Rape Culture: Why Prison Rape Needs to Be a Part of the Discussion

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In less than two weeks, former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw will be sentenced for the rapes and sexual assaults of seven black women and one black child. And if this is to be a rare instance in which Lady Justice holds black women in her unfamiliar embrace, he will serve 263 years in prison.

Justice, however—no matter how poetic the vengeance may seem in theory, no matter how primal the violence may taste tickling the tongue—is never rape. Despite popular opinion, we do not get to pick and choose when rape is acceptable, nor which victims are respectable. We do not get to joke about “Don’t drop the soap” and “Big Leroy,” then pretend to fight against the stereotypical depictions of black men as savages deserving of the state-sanctioned terror inflicted upon them.


We do not get to find joy in black men serving as white devils by proxy, willing to rape any vulnerable inmate in their paths in the interest of “justice,” then feign concern about the complete eradication of rape culture.

Rape culture, a culture that promotes the systemic devaluation of bodies that have been sexually assaulted; a culture that houses, encourages and protects the triggering and blaming of its victims; a culture that thrives on misogyny, homophobia and abusive power. Rape culture thrives behind prison walls across this country, and it’s a conversation that needs to be tackled unflinchingly, not wrapped in the punch lines and pathology that we’ve either grown accustomed to or grown accustomed to ignoring.


Human Rights Watch estimates that approximately 140,000 men have been raped behind bars, largely by other male inmates, despite the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (pdf). Still, despite the disproportionate number of black men who are targeted on the streets by racist policing tactics—see: the recent New York Times report that found that 1.5 million black men are missing from society, in large part because of mass incarceration—black men rarely view themselves as potential victims of sexual violence.

This crisis is exacerbated by the fact that men who have been raped in prison seldom report their victimization for fear that their masculinity—rather, what they’ve been taught masculinity should be—will be called into question.


This is a masculinity, tethered to power, aggression and control, that forces young boys to hide their rapes if their rapist is a man, or brag about it as “just sex” if their rapist is a woman. This is a masculinity that refuses to acknowledge that rape culture even exists, despite knowing that it perpetuates the victimization of men and boys.

And we cannot ignore the intersections that exist even behind prison walls.

Women face the highest statistical risk of being raped in prison by other inmates, according to the latest Justice Department study. Gay male inmates are more often the victims of men who identify as cisgender heterosexuals, despite the myth of the “predatory homosexual.” Black inmates who identify as transgender women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates, with approximately 32 percent being raped in jail after being placed in male populations. Male and female inmates with disabilities and/or psychological issues are also more likely to be sexually violated.


Prison rape is a sprawling virus that affects us all, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable among us, and if it isn’t a part of the conversation, we do everyone a disservice. 

The Cost of Silence

I was afraid to write this piece. What about the women who are forced to navigate society at risk and on guard every single day? How do we broaden this conversation without erasing them—erasing us—even for a moment? I was terrified because women who have been victims of rape have become a political football in this country, our pain reduced to talking points and running tabs that are never paid at the conclusion of the election cycle. Rape kits around the country are being tossed into the trash, untested, paving the way for serial rapists.


Victim blaming and shaming—particularly in the black community in the wake of Bill Cosby being charged and BET recrowning R. Kelly—is at an all-time high. Black women who dare to criticize these men on social media are being called Negro bed wenches out to help The Man™ destroy black men. Holtzclaw was charged with raping 12 black women and one black child, and hardly anyone cared for over a year; yet one black woman, Monique Pressley, unapologetically defends Cosby, a man with over 50 sexual assault allegations against him, and almost instantly becomes a role model.

These are the times in which we live, and male prison rape is the issue most often raised against feminists who dare to center other women in the fight against rape culture in attempts to silence us. It is used as a deflection, a distraction, a derailment, a reactionary argument dishonestly framed as male advocacy, when its sole purpose is to disguise male apathy.


The mere thought of my words being used in such a way, tossed like a grenade into my sisters’ faces, made me hesitate in a way that I never do when speaking truth. It was an uncomfortable hesitation that threw the boomerang effect of misogyny into stark relief, illuminating the potential it has to render men complicit in their own victimization and erasure.

It was a hesitation that reminded me of my own vulnerability.

While I was speaking to a colleague about prison rape, however, he mentioned Kalief Browder and how his story resonated with him. Browder was just 16 years old when he was racially profiled and wrongfully arrested for the alleged theft of a backpack. During his three years at New York City’s Rikers Island jail, he was brutalized by both prison guards and inmates. We will never know how many times. Knowing what we know about prison rape culture, he was either sexually assaulted or exposed to the possibility of sexual assault while incarcerated—all for a crime he didn’t commit. A crime that, even if he had committed it, didn’t warrant three years on Rikers Island to be forgotten and silenced, as too many victims are.


After being thrown away by society, Browder would eventually commit suicide at the age of 22, just two years after his release from Rikers. Before his death, he spoke openly about the psychological turmoil he endured both during his time in prison and after his release: “I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.”

I thought about Browder—a child stripped of his innocence and his possibilities—and what I know to be true: In a racist system that hungers for black flesh to consume, white pedophiles and cops aren’t the usual suspects. And we cannot wait until we empathize or give a damn about the victims to fight back against the toxic pervasiveness of rape culture.  We cannot wait for a convenient time. We cannot wait for permission to care.


That’s not how being anti-rape works.

Just as much as the young boy who screams into his pillow as he’s being sexually assaulted by his uncle, or the girl raped at gunpoint in a park, or the wife who is told that rape cannot occur in marriage because she is her husband’s property, prison rape is a part of the whole, and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.  


And until we create safe spaces for these victims, for all victims, to be truly seen and heard, rape culture will continue to be viewed as a “woman’s problem” or a “man-hating, feminist agenda”—something society has always found easy to deny or vilify, and ultimately ignore. 

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