June 9, 2014

Sexual Coercion In Prison: Worse Than “Orange Is The New Black”

The popular TV show "Orange Is The New Black" includes some depictions of sexual coercion in prison, but the realities may be much worse.

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Last summer, Netflix had us all on the edge of our seats watching the first season of Orange Is the New Black (OITNB).  The show is filled with drama and comedy that the main character, Piper Chapman, experiences during her adventures in a women’s federal prison.  The season ended on a MAJOR cliffhanger, leaving us fervent and speechless, but excited for season two.

While OITNB is entertaining, it does downplay a major issue that occurs not only in female correctional facilities, but in male correctional facilities as well: sexual coercion.

What is Sexual Coercion?

Sexual coercion is described as the experience of being pressured or forced into unwanted sexual contact by the use of violence, threats, harassment and other tactics.  Such behavior is often compared to sexual assault, including rape.  Although research studies vary, rates of sexual victimization in prison may be as high as 41% of prison inmates.  The frequency of the behavior may depend on different factors such as the characteristics of the correctional facility and the inmate population.

Who are Victims of Sexual Coercion?

Characteristics of male and female victims of sexual coercion differ by facility, but one study, conducted by researchers at the University of South Dakota, found that the largest category of victims were whites who identified as heterosexual, with only about 16% of female victims and 5% of males identifying as homosexual.  In the same study, the majority of males (91%) and females (51%) were victimized by male perpetrators in their worst-case incident.  More than half of these incidents for both genders involved multiple perpetrators (typically two to five).  It’s important to remember that sexual coercion is not purely oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse, but also may involve forceful, unwanted fondling of genitals and breasts.

Another study on sexual coercion focused on women in Midwestern prisons. Research participants reported that male staff members would typically corner a female inmate and forcefully fondle her.  Female staff members would also use similar strategies to victimize women, using their position of authority to bribe, blackmail, and force inmates into sexual contact.

Location and Tactics

Sexual coercion is most likely to occur in the inmate’s own cell, as well as other places such as the shower, kitchen, another inmate’s cell, yard area, or in a closet or stairwell.  While perpetrators generally use more than one tactic when attempting to coerce an individual into sexual activities, the most common pressure tactic reported is persuasion.  Other tactics used include threats to withdraw love, bribery, and blackmail.

Effects of Sexual Coercion

Researchers have found that women who had been sexually coerced displayed strong negative reactions such as nervousness around people, fear that it would happen again, and depression.  Women reported that they would build hatred toward their assailant(s) and have even attempted suicide.  Both men and women victims reported discomfort with being physically close to others, feelings of distrust towards people, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as flashbacks of the incident and bad dreams.  More men than women were concerned with their sex-role reputation and fear of catching AIDS.


While the entertainment industry thrives off of real life situations that occur in correctional facilities, it is important for society to understand the seriousness of issues like sexual coercion and the negative effects it has on inmates.  Individuals who are sexually assaulted may suffer both short-term and long-term physical and psychological trauma.  Prevention training programs for staff should be considered to recognize areas where sexual coercion is likely to occur in the facility as well as increase the awareness and knowledge of this type of behavior and report when any fellow staff members engage in any type of sexual coercion tactic or behavior.

These training programs should also be targeted to the inmate population, educating them about sexual coercion and encouraging them to report any incidences that may occur.

Kayla Hsu is a second year MPH student at Indiana University. Her research interests includes health behaviors, sexual health, health promotion and disease prevention.