This is the Culture of Sexual Violence

There are two family pictures in a box of photographs that are the only few I have of my father and me. My mother always told me my father doted on me and I was definitely becoming “daddy’s little girl.” Yet, the images of a seemingly happy family are overshadowed by the knowledge that at the time these two pictures were taken, my father had or was raping his stepdaughter: my teenage sister.

As I type these words, my chest constricts, my pulse quickens, and I want to shut this Pandora’s Box because the ghosts are out and they are not going anywhere. I’ve known for a long time that my father was a rapist and a pedophile. I was about my sister’s age when my mother told me he “slept with my sister.” At the time, he was trying to develop a relationship with me that had never existed before. I’m sure that must have alarmed my mother because she dropped this bomb during a conversation one night. But here is the kicker, when she told me the news, my response was “Okay.” Not, “What??” Not, “Ewww!!” Just, “Okay.” The reason for my less than grossed out response was because my preteen brain had not yet connected the slang “slept with,” with sex. In my mind, he had literally slept next to my sister.

So in the moment my mother told me, the past and the present collided. Two young girls, both living in different decades met for a brief moment; my young teenage sister and my innocent self, both corrupted by a pedophile rapist, but very unaware of his vileness. My sister thought he loved her, and I thought he was being a good father lying next to a stepdaughter who could not sleep.

But as I write this, there is another intersection of the past and present. Two mothers stand next to one another as my mother finds the love letters from a young girl to a stepfather, while I, now a mother myself, remember a teenager’s screams as her mother pins her body to the floor, yelling and grabbing her hair, shouting god knows what. No comfort, just violence. No love, just guilt. No legal recourse, just skeletons.

As I watch these home movies in my head, the present again comes crashing in. Judge G. Todd Baugh reduced a sentence for a pedophile rapist, Stacey Rambold, from 15 years to 30 days for the continual rape of a 14 year old, Cherice Morales, who committed suicide just days before she turned seventeen. The case alone can make the stomach turn, but by uttering that she was “older than her chronological age,” and “as much in control of the situation,” Judge Baugh not only blamed Morales, but effectively condemned my sister and millions of young women and girls, while siding with and excusing the behavior of their attackers. (Judge Baugh has since apologized, stating “it did not come out correct.”)

The phrase “rape culture” has emerged in recent years to make sense of the continual stream of news reports of the sexual violation of women and the blaming, toleration, and justifications that follow allegations of rape. In many respects, identifying “rape culture” makes it easy to spot and begin important conversations, but as a cultural historian, I know this “culture” is not new, and I wonder if just identifying it as “rape culture” is too limiting; perhaps it allows us to ignore the ways in which a culture of sexual violence has developed and changed over time.

rape culture

There are numerous scholars who have produced nuanced narratives explaining the criminalization of sexual abuse, the changing definition of rape and sexual delinquency, the transatlantic crossing of America’s rape culture during wartime, and how race, age, and class shaped perceptions of sexual violence. The scholarship clearly demonstrates a long history in America of how doctors, lawyers, judges, moral reformers, the press, the military, and men and women actively created and engaged in the beliefs, ideals, and norms of the cultural of sexual violence.[1]

Within its cultural boundaries lies both outrage and demands for justice for the victim, as well as the glorification, commercialization, and justification of that violence. A report of the sexual abuse of a toddler is cringe worthy, where there are calls for the perpetrator to be hanged by his balls, but the sexual assault of a drunken female raises eyebrows, blames the victim, and shakes the hand of the rapist. Add race and class into any of the stories of sexual violence and it becomes even harder to navigate within the culture’s ideals and norms. At the exact same time, this important scholarship highlights that we are not talking just about rape, incest, or sexual abuse, but about a much broader sexual violence intimately connected to larger norms and ideals of race, class, gender, age, and sexuality. The phrase “rape culture” simply does not do justice to America’s entrenched culture of sexual violence.


Morales was no more in control of the situation than my sister was. Morales was not chronologically older than her age any more than my sister was. They were both young girls who, for various reasons, were seduced and then raped by pedophiles, who have been excused for their crimes. My mother blamed my sister because she believed that my sister was a Lolita, a young vixen, who seduced an older man away from an aging woman. This is the culture of sexual violence.

Judge Baugh blamed Morales for being chronologically older because he assumed that developing young female bodies easily seduced aging and vulnerable men. This is the culture of sexual violence.

A well-respected newspaper published a op-ed piece of the “unintended consequences of laws addressing sex between teachers and students,” because apologists deserve a voice. This is the culture of sexual violence.

Robin Thicke made a substantial sum on money off the catchy tune “Blurred Lines,” because men like him know all women want it; they just have to “convince” them. This is the culture of sexual violence.

When I am surprised to learn that rape statistics for black and white women are about even, but completely shocked that an average of 34.1% of American Indian/Alaskan women experience rape or attempted rape. This is the culture of sexual violence.

44% of children under the age of 18 experience some form of sexual assault. 44%. This is the culture of sexual violence. [2]

I never spoke to my sister about my father’s vile acts. In fact, I do not have a relationship with her. Neither does my mother.

This is the culture of sexual violence.


[1] Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Kirsten Fischer, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North America (Cornell University Press, 2001); Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Estelle Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Harvard University Press, 2013); Mary Louis Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II (University of Chicago Press, 2013); Stephen Robertson, Crimes Against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Lynn Sacco, Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[2] From RAINN, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network,

No Comments

Nicole Lynn Major (@mrsbinkie)

Wow. This story really hits home for many reasons.
I appreciate your sharing it, Cheryl.

I’ve been the abused child, the confused-seduced teenager, and the adult victim.
You know what though?
I carry no guilt. NO SHAME. I did NOTHING to make people act out in violent ways towards me. Not as a child, not as a teenager, not as an adult.
The fact that EVERY TIME I reported my abuse (as a child. as a teenager. as an adult.) I was called a LIAR. The Blame was MINE.
Nevermind my good grades, or good upbringing, kind parent, friendly nature, or any of my many hobbies.
I refuse to allow negatives in my life to create hate inside of me. It is HATRED that makes this shit occur and it will NOT be HATRED that ends it.

Cheryl Lemus

Thank you for commenting Nicole and for sharing your story. I truly appreciate it. I never understood how anyone could consider a child’s allegations of abuse a lie, but it happens more often than not. Not to be glib, but it is this culture of sexual violence. Protect the abuser, not the abused.

mg mott

when i (at the age of 6-7) told my mother that our family doctor was ‘hurting’ me at night while i was hospitalized, she slapped my face. Unfortunately i spent a lot of time in the hospital from ages 6-7, and she never did anything ‘cept fuss at me for “lying about an important man”
i had to continue seeing this doctor til i left home.
i didn’t remember the full episode(s) until i was in my 40s.

Torrey Brooks

Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for taking the time, and for exposing yourself by sharing this. Hopefully, one day, men will understand. More importantly I hope that soon other women will understand, because it is mother’s turning against daughters and women turning against one another that perpetuate the worst hurts. We women must learn to support one another, for if we don’t respect one another and ourselves…why on earht would the men?


Wrong answer.

They fail to respect us because they are lacking as human beings. It doesn’t matter how much we respect ourselves, they will hurt us ANYWAY.

You’re right that we need to look out for one another but you should have left it at that. We need to look out for one another because it is the right thing to do. NOT because looking out for one another is a magical talisman against sexual violence.

Unless part of your “looking out for” women and girls in your life includes killing the waste of skin and oxygen when you catch him going after her. Then maybe.


Thanks for sharing your stories and your thoughts. This is the strongest way to stop this culture, the culture of sexual violence – take all the stories out in the air and say as strong as we can that this is NOT normal and will NOT be accepted.


Strong and brave writing.
I know some people who have been sexually abused, knowing that we all live in a society where people are hypocrites and ready to blame victims, just makes me sad and angry at the same time.

This is definitely a good way to spread out the word, that this is not Normal as mentioned by @sandracavallo

Thanks for sharing.


Very well written. As a counselor I work with victims of childhood sexual abuse all too often. The tales are horrifying and sadly similar. Thank you for putting yourself out there. One step at a time we can change it.

Purva Agarwala

Cheryl – kudos for adding your personal story to the voice of millions out there who are trying to make a difference and fight the “rape-culture”.

I hope someday you are able to reach out to your sister and hold her hand and tell her that though you were too young at that time to understand what’s happening, today you do and want to rebuild the bridges.


Cheryl, I’m glad you wrote this. It will be widely shared and appreciated by so many.

Kate Karwowska (@KateKarwowska)

I am one of the lucky ones – nothing like this ever happened to me. It boggles my mind, though, that people can even THINK of blaming the victim. And yet, it continues to happen. The idea that men can’t control themselves or their urges is insulting to men and to humanity in general. It is a patriarchal society that allows men to get away with these kinds of CRIMES (it was Eve, after all, who allegedly started all this trouble in the first place).

Thank you for sharing your story, Cheryl. We must all stand up, and I believe that together we can make a difference.

Rock on, girlfriend!

Rachelle Charlebois

Your being sarcastic and joking right, Kate, about being Eve’s fault, well I hope so, anyways. Cheryl, your a brave heart for sure. Hold your head up high, dear one, let no-one take away your dignity. Your voice will be heard for sure and will benefit many. May you be blessed in so many ways, you surely deserve it.


God. Someone save us from ourselves. This culture we live in is horrifying. This blurred line song, I didn’t even REALIZE just how RAPEY it was until I googled the lyrics.I was raped, I should know rapey. I didn’t. I was listening to it on the radio, with my DAUGHTERS. I was raped when I was 15, at church camp, by a 19 yr old. I told my parents, they told their best friends, we had a “family” meeting. I was shamed, I was told I was confused, that I wasn’t raped. That your first encounter is confusing. All I could do was cry. FUCK this shit. Thank you for speaking out. I was raped, it was not my fault, I was not confused. No means fucking no. God dammit I am so mad. I hate the world I’m raising my three precious and perfect daughters in. Fuck this.

David Harley

Describing the US as a “rape culture” hits the nail on the head, although it is clearly too general for analytical use.

I am not a Catholic, or even a Christian, and certainly not a defender of the abusing priests, but it sometimes angers me when people rant on about the Catholic Church as a “rape culture.” Not only does this blame many innocents, it could almost be designed to distract attention from the US (or wherever) as a whole.

The most dangerous place for a child is not at church, but at and around the home. This is quite clear, even from the reported cases. School and sports clubs are clearly also dangerous. Yet it has to be the Catholics, all the time.

Will some of the recently publicized cases shift attention to the whole society? One might hope so, but it’s hard to feel confident. Mom, apple pie, the American Family, these are all central to the civic religion of the United States.

I should mention that I am fostering an 8-year-old removed from her single mother, who was clearly unable to protect her. Neither the most recent incident nor an earlier one would have resulted in action, because her extended family did not believe her, but for my wife reporting them. The last thing we wanted was to be foster-parents, but needs must. Now that I’m in the system, I am all too vividly aware of the situation, which I previously knew mainly from printed accounts and statistics.


Thank you so much Cheryl. The more we talk about the sexual violence against women, more people will pay attention. i write on it when ever I get a chance. I know that a lot of the resistance is because the subject makes people uncomfortable. They do not want to admit that they are a part of the problem . They are also unwilling to face that there are human beings on this earth who do evil things to other human beings. Please keep writing and speaking and so will I.

Leah Parsons

Great article, thank you. Im am going to share on my Memorial page.


We are miseducating the male gender on how to ethically meet their biological needs and everyone suffers the consequences. Vast demographics (boys, men, males, sexual “predators”, pedophiles, etc…) are stigmatized: this is systemic discrimination.
The shame associated with being sexually attracted to children is monumental: this is an injustice to perhaps the most vulnerable population of our culture with horrific consequences for young girls/boys who fall victim to sexual violence.


Excuse me? A lot of these child sexual abuse attacks are crimes of opportunity–they are NOT the automatic actions of a sick man out of his mind. Even if it were the latter, these people need to be locked away, NOT left out running around where they can hurt someone. It DESERVES stigma. So do rapists. NONE of this has ANYTHING to do with “biological need.” How about the biological need of women to not be beaten up, exposed to STDs or made pregnant when they didn’t even want to procreate with the guy? Oh the poor little suffering men. Spare me.

You know what else amazes me about “biological” arguments? Guys go around claiming that they behave badly in the sexual/dating arena because their behaviors maximize the chances of reproduction–“it’s evolution, baby!” Evo-psych as a field in particular is built around this. Then, when they *do* knock you up, you’re an evil gold-digger for going after them for the child support. They don’t want to reproduce. It’s just an excuse.


Rape and violent sexual aggression is not what I am referring to as a biological need. Sex is. For both women and men. Shame in general for sexual honesty contributes to the rape culture.
By no means am I defending the act of violent sexual aggression – I am defending the child these men once were and speaking out against the condoning of gender stigmatization in our culture/media that contributes to their violent sexual behaviour.

Kim De

I am hald Swiss. Did you know teenage girls in Switzerland often carry guns to school everday? No I would not suggest that for girls in the states (until they turn 18). There are few sexual assults there because of this.
Ladies please take a firearms training course and learn how to shoot and get your cc permit. Some of the women in my c&c course were victims of rape.
In a perfect world we would not need guns for self protection.


This is a very brave article, but I just want to draw your attention to a minor quotation error. You report that 44% of children under 18 experience sexual assault. But the statistic on the RAINN website says that 44% of victims are under the age of 18. I think it’s an important distinction.
It is still a staggeringly sad statistic, and your heart-wrenching story is a reminder of how despicable and painful the experiences behind that statistic are. Thank you so much for sharing.

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