Gay, Bisexual, Sexually Abused Male Inmates More Fearful of Prison Rape, More Open to Therapy

There is nowhere to escape in what often is referred to as a “sexual jungle,” especially for the most vulnerable. However, “Zero tolerance” toward prison rape is now national policy thanks to the Prison Rape Elimination Act passed by the United States Congress in 2003. Although this law changed how Americans think about prison rape, few studies have examined how inmates perceive rape and if they feel safe in prison. Even less is known about how their perceptions influence whether or not they ask for mental health treatment while incarcerated.

The most recent National Inmate Survey of 2011-12 of 92,449 inmates age 18 or older shows that among non-heterosexual prison inmates, more than 12 percent reported sexual victimization by another inmate and almost 5.5 percent were victimized by a prison staff member within the past 12 months. In comparison, 1.2 percent of heterosexual prisoners were sexually victimized by an inmate and 2.1 percent were victimized by a prison staff member. These rates are even higher for those with mental illness. About one in 12 inmates with a mental disorder report at least one incident of sexual victimization by another inmate over a six-month period, compared to one in 33 male inmates without a mental disorder.

Using data from more than 400 male inmates housed in 23 maximum-security prisons across the U.S., researchers from Florida Atlantic University conducted a novel study to examine the factors related to fear of rape in prison and the likelihood of male inmates requesting mental health treatment while incarcerated. They focused specifically on prisoners at risk of being sexually victimized in prison: gay or bisexual inmates and those with a history of childhood sexual abuse.

A key finding from the study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, is that sexual orientation and a history of childhood sexual abuse are significant predictors of male inmates fearing rape as a big threat in prison and voluntarily requesting mental health treatment. Findings from the study reveal that nearly 38 percent of gay and bisexual inmates and 37 percent of inmates with childhood sexual abuse fear rape as a big threat.

Compared with straight inmates, gay and bisexual inmates are approximately two times more likely to perceive rape as a threat and three times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. Inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to perceive rape as a threat and almost four times more likely to request mental health treatment than inmates who did not report a history of childhood sexual abuse. Notably, this finding is inconsistent with previous research that has shown that there is no significant relationship between childhood sexual abuse and feelings of safety among male inmates.

“The consequences of perceiving rape to be a threat in prison are vast and could contribute to violence among inmates as well as negative mental health ramifications such as increased fear, psychological distress, chronic anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide,” said Cassandra A. Atkin-Plunk, Ph.D., co-author and an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU’s College for Design and Social Inquiry.

Inmates incarcerated for two to five years are nearly three times more likely to perceive that rape is a big threat compared with inmates incarcerated for less than two years. Inmates in prison longer than 18 years are nearly four times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. The researchers also found that Black inmates are twice as likely to seek mental health treatment in prison compared to White inmates.

“Knowing that gay and bisexual inmates and inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to fear rape and seek mental health treatment, prison staff can target outreach and treatment efforts for this vulnerable sub-population,” said Mina Ratkalkar, LCSW, MS, lead author and a licensed clinical social worker pursuing a Ph.D. who conducted the study while she was a graduate student at FAU. “Our study shows that these sub-groups of inmates are receptive to treatment, and our findings have implications for both practice and policy in the United States.”

The sample consisted of a nearly equal number of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Black inmates made up about half of the sample, with White inmates comprising about one-third of the sample. Nearly one-third of the sample had previously been in juvenile detention and about one-quarter were incarcerated for the first time in the adult criminal justice system at age 18 or younger.

About 16.4 percent of the sample identified as gay or bisexual. About one-fifth of the men (73) reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, and about one-third of the men reported having received mental health treatment outside of prison.

Why LGB rights are a Crucial Part of Feminist Values

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Identifying as non-straight, and identifying as a woman: they’re important political, personal and professional issues to think about. And, of course, we need to fight for the rights of both women and LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) individuals. But are they different things?

I’m going to argue that LGB issues and feminism are not only similar, but heavily overlapping. I’m also going to argue that to be effective feminists we should actively be involved in the issues of the LGB community rather than seeing it as something niche, or something separate. Whilst some of this article overlaps with problems faced by the trans* community, the focus here is exclusively on sexuality.

Firstly, gay men are often stereotyped as being weak, flouncy, verbal, and being a sexual threat to straight men. Men as a sexual threat has long been part of feminist rhetoric. Gay men are also imagined to wear bright colours, take care of their appearance, and enjoy dancing, glitter and musicals – all typically feminine traits. This is gender stereotyping (a feminist issue). Additionally, such femininity is considered a ‘step down’ because femininity is inferior to masculinity (a feminist issue).

The gay community also has noted problems with misogyny, which is a clear feminist issue. This can include: disgust at the concept of vaginas (which may be considered a trans* and woman’s issue), misogynoir (misogyny directed at black women), and dismissive references to female hormones. Rapper Azealia Banks also calls out misogynoir from gay men  – whilst such problems have also been placed as part of general society and the need for feminism more widely.

Lesbian women, contrary to gay men, are stereotyped for having short hair, being butch (or tricking straight men for not being butch enough), dressing in a masculine style, and being fat and hairy (relating to not being “feminine”, therefore not being attractive) and hating men. These are all feminist issues.

Another feminist issue is that lesbians are often left out of conversations about being “gay”, politically and otherwise. Marriage equality is often called gay marriage, for example, which erases women and non-binary sexualities although not everyone agrees with this distinction. Lesbians are often over-sexualised, which is a feminist issue. The relative societal status of a relationship that doesn’t include a man – having lower household income because both potential wage-earners are women – is also a feminist issue.

There are other links to heteronormativity and feminism, such as people asking gay men “which of you is the woman” and lesbian women “which of you is the man”. Feminism actively tries to counter prescribed gender roles of this fashion.

Bisexual individuals (including pansexuality and other non-binary labels) often face discrimination and distrust. Bisexual men are often considered partway to “coming out” as gay (because if you’re attracted to both men and women, why would you step down into a female role by getting into a relationship with a man?). Bisexual women can be framed as keen on threesomes, and portrayed as desiring to please men with their same-sex interactions. The social policing of sexuality is a feminist issue. Feminism combats sexuality policing because it’s nobody else’s business what consenting adults get up to. Additionally, bisexuality is often called a “phase”.

Someone being told their sexuality is a “phase” is a feminist issue. This also includes people who define as asexual, as such individuals often lose ownership of their own sexuality.

Going feminism-first, the sexuality of feminists is often called into question. This is homophobic in of itself (to be feminist woman, you hate men, and to hate men, you must be a lesbian). Some of the arguments levelled at lesbians are the same as those levelled at female feminists: you must have been abused in the past, you need to find a good man, what’s wrong with men and why do you hate them so much?

Feminist men are often accused of just wanting to “get laid” (gender stereotyping) or are assumed to be  “white knights” (a clear feminist issue). Occasionally, feminist men may be considered “whipped” (a strange term, which on the surface seems to mean gender power role-reversal). The latter point links into toxic concepts of masculinity and gender norms (the idea that treating women as equals creates a power imbalance). These are bread-and-butter ideas for feminists.

In conclusion, due to societal norms, gender and sexual orientation are often treated like similar things. This means that LGB issues are feminist issues. They stem from gender norms and expectations, gender roles (and what happens when you violate these), and permissible expression of sexuality. People’s sexual orientation is couched in a world that privileges men – particularly prescribed stereotypes of masculinity that include power, control, hyper-libidinous behaviour and aggression.

If we are to be effective in supporting people across the gender spectrum, and support people in a feminist way, we had better start caring about LGB issues. This isn’t about waving the intersectionality flag for show, and catering to “niche” groups who happen to fall into the feminism of the (predominantly white) middle class. When it comes to LGB discrimination gender, sex and sexuality overlap so much that to care about feminism is to care about LGB rights.

The Sport of Coming Out

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Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe is the latest in a long line of sports “stars” to come out as gay in an interview with celebrity interviewer Sir Michael Parkinson. It seems to be a sport in itself these days: to play professional sport and reveal that you’re gay. Perhaps a better sport might be to place bets on who will be next. David Beckham? Too good to be true.

But the real question — or the bigger conversation we’re not having — is about the “casual homophobia”, as Kath and Kimactor and out lesbian comedian Magda Szubanski puts it, in sport that stops people like Thorpe coming out — or never having to “go in” in the first place. In the Parkinson interview, he said keeping his sexuality secret was good for his career. He didn’t know if Australia wanted its champian to be gay. The lie was convenient and increased his maketability. He didn’t want to be gay.

It seems this “casual homophobia” is alive and well in more places in society than sport. I would say that there are many people — not just sportspeople — who keep their non-heterosexuality secret because it’s good for their career, they don’t know if their parents and friends want them to be gay, it’s more convenient and easy, socially, to be seen as straight — so no, they don’t want to be gay.

Which begs the question, how far have we come in liberal society, not to mention conservative pockets (religion, Russia etc), in the fight for human rights around sexuality, among other non-normative characteristics like gender (binary and non-binary), functional diversity, even race and ethnicity?

Not as far as we’d like to think, I’d suggest.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson was in NZ recently and, according to the NZ Initiative, “argued that human rights are supposed to be sacrosanct principles, and criticised the expansion of human rights from their classical liberal origins.” Freedom, Wilson believes, is “the fundamental human right.” Anything more are social aspirations, which “come at the cost of freedom. While they may be worthy goals, they should not automatically be given equal status to the classical human rights.”

I agree with the Commissioner and have been saying a similar thing, to half-deaf ears it often feels like, in my work on labeling and diversity. The more grounds we add to the list for which we can be accused of unlawfully discriminating upon, the more we highlight difference. The more we highlight difference, the more scrutiny it attracts. The more scrutiny, the more at risk we become of being excluded by others’ prejudice. The more at risk we are, the less fredom we have.

Gay rights did nothing for Ian Thorpe — in fact I would almost say it did him a diservice. I’m not saying that gay rights are wrong or bad or shouldn’t have happened, nor that they haven’t improved the lives of some people. But, as Tim Wilson points out, gay rights come at the cost of the freedom to not have our sexuality put under scrutiny.

I was telling a friend a few days ago that, when I was seventeen, some thirty years ago, on the cusp of homosexual law reform but a decade and a half before gay human rights legislation was passed, I wore a badge at school saying, “How dare you assume I’m heterosexual”. Not out then, when people asked whether I was meaning I wasn’t straight, I clarified that the point of the messagee was the emphasis on “assume.” Now, whether I had automatic immunity from homophobic slurs due to my unique function, I’m not sure, but I’m also unsure I’d feel as comfortable wearing that badge as a student at school now.

Why not? Because the scrutiny of sexuality would put me at risk of other students’ prejudice. I’ve heard stories that it’s harder to be queer at schools today than it was decades ago, simply because kids are more aware. Such is the shadow of liberation; such is the cost to freedom.

I titled this post “The sport of coming out.” Perhaps it could be more aptly titled “The cost of coming out,” or even “The sport of catching someone coming out.”

How far have we really come?

 

When No One Cares About Gay People

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I was just reading yet another article about Michael Sam’s decision to reveal his sexual orientation to his teammates. This story leads me to feeling much more hopeful about our nation’s level of tolerance towards people who have preferences or physical characteristics that aren’t “mainstream”, so to speak, based on the number of positive or neutral reactions I’ve heard to this announcement.

Still, I’m curious if a day will ever come when information like this doesn’t make news headlines any more than someone “confessing” that  they like to watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta or that they prefer cookies with dried cranberries in them or that they prefer tequila over bourbon. Especially since people are often disclosing this information in contexts in which their sexual orientation has no significance. Being a homosexual doesn’t make you a better teacher or a worse athlete. Being a heterosexual doesn’t make you a better janitor or a worse ballet dancer.

I think the reason that people feel compelled to either fully disclose or vehemently hide their preference for intercourse with the same sex has to do with the pervasiveness of heterosexual references and habits throughout our society to some extent. For instance, if Sam had told his teammates he had a big date after a game (pre-announcement), he might have automatically been met with “Who’s the lucky girl?” or “Is it one of the cheerleaders?” or a similar comment that immediately assumes that his romantic interest is a woman. I think that disclosing one’s sexual preference helps to alleviate having to have those assumptions redirected on a constant basis because the people around him just know that he doesn’t feel sexually attracted to women. At the same time, I understand the hesitancy of others to be honest about this aspect of their lives because so many people get riled up about it, even to the point of becoming verbally and / or physically aggressive. I’ve addressed this to some extent in my Rain Drop Dodgers post about gay marriage.

It’d be nice to live in a society in which there was no need to “come out” because there was never a need to be “in the closet” in the first place. Oh well. Maybe some day.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of CBS Sports
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