Prisoner Rape Isn't Funny
If you've been watching television lately, you might have seen a lighthearted commercial for 7-Up called "Captive Audience." In the ad, a 7-Up spokesperson hands out cans of soda to prisoners. When he accidentally drops a can, he quips that he won't pick it up, implying that to bend down is to risk being raped. Later in the ad, a cell door slams, trapping the spokesperson on a bed with another man who refuses to take his arm from around him.
Nearly 100 human rights groups, HIV/AIDS groups, civil rights and sexual violence organizations were outraged by the ad, claiming it perpetuated callousness toward prisoner rape, a serious and widespread human rights abuse. No corporation, the groups argued, would make jokes about rape outside of the prison context.
After a month of protest and bad press, Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc. decided to pull the commercial off the air.
But how could 7-Up think that jokes about prisoner rape were funny in the first place?
Well, for one, their ad agency, Young & Rubicam, told them so. The prestigious New York agency, which boasts clients like Sony, was responsible for creating the ad as part of the comedic "Make 7-Up Yours" campaign. And several consumer focus groups told them so. According to 7-Up, they reacted "quite favorably" to early tests of the ad. And even the Directors Guild of America told them so. They nominated the ad series for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials in 2001.
It seems everyone "got it" when the spokesman said he wouldn't bend over, and that no one thought about the real problem of prisoner rape.
In fact, for many people, their understanding of rape in prison is limited to the realm of locker-room humor and "don't drop the soap" jokes. But unfortunately, prisoner rape is a reality, happening right now, to real people, causing real suffering. And the truth is it is not funny at all.
It was not funny for Roderick Johnson, a Texas man serving time for a nonviolent crime. Over an 18-month period, Johnson was raped, abused and degraded almost every day by the prison gangs that literally enslaved him. Threatened with death, he was routinely rented out to fellow prisoners for $5 to $10 per sex act.
It was not funny for Robin Darbyshire, who on a four-day trip en route to a Colorado jail was repeatedly taunted, threatened with death and forced to expose herself to the armed driver of the transport van.
It was not funny for Rodney Hulin, Jr. who was 16 when he was sent to an adult prison for setting a trash container on fire. Only 5 foot 2, he was raped within a week of arriving in the Clemens Unit in Texas. His pleas for protection were repeatedly denied as older inmates continued to beat him, rob him and force him to perform oral sex. Eventually, Rodney hanged himself. He lay in a coma for four months before he died.
Unfortunately, these three prisoners are not alone. Men, women and youth are routinely raped and sexually brutalized in prisons throughout the country. Considered by international legal bodies to be a form of torture, prisoner rape derails justice and destroys human dignity.
Rape in prison is a reality that most people have learned to ignore or have grown to accept. But it is an institutionalized form of cruelty that infringes upon basic human rights, contributes to the spread of disease and perpetuates violence both inside and outside of prison walls.
Following an incident of rape, victims suffer both physical and psychological pain. Gang rapes can be particularly brutal, leaving victims viciously beaten, and in rare cases, dead. The abuse can be relentless; survivors of prisoner rape are frequently marked by other inmates as targets for additional attacks. Long-term consequences of prisoner rape may include post-traumatic stress disorder, rape trauma syndrome, substance abuse and suicide.
Significantly, HIV rates are eight to 10 times higher inside prison than outside. Nonviolent offenders are among the most likely to be raped, and in the context of HIV/AIDS, this may amount to an unadjudicated death sentence for a minor offense. In addition, upon release, victims may bring with them emotional scars and learned violent behavior that continue the cycle of harm.
And what does this have to do with routine jokes about prisoner rape?
One problem victims like Roderick Johnson, Robin Darbyshire and Rodney Hulin face is that too often prison officials, like the general public, do not take this problem seriously. All three victims reported the abuse, and all three were ignored by officials, who refused to believe in the severity of the victims' suffering.
Prisoner rape may be a common subject of jokes, but pandering to the insensitivity only perpetuates callousness regarding this horrific, widespread abuse.
Stop Prisoner Rape, a nonprofit human rights group, was founded over 20 years ago to bring the dangers of prisoner rape into the public consciousness. Together with 96 other organizations, Stop Prisoner Rape sought to open the eyes of 7-Up executives to a very real horror. And to their credit, 7-Up listened and responded by pulling the ad -- the first such cancellation in the corporation's 75-year history.
We applaud 7-Up for changing its mind about Captive Audience. And we would like to see 7-Up go further, by publicly supporting efforts to end the widespread wrong that is prisoner rape. Legislation is about to be introduced in Congress that would go part of the way toward addressing rape in prisons. With public support from mainstream companies like 7-Up, we can help ensure that systematic sexual violence is prevented in U.S. jails and prisons.
Now that would be something to smile about.
Sabrina Qutb is the communications director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a nonprofit human rights group founded in 1979 by prison rape survivors. Lara Stemple is the group's executive director.