sexual assault.