This is the Culture of Sexual Violence

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.

Stop Blaming Victims: . (Flickr)

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.

Rape Culture. (Flickr)

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, http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims

Featured image caption: Smash Rape Culture. (Wikimedia)