When Sexism and Homophobia Thrive, Nobody is Safe

Gender-based violence doesn’t affect just women and girls. In fact, far from it. Every year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, at least 209,400 inmates are sexually abused while behind bars. The vast majority of them are men, held in this nation’s bloated maze of detention facilities: prisons, jails, halfway houses, immigration detention centers, and youth facilities. While thousands of women in prison are subjected to life-shattering abuse every year, the fact remains that well over 90 percent of prisoners are men and the rates of sexual abuse are about the same in men’s and women’s facilities. In short, we are facing a systemic, nationwide crisis of sexual abuse of men and boys.

At its core, sexual violence – whether against women or men – is an expression of sexism and homophobia. Prisoner rape is no exception. Sexual abuse happens inside detention facilities for the same reasons it happens outside of them. Places with a culture of male domination – whether it’s a university or a prison, a workplace or a halfway house – are more likely to develop a culture of rape. 

In the prison setting, LGBT people, women, and any man perceived as not living up to the most exaggerated stereotypes of male behavior become targets for sexual harassment and abuse. Even inmates who are not involved in sexual violence are forced to adapt to an environment in which the strong prey upon the weak and in which failure to embrace that dynamic is itself taken as a sign of weakness. Once victimized, or “turned out,” survivors are labeled “girl,”“bitch,” or “punk.” Vulnerable inmates speak of needing to “get a man” or “get a husband” – a more powerful inmate with whom to exchange sex for protection from others.

Prisoner rape doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The homophobic and misogynistic views that flourish behind bars, among prisoners and corrections staff alike, are first learned in the community. As such, any effort to stop this cycle of abuse must involve advocates working both inside and outside of prisons.

To me, Move to End Violence is an opportunity to bring the fight to end sexual abuse of inmates firmly into the broader effort to eliminate gender-based violence. And I know that the work of Just Detention International will benefit enormously if I can bring home even a tiny fraction of the combined passion, expertise, and smarts of my Move to End Violence colleagues.

The rape of prisoners challenges the core of our commitment to basic human rights, to everyone’s right to dignity. Man or woman, prisoner or member of the free world, no one should ever be subjected to sexual violence. Not even a rapist. Rape is not part of the penalty.

Lovisa Stannow

Lovisa Stannow has worked in the fields of communications and international human rights for the past 25 years. She is multilingual and has spent significant parts of her career in war zones and areas of natural disaster. Lovisa joined the Board of Directors of Just Detention International in 2002 and has served as its Executive Director since 2005. More about Lovisa >