That’s the claim in this n+1 piece, which is well worth a read (thanks, Tom Foolery, for the link).
In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.
The Justice Department survey is linked here. And… yeah. Those numbers are not quite correct, but they are nonetheless horrifying. First of all, “sexual assault” is not always the same as “rape,” and includes a variety of behavior that wouldn’t meet the legal standard for rape. So it’s not clear that there are actually more rapes of men than women, or more rapes of prisoners than non-prisoners. Also, the number I found through the DOJ was 88,500 victims of sexual victimization. This New York Review of Books article says that the DOJ revised those findings, getting to 216,000.
According to RAINN, there are 213,000 victims of sexual assault in the United States every year. More than 9/10ths of those victims are women and girls. The numbers RAINN uses come from the Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS, though, is clear that its methodology for gathering sexual assault stats is pretty limited, and probably doesn’t present a 100% accurate picture of what victims experience. The NCVS also doesn’t seem to include prisoners (at least as far as I can tell), but would include people who were sexually assaulted in prison within the past year, but were out of prison at the time the NCVS was taken. So there’s likely some overlap, although very small, between the two surveys.
“Inmates” also does not translate to “men.” There are a whole lot of women in jail, and female prisoners are twice as likely to experience inmate-on-inmate sexual assault (male inmates are slightly more likely to experience assault at the hands of prison staff). So again, not so obvious that more men than women experience sexual assault.
It also looks like the NCVS statistics, which include “rape and sexual assault,” are not calculated in quite the same way as the prison “sexual victimization” statistics — that is, different kinds of behaviors are included in the prison survey that don’t appear to be included in the NCVS. For example:
The department divides sexual abuse in detention into four categories. Most straightforward, and most common, is rape by force or the threat of force. An estimated 69,800 inmates suffered this in 2008. The second category, “nonconsensual sexual acts involving pressure,” includes 36,100 inmates coerced by such means as blackmail, offers of protection, and demanded payment of a jailhouse “debt.” This is still rape by any reasonable standard.
An estimated 65,700 inmates, including 6,800 juveniles, had sex with staff “willingly.” But it is illegal in all fifty states for corrections staff to have any sexual contact with inmates. Since staff can inflict punishments including behavioral reports that may extend the time people serve, solitary confinement, loss of even the most basic privileges such as showering, and (legally or not) violence, it is often impossible for inmates to say no. Finally, the department estimates that there were 45,000 victims of “abusive sexual contacts” in 2008: unwanted touching by another inmate “of the inmate’s buttocks, thigh, penis, breasts, or vagina in a sexual way.” Overall, most victims were abused not by other inmates but, like Jan, by corrections staff: agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.
So, for the record, I think that coercive sexual acts should be included in sexual assault statistics. I think acts like unwanted touching should be included in the stats. Blackmailing, pressuring or bribing someone into sex makes sex non-consensual, and that should be reflected in our understanding of sexual assault. Ditto for “willing” sexual interactions between people whose power differentials make consent an impossibility. But I don’t think the NCVS numbers reflect those kinds of assaults, and so we’re sort of comparing apples and oranges here. And I don’t think it’s possible to conclude from these numbers that the United States is “the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.”
All of that said: Both the n+1 article and the NY Review of Books article are correct that the U.S. prison system is a moral catastrophe. They are both correct that it is entirely possible to lower the sexual assault rate in American prisons, but that the political will is simply not there. I’m looking at the numbers here not because I want to discount those positions, but because (a) I don’t want the comment section to devolve into arguing about the inaccuracy of the numbers, and (b) I think it’s helpful to keep in mind some of the nuances here, instead of just making it a men vs. women thing.
There are many reasons to be horrified by prison assault — and sexual assault generally — but the degree to which it’s enmeshed in the American consciousness as just part of our system of “justice” is particularly disturbing. While it looks to me like more women than men are sexually assaulted every year, it is clear that entering the prison system greatly increases your chances of being sexually assaulted, regardless of your gender. And however you cut the statistics, it is clear that men in the United States are sexually assaulted in enormous numbers — they’re just men who we don’t care so much about, or who society has decided deserves it.
There are big differences in social conceptions of sexual assault in the prison population versus the general population — even though 1 in 10 Americans will be imprisoned at some point in their lives, and the U.S. imprisons more people than any other society in the history of the world. Comparing prison assault with non-prison assault is interesting and necessary, but it’s important to keep in mind that they operate in very different contexts (which isn’t to say that one is better or worse, just that if we’re going to discuss them intelligently, it makes sense to address that fact).
One overlap, though, between prison rape of men and non-prison rape of women is the way American society views both as an inevitability. That plays out in different ways, but there’s a sense that incarceration must naturally lead to rape (see, e.g., “don’t drop the soap!” jokes), and that femaleness is inherently sexually tempting and therefore also leads to rape if you’re not vigilant about preventing it (see, e.g., every rape prevention tactic that focuses on what women should or should not do — don’t walk home alone, don’t wear revealing clothing, etc etc). At the same time, inevitability is tempered by the perceived ability to prevent rape if you just do things “right” — don’t commit a crime so that you end up in jail, don’t break any of the Rape Avoidance Rules For Ladies. It’s a convenient way to conceptualize assault — if you just behave yourself, you won’t be a victim. For women, “doing things right” requires constant vigilance, and an understanding of oneself as inherently vulnerable; it keeps us fearful, and it inhibits our freedom of movement. For populations with high incarceration rates, “doing things right” also requires constant vigilance, and an understanding of oneself as perceived as inherently criminal; it keeps entire communities fearful, resentful, and unable to seek the protection of the police; and it inhibits freedom of movement and expression and speech.
But with the understanding that rape is an inevitability and an avoidable threat and an individual crime, there’s also no reason to actually do something about sexual assault. As long as we pin part of the responsibility for assault on victims — whether it’s people in prison or people in their own homes — there’s less of an incentive to actually curb assault, and less of an understanding that it actually is possible to prevent sexual assault on the assailant side. As long as we understand sexual assault as inevitable because men are naturally sexually voracious and sexually violent, there’s no logical argument for trying to prevent sexual assault on the assailant side, because the only real solution is for women to protect themselves from roving, uncontrollable beasts. How can one stop men from raping, the argument goes, if some men are “natural” rapists? It only makes sense to target women with “common-sense advice,” even though that advice — which largely amounts to “don’t go outside” — has little relation to how sexual assault actually functions. And so while we could actually do quite a bit to curb assault — and while sexual assault rates have decreased as female power in society has increased — the entire way we understand it makes efforts to curb it seem pointless.
It’s also impossible to separate this issue out from racism, classism, ableism and homophobia. The U.S. prison population (including ICE immigration holding facilities) is disproportionately black and Latin@. Prisoners disproportionately come from low-income backgrounds. Prison populations also include many individuals with intellectual disabilities and untreated mental health issues, as well as histories of violent victimization which can lead to mental and physical health issues. And we’re imprisoning millions of people who are not actually violent and aren’t actually dangerous. Among non-incarcerated victims of sexual violence, women with disabilities are far more likely to be targeted for sexual abuse than women who are able-bodied and/or don’t have developmental disabilities. Native women have the highest sexual assault rates of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Stats for trans women and men are slightly more difficult to come by, since as far as I can tell they aren’t noted in the DOJ surveys, but every reputable study I’ve seen indicates that trans people experience sexual assault at significantly higher rates that cis people. Black trans folks in the prison system are assaulted at particularly astounding rates — around 30% report being assaulted while in jail or police custody.
Feminists have long argued that sexual assault is about power and not sex — it’s about turning what should be a pleasurable act into a weapon and an expression of dominance. We’ve argued that the role of sexual assault in society isn’t just about individual violence — one person wanting to do harm to another person for a specific reason — but that it’s a broader form of gender-based terrorism, where women and girls as positioned as always vulnerable, and where rape serves as a pervasive threat which curtails our full freedom to move through public space. Those things are all true, and sexual assault of women and girls is still very much a social tool employed to keep us fearful and relegated to the private sphere.
But sexual assault is also used to put “undesireables” in their place. Misogyny plays into that, too. The language of prison rape reflects rape-related misogyny, from jokes about the rapist making the less powerful prisoner his “bitch” to our limited understanding of prison sexual assault as necessarily entailing penetration with a penis. Being raped in prison is largely (and falsely) assumed to be a crime with exclusively male victims and exclusively male perpetrators, both of whom are considered reprehensible. We don’t make a big deal out of prison rape not just because Americans largely don’t care — although Americans largely don’t care — but also because it’s part of punishing certain classes of people who we think deserve punishment, and who we think aren’t quite as human. In the real world, we all know that almost every non-incarcerated female rape victim is put through the wringer, and we all get to weigh in on What She Did Wrong and What I Would Have Done to not bring rape upon myself like she stupidly did. But we can do that only because there’s an ideal out there of the “real,” truly innocent rape victim who really really did nothing wrong. We can conceive of an innocent non-imprisoned female rape victim — young, white, virginal, assaulted by a stranger.
There are no innocent criminals.
And so sexual assault in prison — or the threat of sexual assault in prison — similarly keeps less-powerful classes of people living under the pervasive threat of sexual violation. It doesn’t work in the exact same way that the threat of sexual violence operates with regard to non-incarcerated women, and both have very different dynamics and areas where they overlap or totally diverge, but the use of sexual violence to maintain power (male power, state power) and to keep a less-powerful group living in fear is a constant.
Whether there are more men than women sexually assaulted in the United States every year is an outstanding question. What’s clear, though, is that sexual violence isn’t a random crime of passion; it’s a crime that has clear social purposes. And just as we’ve seen sexual violence against women significantly decrease as women have made greater social, economic and political gains, we’re not going to see prison assaults decrease until we radically restructure our punitive criminal justice system, and until there’s the same kind of righteous moral outrage over our draconian laws, absurd incarceration rates and levels of state-sanctioned abuse of the people that same state is charged with holding as there is about, say, women thinking they might have the right to their own bodies.