Opinion

Why America's prison rape epidemic is everyone's problem

We won't end taxpayer-funded rape until we get serious about rape in general

We have recently seen an uptick in the conversation about prison rape: A former inmate wrote in The New York Times about her experience; The Nation asked "Why Americans Don't Care"; The Atlantic featured one young man's harrowing story of too many attackers to number. And then there was Get Hard, the film starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, which led The Week's Scott Meslow to bluntly suggest that "Hollywood needs to stop treating prison rape as a punchline."

The facts are appalling. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that in 2011 alone, some 200,000 people were sexually victimized in the American prison system. Stronger inmates prey on the weak, and far too many guards close their eyes, collude, or are themselves rapists. The Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003 to provide some protection for the youngest and most vulnerable, is rarely effectual and often ignored. And as Meslow made excruciatingly clear, American culture thinks it's all pretty funny — just look at John Oliver's supercut.

This is a human disaster of monumental proportion, and the eagerness with which we laugh it off is an indictment of our notions of justice. I'm hopeful that the widely shared dismay over Get Hard indicates a shift in the discourse — but real change will only happen if we come to understand prison rape in the context in which any rape, anywhere, must be seen.

Rape is never about sex; rape is always about power and control. Rape is a tool, a weapon, a means of communication. Rapists are telling themselves and their victims who's in charge, and whose body is forfeit.

For most rapists, of course, the power and control are fleeting. The prisoner who attacks is still, after all, in prison. Soldiers who rape remain subject to military commands. The guy who won't take no for an answer has a boss, or a coach, or any number of impositions on his time and freedom.

Power is never complete — yet in that moment in which they choose to rape, rapists seek to use another person's body to proclaim that here, at least, they have some small measure of it. The victim is a delivery mechanism for the rapist's message.

Rape has been pressed into service as psychological warfare throughout human history, the bodies of women and vanquished men serving not just as trophies, but also tactical advantage. Traumatized women may fail to support their fighting men; fighting men may lose faith in their manhood; whole communities can be shattered in a single night's raid.

But the message need not be military, or coordinated. It can be local, as in a priest's parish or a family home; it can be individual, as with Bill Cosby and Stephen Collins; it can be amorphous, everywhere felt yet difficult to pin down. But the essentials of the message are the same: I am in charge. Your body — the flesh and blood with which you rise in the morning and lie down at night — is mine.

It's imperative to note that survivors' reactions are deeply personal, and absolutely not contingent on the message their attackers may have intended to send. Survivors will tell you: The assault does not define them.

Each moment and each person and each event is individual and complex — but the act, the act itself, the act of using another person's body for your own ends, really is a very simple thing. It's about power. It's about control. Wherever and however it happens.

The need to genuinely address what amounts to taxpayer-funded and state-sanctioned rape in our prisons is acute and quite desperate. We cannot idly abide the tortures to which some inmates are regularly subjected.

But it would be a grievous error to cordon off one kind of rape from another, this victim from that. Human society is riddled with sexual abuse, and we will not change that fact until we see each attack within the context of a culture that has been far too tolerant of it.

Prison rape exists on a continuum that winds its way through our streets and our schools and our homes and our workplaces; only when we begin to recognize and champion the full human autonomy of all people, no matter their gender, place in the hierarchy, or time served, will we begin to truly free ourselves of its evil.

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