I have a dear friend who once told me that she is not horrified by prison rape. In fact, she described it as “democracy in action.”
And she’s not the only well-intentioned person who believes this.
How many times have you heard otherwise progressive individuals wish sexual violence upon people who are incarcerated?
I hear this refrain often – most commonly for perpetrators of child sex abuse.
Sometimes the statements are dismissive or passive: “Eh. What goes around comes around.”
Other times, the person is actively expressing the wish for sexual violence: “I hope he goes to jail and sees what it’s like” or “They’re getting what comes to them.”
That’s a fairly common stance, even among people who are otherwise opposed to sexual violence.
The thing is, though, that to be against sexual violence, we must be against sexual violence fully. Without exception.
Even when it comes to people who have committed crimes. Even when it comes to people who have committed acts of sexual violence against others.
We must be opposed to the sexual violence that exists in prisons.
Prisons in and of themselves are not in line with the values of social justice – and neither is the sexual violence that exists within the prison industrial complex.
And here’s why.
1. Sexual Assault Is Not a Tool of Punishment or Correction
It’s about power and control. It’s about humiliation and degradation. It’s about one person’s desire to feel powerful by violently removing a person’s ability to control what happens to their body.
It’s a tool of the patriarchy that exists to reinforce a capitalist and anti-human structure. And in prison, it exists to keep prisoners in their social place.
Sexual violence in prison, just as outside of prison, is not an isolated incident; sexual assault does not happen in a vacuum.
At its core, it’s a hierarchical ordering of people based on their perceived worth and value as a human. That’s precisely why we see marginalized people experiencing sexual violence at the highest rate.
In prisons, there’s a slight nuance to the dynamics of power that exist in sexual violence: The hierarchical ordering is related to manliness and perceived masculinity.
The people who present as “least masculine” are at the highest risk of sexual violence.
Again, this is at its root a punishment or corrective action that’s intended to reify the social order: “Manly” men are in charge, and the men who appear to be weaker are subordinate.
We know that sexual violence isn’t about “punishing” a woman for wearing a short skirt or “punishing” a trans person for daring to present as their true gender or “punishing” a gay person for being gay.
Similarly, sexual violence cannot be framed as a punishment for people who have committed crimes.
All forms of “corrective rape” are deeply fucked up – and that’s something that we can all agree, right? Well, so is sexual violence as a deserved punishment.
The dynamics of subjugation and domination remain intact. And we must dismantle those dynamics even when—no, especially when—they’re used to hurt people with marginalized identities or people who are disenfranchised.
As feminists, we want to dismantle this structure, right?
2. Prisons Are Racist and Classist Institutions
We know that a white man and a Black man who commit the same crime will be treated wholly differently by the entire system; people of color are deemed guilty of crime by their skin color alone.
There are huge disparities between who is incarcerated and who is not.
So think about this: When people of color are more likely to be put behind bars, and when sexual violence is an accepted form of correction for people who are behind bars, it’s like sexual violence is an unintended consequence for existing with brown or black skin in a country that hates people of color.
It’s a glaring injustice that most of the people who are behind bars have committed non-violent crimes and have concerns that would be better treated through a robust social safety net that includes unobstructed access to healthcare, education, and financial stability. This injustice becomes even more sickening when we understand the violence that people become exposed to while incarcerated.
If the US had a more just system of corrections, perhaps sexual violence would be used less frequently as a tool of oppression – inside and outside of prison walls.
Just imagine: If the criminal justice system were less focused on punishing the poor, keeping people of color from living freely, and reifying a hierarchy of social power, perhaps so many people and systems wouldn’t rely on sexual violence – one of the most humiliating and degrading acts of violence – to disempower groups of people and individuals.
3. People Who Are Incarcerated Are People, Too (Duh)
Even if the above reasons weren’t enough, we must keep in mind the critical necessity of remaining aware of the dignity and humanity of all people – including people who are incarcerated.
Because, listen: People who are incarcerated are people, too. They have hopes and dreams and fears and hungers and loves. Their blood is as red as yours and mine, and there is simply no excuse for denying that.
It’s true that there should be punishments and consequences for crime – I’m certainly not denying that. When someone commits a crime, it’s important to the social code that we do not condone or accept that problematic behavior. People need to be held accountable for wrong doings, and there must be consequences for crimes, especially acts of violence.
But none of those consequences should include violence perpetrated against another human.
This is a non-negotiable foundation upon which all of our politics should grow.
Human beings deserve dignity, respect, and just treatment – no matter what.
If you get confused, just remember this: Human first, incarcerated second.
Luckily, there are a lot of smart and brave people who are fighting for the fair and just treatment of people who are incarcerated.
Here are some ways you can get involved.
1. The Prison Rape Elimination Act
PREA, as it’s called in the “in” circles, is a piece of legislation that enforces both the study of and response to sexual violence in prisons.
PREA pairs prisons with local rape crisis centers and facilitates access to a rape crisis counselor through use of designated no-charge telephones.
If you would like to get involved in supporting individuals who have experienced sexual assault while incarcerated, one way is to volunteer at a rape crisis center that takes PREA calls.
If you are called to action and believe that you can be a supportive listener, this is a great option.
You’ll have the opportunity to provide the best possible emotional support to the people who call after experiencing sexual assault while incarcerated – and we all know that a skilled listener can make a huge difference in the way someone heals from trauma.
2. Stand Up to Offensive Jokes
If it’s safe to do so.
In order to change the culture that allows and dismisses the occurrence of sexual violence – both in and out of the prison industrial complex – we must work to change the hearts and minds of the people in our circles.
When you hear someone make a joke about sexual assault in prison, say something. Let that person know that to make a joke about keeping the soap on a string or whatever else is entirely inappropriate. Explain to them that no one deserves to be treated with violence. Explain to them that it is hurtful to hear a joke like that.
There are moments that will be safe to use your voice to stand in solidarity with people who are incarcerated. Use those moments.
3. Give Money, Time, or Resources
Mired in my own outrage at some of the PREA calls that I’ve received in my work at a rape crisis center, I decided to donate time and money to the Black Lives Matter cause.
In my mind, the fierce activism around Black Lives Matter is central to the fight against sexual violence in prisons. To question the dismissiveness that people with power exhibit when it comes to marginalized identities is a powerful way to indirectly stop sexual violence – both in and out of prison.
And as a white women with privilege, rather than insert myself in the movement, I deemed it best to give a financial donation to support the activists who are doing the important work – in their own way, on their own terms, and on behalf of their own community – rather than to appropriate their work and movement.
Join marches, donate money (if you can!) to support their work, buy the books and learn.
These movements exist outside of our minds – and they’re powerful. Join in.
When we understand that no one – no one – deserves to be hurt, we’ll come to find alternative ways to hold people accountable for their crimes. And when – and only when – we fully and wholly take a stand against sexual violence in prisons, we will truly fight the good fight against sexual violence in its entirety.
Sarah Ogden Trotta is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and psychotherapist at ContactLifeline, Delaware’s Rape Crisis Center. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @xsogden. Read her articles here.