Prisoner Rape as Entertainment

While joking about the things that make us anxious is sometimes a relief, humor can also trivialize and dehumanize. That is why Jay Leno will not tell racist jokes, why no movie studio will touch a script that makes fun of the Holocaust, and why child abuse is not treated facetiously even by the most outrageous radio talk-show host. Regrettably, as made clear in this recent IKEA ad campaign, prisoner rape is still considered joke-worthy.

In 2006, Universal Pictures showed just how far the entertainment community is willing to go in making light of the sexual violence that plagues U.S. prisons and jails; it dedicated much of a full-length comedy – Let’s Go to Prison – to rape gags. Movie billboards featuring a lathery bar of soap were plastered across the nation. The film’s promotional blurb refers to the lead actor being sold to another inmate for “prison snuggling.” In the film itself, back-to-back punch lines about rape fight for attention.

Thankfully, Let’s Go to Prison also offered reasons for hope. In the weeks before and after its release, JDI received scores of calls and e-mails from the general public. One person described Let’s Go to Prison as “unbelievably offensive.” Another said, “The length the movie goes to, to trivialize and mock rape, was truly shocking to me.” Survivors of prisoner rape, like JDI’s Survivor Council member Keith DeBlasio, wrote to Universal Pictures to express their dismay. Others staged demonstrations outside movie theaters. Even Universal Pictures eventually began to take note. Michael Moses, Universal’s Executive Vice President for Publicity, called Mr. DeBlasio to let him know that the company would cease its soap-based advertising campaign.

Universal’s decision was a victory to JDI, Mr. DeBlasio, and other courageous survivors who had spoken out about the offensiveness of both the film and its marketing materials, even though Mr. Moses insisted that it was based entirely on the movie’s poor box office results.