Edward Cervantes, Even on “The L Word,” Prisoner Rape Isn't Sexy, 365gay.com, January 22, 2008.
Prison sex clichés abound. We are all familiar with eroticized and supposedly humorous images of sex in prison. Exploitation films and pornography – aimed both at gay and straight men – have long used detention settings as a source of sexual fantasy.
The scenarios that are played out for the purposes of mainstream entertainment usually depict events that, in real life, traumatize and deeply hurt the victims. Generally, it is not ‘prison sex’ they are capitalizing on, but ‘prisoner rape.’ Mainstream film and television have used prisoner rape to get laughs from and to titillate their audiences for decades.
In reality, sex in prison is more about power than about sex and often involves force and coercion. In fact, it is frequently rape; and rape is neither sexy nor funny.
This season, the hit Showtime series, The 'L' Word, has fallen into the prison sex cliché trap. The season’s first episode found one of the main characters, Helena Peabody, incarcerated on theft charges. When three friends come to visit, she receives just one piece of emphatic advice, “don’t drop the soap!” Now we know what’s coming….
In the second episode, the camera pans through a communal prison shower and lingers on one prisoner as she suggestively lathers her breasts. Helena, of course, drops her soap. She bends over to pick it up and when she stands up she is confronted by a woman who produces a knife and threatens Helena with sexual and physical harm. Helena escapes being raped only because her tough, and assumedly reputable, cellmate steps in to prevent the assault.
Were this to take place in a real jail, the story would play out somewhat differently than on The 'L' Word. Helena would now be indebted to the stronger inmate who had come to her “rescue.” In exchange for favors – sexual, domestic, and monetary – the stronger inmate would offer Helena protection. This is a phenomenon known as “protective pairing,” or in prisoner lingo, “hooking up.” In essence, the inmate in need of protection belongs to the stronger, more experienced inmate.
Helena did not escape a sexual assault. She survived a physical and sexual assault that could have resulted in extensive injuries, only to enter into a dangerous, binding, and non-consensual relationship.
A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in women’s prisons is alarmingly common. In some facilities, one in ten women reported being forced or coerced to engage in sexual contact with another female inmate in the past year alone.
Stop Prisoner Rape recently received a letter from a female prisoner who had engaged in sexual activity with her cellmate. She explains, “The first two times I was willing but after that I got uncomfortable and no longer wanted anything to do with her. I felt I couldn't say ‘no’ because she would physically hurt me, or worse emotionally … A lot of people say I wasn't raped, but I feel like I was.”
She is right. She was raped and she is not alone. In an average week, SPR receives between 10 and 15 letters from survivors of sexual violence behind bars, many of whom describe situations where they are confronted with an impossible choice: accept a protector or face regular, sometimes daily, incidents of sexual violence.
The LGBTQ community is disproportionately affected by this crisis. In both men’s and women’s prisons, it is non-heterosexually identified individuals who constitute the prime targets for sexual violence. Stop Prisoner Rape calls on the LGBTQ community to stand up against all forms of sexual abuse and to reject depictions of prisoner rape as a source of same-sex eroticism. Survivors of sexual violence in detention would agree; prisoner rape is never sexy.
Edward Cervantes is the Survivor Outreach Associate of Stop Prisoner Rape, an international human rights organization that seeks to eliminate sexual abuse against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention