Facts of Life

Facts of Life

Sexual coercion may be less common than prison rape myths would have us believe

In the crowded cafes, trains and streets of our cities it’s not unusual to find yourself involuntarily eavesdropping on a stranger’s private business. I recently encountered the auditory equivalent of “manspreading” when a large man shouted into his mobile phone on crowded public transport, subjecting his captive audience to a series of loud conversations. He seemed to be garnering support from colleagues to help justify his indiscriminate use of the company credit card to view pornography in his hotel room on a business trip. “Mate”, he shouted at one particularly excruciating moment, “I’m being raped by the CEO!” Many aspects of this scene could provide material for this column about the way sex, health and society intersect, but I will reluctantly confine myself to semantics.

The word “raped” is unfortunately used here as a slang term for an aggressive or dominant act. Popular and scholarly discussions have focused on the way this use of language perpetuates rape myths, victim blaming and other unhelpful attitudes about sexual violence towards women. There has been less discussion about the implications for men, particularly non-heterosexual men.

In the case described above, the man on the phone used the word “raped” to express his fear of retribution from a dominant male figure, the CEO. He was not literally at immediate risk of sexual violence, but rather seemed to be using the word “rape” to lend weight to his expression of distress about being vulnerable to an aggressive act as a result of his own behaviour. He had been caught out in a misdemeanour and expected to suffer the consequences. The scenario, and particularly his use of the word “raped”, calls to mind the way that sexual violence in prison is often portrayed in popular culture as a normal phenomenon. Violent prison rape may even be framed as an expected outcome for men sentenced for particularly abhorrent crimes, particularly against women and children.

It is challenging to get accurate estimates of sexual coercion in prison because of the sensitivity of the topic, the difficulty of defining and describing the exact nature of sexual coercion in this context, the likely underreporting of stigmatised sexual experiences, and the wide variety of prison cultures and subcultures. Despite the prevailing cultural myth of rampant male prison rape surprisingly little research has focused on the topic.

The Sexual Health and Attitudes of Australian Prisoners (SHAAP) study has recently released findings about the factors associated with sexual coercion among men in Australian prisons. The study of over 2000 male prisoners in Australia found that sexual coercion in prison was actually much less commonly reported than is generally believed.

Almost a third of participants had feared being sexually assaulted in prison before they were incarcerated, but once they were in prison a much smaller (though still significant) proportion (7%) reported being frightened about the possibility of sexual assault. Only 2.6% had experienced sexual coercion (defined as been forced or frightened into doing something sexually that they did not want). First-time prisoners, men who identified as non-heterosexual and those who had been sexually coerced outside prison were more likely to have been sexually threatened in prison, and to have experienced sexual coercion.

So the likelihood that male prisoners will be raped may be less than popular culture would imply, but as in the case of sexual violence in general, it is the most vulnerable who are at highest risk of sexual coercion - those who are inexperienced in prison ways, have already experienced sexual violence, and non-heterosexual men. The news that the likelihood of sexual coercion is low would be of little comfort to a man who is sexually assaulted in prison. Clearly, despite the challenges of this kind of research, we need to know more about sexual violence in prisons if we are to prevent it happening, understand how to reduce the impact of sexual violence on those who experience it, and challenge the pervasive myths about prison rape culture, the causes of sexual violence, and assumptions about masculinity and male sexuality.

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