Power over the Powerless: The Context of Sexual Violence in Prison, Deficits in the Prison Rape Elimination Act and Authoritarian Perceptions of Victims

Amy M. Magnus*

University of Nevada, Las Vegas










 * Amy M. Magnus if a graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice at UNLV.



While sexual victimization in American men’s and women’s prisons is a widely controversial issue, little research has been conducted on the subject. While research on the topic is limited, the existing research suggests that the total prevalence of sexual victimization in prisons is virtually unknown, yet the known ramifications of such occurrences yield very significant consequences for those who are victimized. Government policies such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 attempt to address the issue of sexual violence in American correctional facilities, however, various deficits in the capability of PREA and its executing agents exist. This paper will decipher between the unique cultural aspects of prison life, the various types of victimization in prisons and how sexual victimization specifically affects inmates on an economical and psychological level. This paper will further address the personality factor of authoritarianism and its influence on perceptions of sexually victimized inmates. Finally, this paper will discuss how correctional policies like PREA fail to properly address sexual violence in American prisons.






            Early definitions of sexual victimization in prisons characterized the idea as “homosexual activity engaged in by homosexual individuals or by men with weak moral character” (Jones and Pratt, 2008, pg. 16). This, in turn, lead to assumptions in further research that sex occurring in men’s and women’s prisons was not victimization, but rather consensual intercourse (Jones & Pratt, 2008). Little was known about this topic until the early 1980s (for men’s prisons) and the 1990s (for women’s prisons) when sexual victimization was redefined in empirical research as “assaultive” and “often coerced” (Jones and Pratt, 2008; Greer, 2000). Theoretically, the prevalence of sexual victimization in prison is vastly underreported due to the sensitive nature of the topic and the cultural implications of “snitching” in prison (Jones & Pratt, 2008; Knowles, 1999).

            Although research has uncovered some of the cultural context of sexual victimization, the implications following sexual victimization have been frequently overlooked. Research by Listwan, Colvin, Hanley and Flannery (2010), Jones and Pratt (2008) and Hochstetler, Murphy and Simons (2004) observe these issues directly, focusing on the mental and physical health of inmates who have witnessed and/or experienced violence in prison. Others have expanded upon this research, working toward a more comprehensive understanding of how sexual victimization affects inmates who both witness and experience it. This paper will discuss the overall context of sexual victimization in prison and how the totality of the institution affects this phenomenon with regard to the psychological and physical implications that influence policy-making. Further, this paper will discuss the flaws in the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) and how authoritarian personalities often interfere with the functionality of PREA.

Cultural Context of Sexual Victimization in Prison

            The cultural context of sexual victimization in men’s prisons stems largely from the idea of “manhood,” which is removed and reconstructed while in the prison setting (Phillips, 2001). Women’s prisons, however, differ greatly from men’s prisons in the sense that sexual behavior is not always coerced, but sometimes consensual and approved of by the female inmates (Greer, 2000). In addition to this factor within women’s prisons, sexual assaults often occur between female inmates and correctional staff, introducing an entirely new element to the contextual understanding of sex in prisons.

Inmates in men’s prisons learn to focus their efforts on achieving “minor privileges” to regain their manhood (Phillips, 2001). Men strive to portray themselves as a “stand-up man” – one who exudes physical and mental strength with the ability to ward off perpetrators (Phillips, 2001). Perpetrators often want to take away another inmate’s manhood to increase his own, a cultural phenomenon limited to the prison setting (Phillips, 2001). According to Phillips (2001), the perpetrator of sexual violence “demonstrates physical prowess and control over others,” gaining a reputation of manhood in prison (Phillips, 2001, p. 16). The recipient of sexual violence is not considered a victim, but rather a weakling of “diminished manhood” who will be “marked as subservient” and treated as a lesser being (Phillips, 2001, p. 15). This is somewhat similar to sex in women’s prisons; however, sex in women’s prisons can be seen as coerced, or sometimes consensual. The dynamic of women’s prison will be discussed in later sections of this paper.

            Sexual violence in men’s prison is an act of dominance and assertion of “manhood” rather than sexual pleasure (Knowles, 1999). Sexual violence must be understood from a culturally relative standpoint – sexual assault in prison is not referred to as “rape” in the sense of how free society uses the term. Like the term “rape,” those who are “raped” are not labeled as a “victim” but rather a “target” (Knowles, 1999). Exploitation on behalf of an aggressor to a weaker inmate is a way for inmates to assert their manhood and determine where inmates fall within the social hierarchy (Knowles, 1999). In women’s prisons, however, sexual behavior is a behavior that often exemplifies psychological need of affection. It is sometimes coerced and viewed as an execution of dominance by the perpetrator, especially in cases of correctional staff/inmate sexual relations. The dynamic of women’s prisons is very different from men’s prison and must be treated as such when attempting to write correctional policy.

Understanding the Etiology of Sexual Behavior in Prisons

            Erving Goffman (1961) describes institutional settings that encompass every aspect of inmates’ life “total institutions” (Shelden, et al., 2008, pg. 289). The totality of the institution infiltrates the inmates’ minds, force-feeding the unique cultural context down the throats of those who are sentenced to live in these institutions as a form of punishment for the crimes they commit. Individuals living in America’s “correctional” institutions are not learning methods of correcting their deviant behavior, but rather learning new social behaviors that are required for adapting to the struggles of incarceration in American men’s and women’s prisons.

Gresham Sykes (1958) pinpoints five primary “pains of imprisonment” that an individual faces upon long-term incarceration. The first is the “deprivation of liberty”, where the individual is stripped of their self-identification and provided a new status of rejection from general society. Secondly, inmates face a “deprivation of goods and services.” Many of the tangible resources inmates have access to on the outside are no longer an option while incarcerated. The tangible items given to them/permitted by those in charge are the only items inmates can have. Third, inmates face a “deprivation of autonomy,” where they are forced to relinquish their individuality, privacy, freedom and independence. Fourth, inmates lack security – facing more direct threats of personal victimization than those in free American society. Violence in prison is prevalent because of physical and psychological constraints, resulting in violent outbursts and harm against other inmates.

In line with these ideas, Sykes suggested in his fifth “pain of imprisonment” that inmates are deprived of heterosexual relationships. Sykes suggests that homosexual relationships in male prisons are somewhat common, yet often involuntary. Aggressive inmates, often labeled “wolves”, offer protection to the inexperienced, passive “fish” in return for sexual favors. These relationships are coerced, and are often used to the wolf’s advantage. Many aggressive inmates coerce the more passive inmates to provide sex out of threat of “release” to other inmates. As discussed before, once an inmate is “marked”, they are vulnerable to further victimization because of being labeled a “weakling” or a “bitch” in the prison culture.

Prevalence of Perpetration in American Men’s Prisons

            The prevalence of sexual victimization within American male prisons is a primary aggravator in inmates developing and maintaining aggressive and violent behavior. It has been reported in previous studies that as many as one-fifth of all American prison inmates have been sexually victimized in some way, although the exact amounts are unknown because of underreporting (Jones & Pratt, 2008). Even though the exact prevalence of sexual victimization is unknown, approximately 600,000 inmates are released into American society every year – implying that perhaps as many as 120,000 released inmates will have been sexually victimized in some way (Jones & Pratt, 2008).

            As mentioned by Jones and Pratt (2008), it is evident that the psychological stresses of prison culture force inmates to learn how to “reinforce a sense of self, personal worth, and control, which they obtain via sexual victimization of others” (Jones & Pratt, 2008, pp. 282-283). It is increasingly difficult for inmates to set these learned behaviors aside and re-adjust to life outside of the prison culture. Inmates that come into prison as non-violent offenders often leave prison with more aggressive and violent tendencies due to instances of being victimized while in prison (Knowles, 1999). This creates a major problem for not only the victimized inmates, but also the general public. If the purpose of prison is to “correct” behavior, then American prisons are missing the target in their execution of “corrections”.

            Younger Caucasian males are most likely to be victimized while in prison (Lahm, 2008). Perpetrators are typically African American. It is theorized that younger inmates commit the greatest amount of violent acts in prison due to “low levels of maturity and high levels of aggression” (Lahm, 2008, p. 350). Predicting an individual’s risk of victimization is highly dependent on their self-control abilities. Self-control, according to Kerley, et al. (2009), can be divided into two primary categories: risk taking and anger control. Individuals who commit more risky behaviors were found to “provoke and antagonize” other inmates, which lead to more acts of violence being committed against them. Inmates with low ability to control aggression were also at a higher risk of being victimized as opposed to those who maintained control over anger. Perpetrators of violence often look for “hot-headed, arrogant punks” to victimize rather than quiet, “cautious” inmates (Kerley, et al., 2009, p. 555). Once an individual has been “marked” by sexual victimization in prison, they are often viewed as “submissive and weak” (Phillips, 2001), creating further opportunity for victimization to occur (Jones & Pratt, 2008).

            As supported by previous research, race and education level are predominant factors in considering those involved with the commission of sexual assault (Lahm, 2008). Formalized education suggests that individuals do not have a “street” understanding of “fighting for respect” and are thus more likely to be viewed as weak and vulnerable within the prison hierarchy (Lahm, 2008). The Importation Model suggests that individuals will bring what they know from the outside world into prison (Irwin and Cressey, 1962; McCorkle, et. al., 1995). Race is believed to have an indirect influence on which values import into prison and how those values manifest into committing violence or becoming a victim of violence (Lahm, 2008). Caucasians do not usually commit direct physical assaults in free society, and thus are not the primary aggressors in prison according to the Importation Model of Crime (Lahm, 2008; McCorkle et al., 1995). In addition to race being an indirect predictor of violent behavior and/or victimization risk, it is theorized that white inmates often have greater fears of non-white inmates and often learn that the minorities of the free world are now the majorities in the prison world (Lahm, 2008). Whereas non-whites typically address confrontation in prison with sexual violence, white individuals are likely to address confrontation via other forms of physical violence, such as stabbing (Knowles, 1999).

            Race, education levels and personal experiences have immense implications for the violence that occurs within prisons (Lahm, 2008). With this in mind, it is important to further understand the long-term implications of sexual violence within the prison culture. The elements listed above are only a few suggestions as to why violence may occur within the prison setting. The primary concern for purposes of this paper is to understand the physical and psychological impact that violence has on inmates in the United States’ correctional system. The psychological implications of sexual victimization are relatively new to the literature. 

Prevalence of Perpetration in American Women’s Prisons

Sexuality in men’s prisons differs greatly from sexuality in women’s prisons. Prior to 1995, sexual activity in female prisons had been vastly under-researched and is still lacking in strong empirical data to date. While male sexual contact is typically categorized as consensual, forceful or coerced, female sexuality is based upon more psychological than cultural factors. Greer (2000) suggests that while many women either support or have neutral emotions regarding sexual interactions in prison, many women do not participate in homosexual relationships in prison because the relationships can be “coercive” and “manipulative.” Women who do participate in sexual relationships in prison, however, often do so on a consensual basis (Greer, 2000). Sexual behavior and sexual violence in male and female prisons may develop and manifest very differently, but both occurrences are essential in understanding the context of the unique prison cultures.

The “sexual violence” category poses unique challenges in understanding the differences between male and female sexual violence. In a 1995 study conducted by Singer, Bussey, Song and Lunghofer, 81% of women in a municipal jail reporting being sexual victimized prior to incarceration (in both childhood and adulthood). Previous victimization is yet another unique factor in understand the female prison population, because unlike male inmates, females who are incarcerated often experience sexual violence prior to coming into prison. The exact prevalence of sexual victimization, similar to male prisons, is unknown.

Three unique forms of sexual violence occur in women’s prisons: manipulation (when sex is being used as a bartering tool), compliance (reluctantly participating in a sexual relationship with another inmate or correctional officer of perceived authority status to get protection or favors) and coercion (including extreme pressure to submit to sex, sexual assault and rape) (Pardue et al., 2011). While male prison sexual violence is traditionally explained as occurring between two (or more) male inmates, the female prison research incorporates sexual relations not only between inmates, but correctional staff as well. It is common in the literature to see female inmate pursuance of correctional staff (and even sexual violence against male and female correctional staff).

Psychological Health Implications of Sexual Victimization

            The effects of sexual victimization in general have been linked to various psychological consequences. Jones and Pratt (2008) summarized, in general, three main psychological disorders that individuals often face post-sexual victimization: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Stress Response Syndrome and Rape Trauma Syndrome. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV TR, 2000, p. 464) as “persistent symptoms of anxiety, increased arousal, difficulty falling/staying asleep, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, hyper-vigilance, increased irritability and outbursts of anger triggered after experiencing, re-experiencing, witnessing, learning about a traumatic event.” Stress Response Syndrome fosters symptoms similar to posttraumatic stress disorder, but includes feelings of loss accrued from the traumatic event (Jones & Pratt, 2008). Rape Trauma Syndrome is characterized by symptoms of “sleeplessness, loss of appetite and numbness or pain along with extreme fear, persistent nightmares, depression and suicidal thoughts” (Kennedy, 2009, p. 104). These disorders are linked to further social implications – including, but not limited to, “lifestyle changes, disruption in social relations, changes in racial attitudes and loss of social status in exchange for stigmatization” (Jones & Pratt, 2008, p. 283). The symptoms of these psychological conditions create mental health deficits, contributing not only to overall stress but also an increased likelihood of further victimization.

            Once an individual has been sexually victimized or “marked” in prison, the risk of further victimization increases (Mariner, 2001; Jones & Pratt, 2008). The trauma that ensues from sexual victimization transcends into life after prison. Aside from the risks of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or other infection, sexual victimization trauma often affects the victim’s long-term “behavioral and cognitive functioning” (Mariner, 2001). These changes in functioning often include increases in violent behavior and aggressiveness (Mariner, 2001). Individuals with symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Stress Response Syndrome and Rape Trauma Syndrome may also live in extreme fear post-victimization, further inhibiting social and behavioral functioning (Mariner, 2001; Kennedy, 2009)

            Previous research conducted on prison culture has highlighted occurrences of physical violence, but much of the research misses the sexually violent elements that occur (Jones & Pratt, 2008). Listwan, Colvin, Hanley and Flannery (2010) note that direct experience of or exposure to prison victimization increases an inmate’s likelihood of developing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and suicide. McGuire (2005) also suggests that many inmates will rely on substance abuse to cope with the mental strain of victimization. Furthermore, secondary concerns with regard to prison victimization are the “relational abilities” of inmates who are victimized post-release. Sexually victimized individuals tend to victimize others and can often exert sexually violent behavior toward their female partners (McGuire, 2005). The psychological effects of victimization increase the likelihood for domestic abuse, child abuse and so forth (McGuire, 2005).

            Along with relational deficits, another primary concern is the acquisition and passing of sexually transmitted diseases from inmates to other victims and sexual partners outside of the prison setting post-release (Pinkerton et al., 2007; Listwan et al., 2010). Contracting an STD is not merely a physical concern; it fosters various psychological complications involving “shame, aggression and depression” (Lyons, 2010). Seeking treatment for a sexually transmitted disease increases these concerns, heightening “feelings of anxiety and embarrassment” (Lyons, 2010). The physical health of sexually victimized inmates promotes poor psychological health, resulting in antisocial tendencies that were not invoked prior to victimization.

            It is well-established that “men who are sexually victimized in prison leave more violent and antisocial than when they went in” (McGuire, 2005; Dumond, 2000). Boxer, Middlemass and DeLorenzo (2009) found that either experiencing or witnessing violence in prison increases “emotional distress and tendencies toward anti-social behavior” (pg. 795). If an inmate both experiences and continuously witnesses violence, these psychological tendencies not only induce emotional and anti-social irregularities, but also prompt fear and maladjustment to life during and post-incarceration (Boxer et al., 2009). Being victimized while incarcerated has longer-lasting effects than being victimized in other common settings, such as “neighborhoods or interpersonal relationships” (Boxer, et al., 2009). This setting is unique because of its lack of prosocial reinforcement and concentrated coercive social structure, leading to an emotionally taxing environment. The physical health implications that can derive from sexual victimization contribute to psychological health as well. Physical injury and sexually transmitted diseases affect the health of the prison community along with the civilian community in various ways.

Physical Health Implications of Sexual Victimization

            Sexually exploited inmates, as mentioned in earlier remarks, are more likely to commit violent sexual acts once released from prison, leading to an increase in societal harm. Further sexual victimization and spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and AIDS is of particular concern (Jones & Pratt, 2008). Inmates have a “disproportionately high rate of contracting infectious disease, substance abuse, high-risk sexual activity, and other health care problems” (Dumond, 2000, p. 413). Sexual violence creates more opportunity for acts of sexual and physical violence to occur, “disrupting security” within institutions and also jeopardizing the health of those in the prison and in the community (Jones & Pratt, 2008, p. 285). Other concerns involve the contraction of syphilis, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, herpes and gonorrhea via sexual contact between inmates (McGuire, 2005). The use of condoms within prison, especially during sexual assault, is virtually non-existent, making the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease even greater (McGuire, 2005). Contraction of hepatitis B and hepatitis C is a primary concern within the prison setting. A report in the New York Times states that:

“In New York, a first-ever survey recently estimated that 14 percent of the state’s 69,000 prisoners have hepatitis C. In Pennsylvania, about 17 percent of the state’s 36,500 prisoners are infected. In Connecticut, the rate is believed to be 15 percent of 17,500 inmates. New Jersey has not broadly tested for the virus. In California, officials estimate that 33 percent of the state’s 161,000 prisoners have hepatitis C. In Texas, 28 percent of the state’s 157,000 prisoners are believed to be infected” (Rhode, 2001).


Because of the involuntary nature of sexual assault in prison, these risks are apparent and have severe physical implications for those who endure it (McGuire, 2005). The civilian population contracts hepatitis C at a rate of 1.8% per year while prison populations in California contracted the disease at a rate of 33% in 2001 (Rohde, 2001). Broken bones, lacerations, genital injuries and hospitalization are further results of sexual assaults that include severe beatings and violent conduct (McGuire, 2005).

            Public health is of great concern with regard to sexual victimization in men’s and women’s prisons. Those who are sexually victimized in prison and contract a disease are highly likely to pass sexually transmitted diseases to partners after their release (McGuire, 2005). Clinicians often have a unique role in treating victims of sexual assault in prison, acting as not only nurse/physician, but also as an intermediary resource between inmate and correctional staff (Dumond, 2000). “Continuity and thoroughness of inmate care is difficult for physicians” due to the inherent nature of the prison setting – inmates are often transferred to new institutions and guaranteeing continued care can be challenging (Dumond, 2000, p. 411). Consideration of remaining sentence duration is also a crucial factor in providing adequate health care to inmates. An inmate with only a short period of time left in prison will receive differing health care from an inmate with many years left in prison, making the clinician’s treatment plan complicated and often convoluted. Ensuring follow-up treatment post-release is also difficult; government programs such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (2003) promote post-release health care follow-up for inmates, but enforcement of these programs is not always successful.

Policy Implications Derived from Sexual Victimization in Prisons

            The Prison Rape Elimination Act (2003) was enacted by congress to address sexual victimization in prisons across the United States. The purpose of this policy is two-fold, targeting the overall health and safety of inmates along with the health and safety of the public (McGuire, 2005). This policy regulates the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in various ways (McGuire, 2005). The act requires government-funded research to be conducted on the basis of “penalogical, physical, mental, social and economic impacts of prison rape on every level of government, communities, social institutions and individuals” (PREA, 2003, p. 117, stat. 981). Following this, the commission is required to provide suggestions for policy implementation within correctional facilities regarding “investigation of rape complaints, preserving physical and testimonial evidence, providing acute medical care in treating injuries, minimization of disease transmission and minimization of psychological damage” (PREA, 2003, p. 117, stat. 983). PREA is a very extensive policy, intended to enforce a documented, “zero-tolerance” prohibition against prison rape in American correctional facilities between all agents within the facility (i.e. staff, inmates, or any combination of the two). Failure to comply with the program results in revocation of government funds (PREA, 2003).

            Structurally, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission oversees “staff-trainings within all US correctional institutions, record keeping, and protection for those who report incidents of sexual victimization” (PREA, p. 117, stat. 978). The Prison Rape Elimination Act (2003) places heavy emphasis on “visibility and accountability” and “mandates collection and maintenance of accurate information” (PREA, p. 117, stat. 975). It is the goal of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (2003) to completely eliminate sexual assaults within the prison setting by means of correctional staff awareness, training, and the monetary and social resources necessary to adequately address the issue (Dumond, 2003; PREA, 2003). This policy helps to raise awareness about sexual victimization within the prison setting, but much work still needs to be done to fully comprehend the magnitude of the issue (McGuire, 2005).

            Training programs for correctional staff is one of the most recent policy implications derived from inmate sexual assaults. The Massachusetts Department of Corrections developed one of the first staff training programs specifically designed to address sexual violence in incarcerated settings (Dumond, 2000). The Federal Bureau of Prisons promotes various educational programs that train staff to recognize, address and report incidents of sexual misconduct between inmates (Dumond, 2000; Dallou, 1996). Research has indicated that correctional staff educational programs taught by physicians and mental health professionals help adjust negative attitudes toward inmate-on-inmate sexual violence (Gardner, 1986). Expanding upon this, Eigenberg (1994) found that staff training aids in expanding awareness about issues within the correctional setting and properly addressing misconceptions and/or discriminatory attitudes toward inmate needs.

            Policy implementation regarding sexual assault in prison was a major step in addressing the surface of the issue. Understanding the psychological and physical consequences of prison victimization not only benefits the victims of the assaults, but also the community and the individuals in close contact with the victim. Although the research is inconclusive, and to some degree non-existent, with regard to the prevalence of sexual victimization in prisons, the consequences of those who have come forward about their victimization is well-documented. Psychological, personal and public health are all community-based concerns that affect society as a whole. Policies such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 and staff education trainings are intended to alleviate the problem and address its symptoms at the root of the prison culture. While the policy announces that prison rape is a problem, it does come with limitations and fundamentally flawed components.

Problems with Correctional Policy Regarding Sexual Violence

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003 to address sexual victimization (rape and sexual assault) in American prisons. PREA implements a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual assaults in all federal and state correctional facilities as well as local detention facilities, private facilities and juvenile facilities. PREA provides financial support for developing programs focused on the reduction of sexual assault in prisons. PREA mandates that all correctional/detention facilities be observed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in an effort to expand the empirical data on prison rape and sexual assaults in correctional facilities. A primary issue with PREA in the adult correctional system, however, is that many of the prisoners are asked to report sexual assault to those who are either instigating the problems, causing the problems or turning their head when the issue arises – the prison guards.

Perceptions of Sexual Assault Victims

Much of the literature regarding attitudes towards sexual assault victims addresses ideas of various rape myths, however, much of the literature fails to capture the connection between authority status and victim gender. Further, the literature also lacks in its ability to distinguish gender differences in men’s and women’s prisons as fundamentally different entities, especially regarding sexual victimization. Policies such as PREA should encourage inmates to report sexual violence in prisons, but the reality of the matter is that those who are assaulted often report to individuals of authority – those who either misunderstood inmates’ status as a victim or are the perpetrators of sexual violence.

Throughout the literature on sexual assault, victim gender has been shown to influence individuals’ perceptions of the victim and their victimization situation. Previous research has suggested that individuals are likely to show empathy toward victims of the same gender; males are more likely to have negative perceptions of offenders who assault males than females. The same phenomenon is true for female attitudes toward female victims (Judson, Johnson & Perez, 2013; Schneider, Soh-Chiew Ee & Aronson, 1994). Recent research also suggests that perceptions of sexual assault victims are influenced more heavily by attitudes of gender stereotypes, hostile sexism and homophobia (Judson, et al., 2013). 

            Much of the previous research on sexual assault surrounds gender stereotypes and the rape myths that follow. Yamawaki (2007) as well as research conducted by Smith, Pine and Hawley (1988) suggests, with regard to gender stereotyping, male victims of sexual assault (with a female aggressor) were perceived by participants to have initiated the encounter and actually derived pleasure from the encounter.  Male participants tended to perceive male victims as enjoying a sexual assault from a female offender more than female victims assaulted by a male (Smith, et al., 1988). This finding suggests that gender stereotypes may have a serious impact on societal perceptions of sexual assault victims.

            Yamawaki (2007), along with various other researchers (Begany & Milburn, 2002), found that sexism, primarily hostile sexism (i.e., “prejudicial and stereotypical beliefs about women”) was a “predictor” of negative attitudes toward women in rape scenarios and, even further, “benevolent sexism” (i.e. somewhat stereotypical and restricting views about women) “moderated victim blame” in serious rape scenarios (pg. 2). Considering the ideas surrounding gender stereotypes, males encounter the perception from outside views that sex with a woman should be embraced and enjoyed, not refused (Judson, et al., 2013).  Because men who are sexually victimized by a woman often encounter many psychological consequences, men often perceive these encounters as contrary to traditional male behavior. Polimeni, Hardie & Buzwell (2000) suggest that homophobia has been a long-standing predictor of negative perceptions toward both male and female victims, regardless of the aggressor’s gender. These perceptions are often where ideas of hostile and benevolent sexism along with homophobia come into play. These factors, in general, have been noted as potential predictors of sexual aggression throughout the literature. The need for sexual dominance and the belief in male superiority (key contributors to the hostile and benevolent sexism beliefs systems) highlight the connection between sexual victimization and authoritarianism – a personality component highlighting strong affinity for authority, rigid social structure and conventional belief systems.

Begany & Milburn (2002) examined the connection between levels of authoritarianism and likelihood of sexual harassment and found that individuals with higher a level of authoritarianism were more likely to engage in sexual harassment behaviors. Begany and Milburn (2002) also found that authoritarian beliefs are a predictor of rape myth support and hostile sexism beliefs, thus suggesting that individuals with authoritarian belief systems will not only be more likely to engage in sexual harassment behaviors, but will also perceive victims of sexual harassment and assault with notions of rape myths and hostile sexist beliefs in mind, mitigating their “victim” status altogether.

Authoritarianism and Sexual Violence in Prisons

The origin of the authoritarian personality derives from Theodor Adorno (along with many of his colleagues) and his work originally published in 1950. Adorno’s original work focused on the ideologies of anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism and fascism and how some individuals are easily influenced by these psychological beliefs. In Adorno’s development of the F-scale, these factors were emphasized and observed. In his empirical findings, Adorno identified a cluster of items, which he characterized as authoritarian belief patterns (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford, 1950). His findings highlighted the correlation between ethnocentrism, a very strict obedience to authority and an extremely punitive attitude toward those who disobey authority and rules.

Individuals with an “authoritarian” personality tend to manifest a conventional value system and rigid beliefs (Adorno et al., 1950). Individuals who are considered to be an “authoritarian” typically prefer right-wing politics, are highly religious, have a high tolerance of and support for government action. Authoritarians, as opposed to authoritative personalities, are highly intolerant of psychological and physical weaknesses and tend to relate to and agree with authority figures. Along with these characteristics, authoritarians are apprehensive of individuals who disobey laws and social norms and tend to be very punitive toward offenders. Given these findings, it follows that individuals of authority, such as prison guards, are often highly punitive toward inmates and do not necessarily view them as victims. These authoritarian attitudes pose a major issue for inmates and are often contradictory with the underlying premise of PREA. This is a major flaw that is often overseen or disregarded by those who write policy without a proper knowledge base about the issue.


While the purpose of PREA, on the surface, appears to be helpful, there is a major disconnect between those who create the policy and those who are affected by it. PREA is a blanket policy created by politicians to place a band-aid on a major problem within the American correctional system. Much like other policy enacted by the government, understanding the true nature of what politicians wish to regulate is essential in writing effective policy. PREA, while “mandating” a “zero-tolerance” policy against sexual crimes in prison, also mandates that inmates report sexual crimes that are being committed against them. How, though, are inmates expected to report sexual assaults when those who they are asked to report to either ignore the claim, are the perpetrators of the assault, or use sexual assault as collateral to execute their authority? Further, calling “zero-tolerance” policies as such looks good and portrays the “get tough” attitude on crime, but the reality is that the policy does not directly affect those it intends to.

Policy makers place the blanket term of “all correctional facilities” in the written policy, but fail to address the differences in causation of sexual victimization in male versus female prisons, adult versus juvenile facilities and jails versus prisons. While policy can be useful, it should be executed with a complete understanding of those it affects and the context in which it is applied. Without a foundation of knowledge supporting the creation of the policy, the policy serves a mere political purpose rather than a practical purpose.

Although the problem of sexual violence within the American prison system is still relatively new to the academic literature, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 is one of the few pieces of legislation to address the issue. While its intention appears to be wholesome, PREA has various collateral consequences that not only ignore the true nature of the adult prison system, but also pushes inmates into a psychological corner of vulnerability and limitation.




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