In anti-rape activism, we often lament the fact that rape has a very low conviction rate – often as little as 3%.
In many ways, the low conviction rate is a symptom of an unfair legal system and a society that upholds rape culture. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that increasing the conviction rate alone would end rape culture.
Even if every rapist was convicted and went to jail for their crimes, it wouldn’t end rape culture in its entirety.
To be clear, I’m not saying I think rapists should be allowed to roam freely. I’m also not saying that victims and survivors who want their rapists to be incarcerated are in the wrong: At present, the prison system is one of the few forms of justice that we seek. Sometimes, incarcerating our rapists is our only hope of feeling safe and acknowledged.
But what I am saying is that we need to look at the broader picture. Once we realize incarceration isn’t a viable solution for ending rape culture, we can begin to imagine and create more effective solutions.
Let’s take a look at why simply jailing rapists won’t eradicate rape culture.
1. The Prison System Perpetuates Rape Culture
The prison system is no solution for rape culture because the prison system is rape culture.
The prison industrial complex, or PIC, is something many feminists often discuss. CARA (Communities Against Rape and Abuse) in Seattle describes the PIC as follows:
“A massive multi-billion dollar industry that promotes the exponential expansion of prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile detention centers. The PIC is represented by corporations that profit from incarceration, politicians who target people of color so that they appear to be ‘tough on crime,’ and the media that represents a slanted view of how crime looks in our communities.”
In other words, the prison system is a system where people are incarcerated and restricted, while others profit from it.
This system, as Angela Davis thoroughly explained decades ago, is deeply rooted in racism and an ineffective response to homelessness, unemployment, and systemic poverty. It allows for inmates to suffer abuse and psychological trauma.
Additionally, the prison system is related to the police force, which often upholds violence and oppressive systems like white supremacy. Police brutality towards marginalized groups, such as sex workers, people of color, and transgender people, is horribly common.
The prison system is the very antithesis of respecting personal autonomy, consent, and liberty.
We can’t dismantle rape culture using a system that reflects rape culture.
2. Rape Happens Within Prisons, Too
One of the things I’m constantly told is that people should report their rape to prevent others from being raped.
This common trope leads to many people feeling manipulated or shamed into reporting their rape. It’s also an illogical conclusion, because reporting a rapist won’t necessarily prevent them from raping again.
Firstly, as I mentioned before, reporting rape seldom leads to a conviction. But secondly, sending someone to jail doesn’t actually prevent them from hurting others. If you assault people in mainstream society, you can also assault them in prison.
Imprisoning rapists doesn’t stop them from assaulting others. It just moves it further out of the view of mainstream society.
The prison system isn’t only connected to rape culture in its disrespect of personal autonomy. It also quite literally allows rape to happen often within prisons.
Rape is incredibly common in prisons in the US. Often, inmates are assaulted by prison staff – which highlights how the prison system enables the abuse of prisoners.
In order to dismantle rape culture, we need to care about rape in prisons.
When we make jokes about prison rape, and when we imply that incarcerated people deserve to be assaulted, we’re implying that rape is an appropriate form of punishment for people who don’t abide by a (biased) set of laws and rules. When we do this, we’re engaging in the very attitudes that allow rape culture to flourish.
Clearly, a system that allows rape to flourish isn’t a system that can solve rape culture.
3. Imprisoning Rapists Doesn’t Always Help Those They Hurt
When I first began to tell people about my assault, I was met with a lot of anger. Not anger directed towards me, thankfully, but towards my rapist.
People wanted him to be punished and imprisoned. And I understood why: As I said before, the prison system is one of the only ways we can hope for justice.
But having my rapist punished is not what I need. I need adequate, queer-friendly mental healthcare to help me work through the trauma after being assaulted. I need a community that supports me instead of blaming me. I need to be able to openly discuss my assault without being shunned or called attention-seeking.
I need to live in a society that preemptively teaches people what rape and consent is, instead of punishing them after the damage is already done.
If people felt as passionately about supporting me as what they did about punishing my rapist, I would be in a better place emotionally and mentally.
Hypothetically, it’s possible to imprison rapists while supporting those they assaulted. However, I often find that people seem to think of prisons as the only solution to rape culture. They forget about how we need to be supported and held after experiencing trauma.
Their yearning for punishment eclipses our emotional needs.
Imprisoning rapists might help some victims and survivors feel safe – but for many of us, we need something else: We need a society that promotes consent culture instead of simply punishing people after they’ve already hurt us.
4. Punishing Individuals Won’t Fix a Toxic System
When I think of the way rape culture has affected me, I don’t only think about the traumatic experience of rape itself.
I think about the times I’ve been victim-blamed, about the problematic sex education I was taught, and about the times people accused me of lying about my rape.
Rape culture is about so much more than just rape itself. It’s about what enables rape. It’s about what prevents victims and survivors from speaking out and finding help. It’s about parents unintentionally teaching children that their consent isn’t important. It’s about being retraumatized by an unjust legal system and being shamed into reporting assault.
The truth is, rape culture is systemic. Not everyone who upholds rape culture is a rapist, which means that changing the system needs to start with every one of us examining our attitudes and actions.
When we believe that imprisoning all rapists would simply solve the issue of rape culture, those of us who aren’t rapists let ourselves off scot-free. But if we all take responsibility for how we’re complicit in rape culture, we can begin to make a change.
Thinking that convicting all rapists will end rape culture isn’t just misguided – it’s dangerous. It justifies the proliferation of the prison industrial complex, it eclipses the needs of survivors and victims, and it enables the assault of incarcerated people.
At the moment, the prison system is the only justice system we have in place. But it’s an inadequate system. It’s a violent system. And we owe it to ourselves and to society to acknowledge the bigger system and start thinking about alternative justice systems.
Sian Ferguson is a full-time freelance writer based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Read her articles here.
Search our 3000+ articles!
Our online racial justice training
Used by hundreds of universities, non-profits, and businesses.
Click to learn more