Sabrina Qutb, Lara Stemple, Selling a Soft Drink, Surviving Hard Time, Just what part of prison rape do you find amusing?, San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 2002.
If you've been watching television lately, you might have seen a
lighthearted commercial for 7-Up called "Captive Audience." In the ad, a
7-Up spokesperson hands out cans of soda to prisoners. When he
accidentally drops a can, he quips that he won't pick it up, implying that
to bend down is to risk being raped. Later in the ad, a cell door slams,
trapping the spokesperson on a bed with another man who refuses to take
his arm from around him.
Nearly 100 human rights groups, HIV/AIDS groups, civil rights and sexual
violence organizations were outraged by the ad, claiming it perpetuated
callousness toward prisoner rape, a serious and widespread human rights
abuse. No corporation, the groups argued, would make jokes about rape
outside of the prison context.
After a month of protest and bad press, Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc. decided to
pull the commercial off the air.
But how could 7-Up think that jokes about prisoner rape were funny in the
Well, for one, their ad agency, Young & Rubicam, told them so. The
prestigious New York agency, which boasts clients like Sony, was
responsible for creating the ad as part of the comedic Make 7-Up Yours
campaign. And several consumer focus groups told them so. According to
7-Up, they reacted "quite favorably" to early tests of the ad. And even
the Directors Guild of America told them so. They nominated the ad series
for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials in 2001.
It seems everyone "got it" when the spokesman said he wouldn't bend over,
and that no one thought about the real problem of prisoner rape.
In fact, for many people, their understanding of rape in prison is limited
to the realm of locker-room humor and "don't drop the soap" jokes. But
unfortunately, prisoner rape is a reality, happening right now, to real
people, causing real suffering. And the truth is it is not funny at all.
It was not funny for Roderick Johnson, a Texas man serving time for a
nonviolent crime. Over an 18-month period, Johnson was raped, abused and
degraded almost every day by the prison gangs that literally enslaved him.
Threatened with death, he was routinely rented out to fellow prisoners for
$5 to $10 per sex act.
It was not funny for Robin Darbyshire, who on a four-day trip en route to
a Colorado jail was repeatedly taunted, threatened with death and forced
to expose herself to the armed driver of the transport van.
It was not funny for Rodney Hulin, Jr. who was 16 when he was sent to an
adult prison for setting a trash container on fire. Only 5 foot 2, he was
raped within a week of arriving in the Clemens Unit in Texas. His pleas
for protection were repeatedly denied as older inmates continued to beat
him, rob him and force him to perform oral sex. Eventually, Rodney hanged
himself. He lay in a coma for four months before he died.
Unfortunately, these three prisoners are not alone. Men, women and youth
are routinely raped and sexually brutalized in prisons throughout the
country. Considered by international legal bodies to be a form of torture,
prisoner rape derails justice and destroys human dignity.
Rape in prison is a reality that most people have learned to ignore or
have grown to accept. But it is an institutionalized form of cruelty that
infringes upon basic human rights, contributes to the spread of disease
and perpetuates violence both inside and outside of prison walls.
Following an incident of rape, victims suffer both physical and
psychological pain. Gang rapes can be particularly brutal, leaving victims
viciously beaten, and in rare cases, dead. The abuse can be relentless;
survivors of prisoner rape are frequently marked by other inmates as
targets for additional attacks. Long-term consequences of prisoner rape
may include post-traumatic stress disorder, rape trauma syndrome,
substance abuse and suicide.
Significantly, HIV rates are eight to 10 times higher inside prison than
outside. Nonviolent offenders are among the most likely to be raped, and
in the context of HIV/AIDS, this may amount to an unadjudicated death
sentence for a minor offense. In addition, upon release, victims may bring
with them emotional scars and learned violent behavior that continue the
cycle of harm.
And what does this have to do with routine jokes about prisoner rape?
One problem victims like Roderick Johnson, Robin Darbyshire and Rodney
Hulin face is that too often prison officials, like the general public, do
not take this problem seriously. All three victims reported the abuse, and
all three were ignored by officials, who refused to believe in the
severity of the victims' suffering.
Prisoner rape may be a common subject of jokes, but pandering to the
insensitivity only perpetuates callousness regarding this horrific,
Stop Prisoner Rape, a nonprofit human rights group, was founded over 20
years ago to bring the dangers of prisoner rape into the public
consciousness. Together with 96 other organizations, Stop Prisoner Rape
sought to open the eyes of 7-Up executives to a very real horror. And to
their credit, 7-Up listened and responded by pulling the ad -- the first
such cancellation in the corporation's 75-year history.
We applaud 7-Up for changing its mind about Captive Audience. And we would
like to see 7-Up go further, by publicly supporting efforts to end the
widespread wrong that is prisoner rape. Legislation is about to be
introduced in Congress that would go part of the way toward addressing
rape in prisons. With public support from mainstream companies like 7-Up,
we can help ensure that systematic sexual violence is prevented in U.S.
jails and prisons.
Now that would be something to smile about.
Sabrina Qutb is the communications director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a
nonprofit human rights group founded in 1979 by prison rape survivors.
Lara Stemple is the group's executive director.