Prison Rape Jokes Are The Furthest Thing From Funny

By Ijeoma Oluo

Prison rape is an exercise in power and degradation. To laugh at it is to participate in dehumanization.

When former Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault, black women in America saw a small measure of justice. In a world where rape victims rarely see justice, and women of color see it even less, many of us took to social media to show our relief that finally the system showed that it can care about rape victims and black women. But with the relief, elation, and justified schadenfreude, there were also rape jokes. Prison rape jokes.

These prison rape jokes weren’t coming from your typical bro-dudes and hack comics who get a giggle out of the subjugation of women — they were coming from other women, other progressives, other feminists. I find it distasteful to critique how people who have been abused and marginalized react to seeing such a symbol of oppression as a white cop who targeted black women with sexual assault finally get what is coming to him, but I think it’s important to understand the harm of prison rape jokes.

Let’s look at what rape is. Rape is not a sexual act that magically turns into a violation. Rape is an act of power, control, and revenge. It is an act that is generally gendered, reducing a woman to her sexual and reproductive parts, and subsequently degrading that reduced self until the woman is absolutely nothing. It is not only the act of rape, but also the societal definitions of a woman’s worth being tied to her attractiveness to men and her sexual purity, that brutalize women. There are other forms of rape, and rape can happen in any gender combination, but this lies at the foundation of much sexual violence.

Rape is an act of power, control, and revenge.

This gendered, punitive rape is a classic weapon of war; every war since the dawn of man has brought the horrific abuse of countless women and girls. Its intent, however, is not only to brutalize and dehumanize the female population, but also to punish the male population by taking and destroying their sexual property. The raping of a man is viewed as an even more degrading punishment as he is being reduced to the status of the lowest woman.

Punitive rape is also used in abusive relationships. Many women are raped by partners, not when their partners seem “hopelessly attracted” to them and unable to control themselves, but when they have angered or “disrespected” their partners or tried to leave.

Rape is the tool, not of men who simply love women too much, but of men who hate women and want to destroy them. Men who feel entitled to the bodies of women and are angered by any resistance.

Prison rape, and the way in which we talk about prison rape, is punitive and gendered as well. Prison rape, and the language of making someone “your bitch,” is an exercise in power and degradation. The prisoner doing the rape is the man, the prisoner being raped is reduced to the woman. When we rub our hands in glee at the thought of Holtzclaw being “reduced” to the status of his victims, we not only perpetuate this gendered and punitive justification of rape, but we further dehumanize his victims by reducing them to their violation.

Furthermore, the notion that prison rape is a justified punishment for evildoers, combined with the gendered nature of punitive rape, discourages male victims from speaking out. If you are a man who has been raped, and rape is a tool for the degradation of women and the punishment of bad men, who will have empathy for you? Surely, you are the only one. Surely, people will judge you more than your rapist. It is no wonder that the rape of men and boys is so drastically and dangerously underreported.

The truth is, rape is not okay ever, under any circumstances. The justifications that prisoners “deserve it” are often indistinguishable from the justifications that women “deserve it.” Don’t forget, Holtzclaw went after drug addicts, sex workers, and ex-cons for a reason.

Nobody “deserves” to be raped and we need to stand firm that there is never any justification for sexual assault, as any justification will always be repurposed to legitimize the rape of women, children, men, and boys around the world.

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