Photo by x1klima, Flickr CC

Since its inception last October, the #MeToo campaign has extended beyond the red carpets of Hollywood and into other public arenas like high schools and universities, religious organizations, and military bases. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape within carceral environments such as jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and immigrant detention facilities, however, have received comparatively little public or media attention. And when such reports are made, they are often met with public indifference or ill humor with jokes like “Don’t drop the soap!” Nevertheless, there is a a small but growing base of social science research that shows how confined persons experience both the threat and the act of sexual violence.

In contrast to the #MeToo movement in the larger society, much of the research on sexual violence against those incarcerated has explicitly focused on men and male facilities. Male facilities have long been marred by reports of sexual violence, in part due to norms of hypermasculinity that encourage violence as a sign of heterosexuality. Men are expected to prove that they are not “fags,” “punks,” or “bitches” to avoid being targeted for rape. Yet, confined men who exhibit a smaller stature and present perceived feminine characteristics face a greater likelihood of experiencing sexual violence during their stay.
Women also face staggering rates of sexual violence behind bars. In addition to instances of rape through aggressive physical force, guards sometimes coerce women into sex in exchange for certain benefits such as visits, phone calls, food, and cigarettes. Due to transgender discrimination, trans women are often confined with other male inmates, where they face an even greater risk of harassment, assault, and rape, both by their peers and the guards who control them. Despite increased legislation and advocacy following the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), most detained victims do not report the abuse to authorities. For one, guards themselves are often the perpetrators of sexual violence and wield the authority to dismiss an inmate’s claims. Moreover, victims may not disclose for fear of retaliation, shame, guilt, the loss of benefits, and questions about their (hetero)sexuality.
While sexual violence no doubt pervades many carceral settings, researchers also study other forms of sexual activity, sexuality, and sexual social control among confined persons. Recent work, for example, shows that LGBQ inmates often develop consensual and caring sexual relationships within confinement. Yet, institutional restrictions on sexual activity through mandates like PREA criminalize these consensual relationships. Scholars suggest that such restrictions are not necessarily rooted in concerns over public safety and consent, but rather decades-long discrimination against same-gender sex.
As we continue to grapple with the social and political reckoning of Me Too, social science researchers can help disrupt the “sociological silence of sexual violence” and draw attention to power differentials across settings in which people are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Highlighting confined persons’ lived experiences of sex and sexual violence within carceral settings, then, contributes to larger conversations around sexual consent and power, as well as the reform (or abolition) of incarceration.