‘Rape Culture’ 1 – Prison and Rape Culture

13 Jan

Rape culture is a newer term used within modern post-equality feminism.  It is a concept to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.  While the idea of a culture or society exists that normalizes rape, the first time the phrase itself is used appears to be as the title of a documentary film by Margaret Lazarus for Cambridge Documentary Films.  The film examines rape in prison, where, the film maintains, rape exists so prevalently that a clear ‘culture’ grows around it, complete with norms, ways of dressing, and ways of behaving and condoning it.

Prison has its own culture, and we’ve been graphically aware of prison rape as a paradigm given us by the media…that prison rape is prison power and a means to retain it.  For example, The Shawshank Redemption rape scene is a frightening depiction of how prison rape is assimilated into the overall culture of a prison.  Prison rape we accept as being rampant based on media that we view for entertainment and anecdote.  We accept, based upon media, that there is a prison hierarchy of tops and bottoms based on power and status and protection, and that it is always forced.

We accept the idea from our media and imagery like that of The Shawshank Redemption; that when a heterosexual male finds himself in prison he must defend himself or he WILL (not might or may) be forced into a  sexually submissive role.  We accept the idea that he WILL be made to service the tops, even dress a certain way, even belong to someone else as their ‘girlfriend’.  We accept this because the media has told us this repeatedly.

However, one of the best empirical studies done showed forcible prison rape to occur, but that it is rare.

http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Prison-Rape-Culture-American/dp/0742561666 The book, The Myth of Prison Rape: Sexual Culture in American Prisons, shows a widely varied and finely nuanced sexual culture within prisons in which forcible rape is a small percentage.  J Lewis explains the difficulty here, very well.

An Valuable Critique of Free World Liberal Homophobia

March 13, 2011

“The Myth of Prison Rape: Sexual Culture in American Prisons” has a self-explanatory title. It’s object of critique is a well-established network of organizations and the systematic misunderstandings they generate about sex and sexual assault in prisons and jail. Not surprisingly, most of these myths are around male prison sex and sexuality, the reason for the implicit homophobia surrounding the topic. The authors take on the now large and influential establishment of human rights organizations, typified by Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), prisoner rights advocates, religious activists and, not least, an extensive network of academics drawn not from research-based disciplines like criminology, sociology, psychology or anthropology, but from literary criticism within departments of literature, and producing writers ideologically blinkered by various schools of post-modernist pseudo-criticism.Unlike most contemporary proponents of this myth, the authors base their claims on empirical research rather than on the kinds of admittedly compelling anecdotal testimonials of victims of sexual assault featured in publications by groups like SPR. Yet horrific as genuine cases of sexual assault are, such accounts do not support claims of rampart male on male sexual violence such groups claim exist. “The Myth of Prison Rape” on the other hand did what other studies have not: asked several hundred prisoners themselves about sex and sexuality behind bars. The result is a far more nuanced and varied understanding of prison sex in which forcible rape does occur, but is rare. Which begs the question of how and why it’s come to seen as widespread thanks to the activists opposing it. This is when the implicit homophobia behind the issue comes in. It is the general fear of male-on-male sexuality that informs most of this activist misunderstanding. The fact that prison sexuality by definition occurs among hardened criminals, can involve forms of manipulation, and is generally among men of color combine to throw the fear of God into the generally white middle class, educated, heterosexual activists who write about it with a primal fear of being sodomized by a big black man. The fact that this constituency is generally “liberal” or “progressive” make these fears and their manifestation in distorted concepts that much easier to hide. This book is a start toward debunking their illusions.

Where do things come from?  Where do ideas or concepts generate, where do words begin, where do inventions take root?  Obviously prison has its own CULTURE but do prisons in America have a definite RAPE culture?  And if the idea of Prison ‘Rape Culture’ came to us from a 1975 documentary, and television and movies that have been made since then that we draw our ideas and perceptions from, and these were based on a 1975 idea, are we holding accurate perceptions?  And if new empirical studies show prison rape to be rare, isn’t it time that we catch up?

Activists seeking programs that would reduce prison rape tend to cite the older estimates or anecdotal evidence.  Truth be told, there are not many studies to cite.  In the last 40 years, less than 25 real research studies on prison rape have been done in the US.  A major source of some of them, The National Institute of Justice, indicates that only .005 percent of the total incarcerated population reported they had been victims of sexual assault while incarcerated.  That’s a huge anomaly to hold up against our media-based perceptions if true.

Read the National Institute of Justice report and findings HERE

On the high end of estimates, is the initital drafting of the PREA Act (Prison Rape Elimination Act) when in 2003 it estimated 13 percent of all inmates have been raped in prisons and jails in the US.  However, newer research done under PREA didn’t find their initial estimates to be supported three years later. (Curtis, Kim (2006-01-17). “A disputed study claims rape is rare in prison“. USA Today.)

Activism rightly points out that prison rape is under-reported, but to be under-reported to this anomalous degree becomes problematic.   And that’s where common sense must come in.  With widely diverging reports, sides should not form.  Activists should not point to low numbers and declare them ‘wrong because we know there’s more that goes on but doesn’t get reported.’  Well, no we don’t KNOW that; we infer that more surely must happen than gets reported, because we think that prison rape would carry such a stigma that people wouldn’t want to report it.  But this is too big an ‘IF’ between .005% under empirical research and 13% under anecdotal estimates that were later superseded by the same program that had the initial 13% estimate!

PREA now says prison rape is rare but the tidbit from the program that originally estimated 13%, hasn’t seemed to catch up to the activism programme.  We are holding onto old figures.  Make no mistake, while it should not happen, it does occasionally, but not so much so that known facts or projected figures that might account for the people who would not report it out of stigma, can sustain or support the idea that there exists an established set of practices, behaviors, norms, definitions, surrounding prison rape that would constitute a CULTURE of rape.

More reading:





*note:  the prevalence of waring jeans so low as to expose underwear in a ‘gangsta’ style originated in prison as a way to indicate the wearer was available to bottom sexually.  This IS part of prison culture, and obviously sexual, but as it indicates willingness can not be used to indicate a forced sexual culture.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: