Discuss rape anywhere within the Google Alert of most self-proclaimed men’s rights activists, and you’re likely to hear something like, “All they talk about is rape of women, but the rate of prison rape means more men are raped than women every year!” What you will not see is numbers or a link to comparative statistics.
The original claim (seen here in an old Wikipedia edit) comes from a 2001 report from Human Rights Watch that took rates found in two localized studies and extrapolated them to the U.S. as a whole. Although much more representative surveys have become available since then, you won’t see those quoted. There’s a reason for that.
It’s not all that hard to find current statistics on sexual assault in U.S. jails and prisons. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 requires that the Bureau of Justice Statistics to track this information and issue public reports. Thus, we can find separate reports for jails and prisons for 2007 and a combined report for 2008-2009.
These are not statistics for reported assaults, which may reflect a gender bias due to the stigma of reporting, but the National Inmate Survey, administered in a format designed to make subjects feel as comfortable as possible answering in the affirmative. It is closest in design to the National Crime Victimization Survey, but with additional care taken to minimize the effects of illiteracy. For comparison, then, the NCVS reports are used.
One note: Combined rates of rape and sexual assault are used in this comparison. While the NIS provides data to distinguish the two for inmate-on-inmate assault (with penetrative rape and other coerced sexual acts being just over 50% of the assaults), it doesn’t do the same for staff-on-inmate assault. Nor does the NCVS differentiate. Beyond that, the only federal standard for classifying rape currently excludes males by definition. So we’ll look at sexual assault as a whole.
In both 2007 and 2008-9, the NIS tells us that 70,000 to 80,000 prisoners were sexually assaulted in jails and prisons each year. That is a lot. Even excluding female prisoners, who experience a higher rate of assault but a much lower rate of incarceration, we are left with 66,000 sexual assaults on male prisoners in 2007 and 72,000 in the 2008-9 survey period.
According to the NCVS, women experienced 202,000 sexual assaults in 2007 and 193,000 in 2008. That would be about three times the rate of prison assaults.
If you combine the NCVS and NIS data, for men and for women, you get a chart that looks like this:
It is possible that some of the assaults are counted both in the NIS and NCVS data sets, but it’s not likely to make much difference. Former prisoners are likely to be undersampled in the NCVS, given the effect they have on rates of sexual assault. Beyond that, the relative rates of incarceration mean that the few former female prisoners are less likely to be appropriately sampled, and I’d prefer to give the advantage to the MRAs here, to make this as fair to their claims as possible.
After all, even assuming that all of these prison assaults were rape, the original statement still wouldn’t hold up. The Uniform Crime Reports, data sets from the FBI that include only reported crimes, show 80,800 forcible rapes in 2007 and 78,833 in 2008, all of which occurred, by definition, in women.
None of this, of course, is to say that rape and sexual assault in prisons and jails are not a serious issue. They are. In fact, they’re far too important to be used as political footballs by people who just want women to stop talking about rape.
Note: See comments and this post for discussion of a further adjustment to the 2008 BJS prison data from another report. TL;DR version: No there still aren’t more rapes in men.