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In a recent Sexist thread, a couple of commenters got to arguing a grim set of statistics. The question at hand: Which group experiences more rapes, men in prison or women outside of prison?

In order to resolve this question, one commenter referred to the “Prison Rape” Wikipedia page, which reads: “Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc. statistics indicate that there are more men raped in U.S. prisons than non-incarcerated women similarly assaulted.”

I’ve seen this comparison quoted on other threads, but I’ve never seen any specific stats to back it up—-and the Wiki page doesn’t refer to any, either. I’m a big fan of the work of the organization to which the stats are attributed—-Just Detention International, formerly Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc.—-so I reached out to JDI for some insight. JDI program director Cynthia Totten had this to say:

JDI does not compare numbers of people raped in society vs. prison as a way to show how frequent rape in detention is—-doing so would be problematic and troubling on many levels. Rape is devastatingly common both inside and outside prison walls. The best academic research finds that 20 percent of inmates in men’s prisons are assaulted while rates in women’s institutions vary, with one in four inmates raped in the worst facilities. According to recent government studies by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 60,500 inmates reported being sexually abused at their current federal and state prison in the preceding year alone, while 25,000 jail detainees were victimized in just the prior six months; we can realistically say that at least 100,000 inmates are raped in prisons and jails each year, without considering juvenile detention or immigration detention. Add to this the fact that annual jail intakes are 17 times the population in a jail on any given day, and this number likely represents only the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of custody status, rape and sexual assault traumatizes millions of people in the United States every year, and we are committed to putting an end to this violence, no matter where it occurs.

I wholeheartedly agree with Totten: These sorts of comparisons are profoundly unhelpful.

First of all, until a reliable study is undertaken to directly answer this question, it is scientifically unsound to compare studies that employ different methods, definitions, and standards in determining the prevalence of rape in different communities. Second, these comparisons are often employed solely to derail conversations about addressing the problem of rape. Comparing statistics about the prevalence of rape in different communities ignores the fact that rapes are happening, even one is too many, and all rapists need to be stopped. When you say, “You shouldn’t be addressing rape against women in society, you should be addressing rape against male prisoners,” you stop a productive conversation about ending rape. When you say, “You shouldn’t be addressing rape against male prisoners, you should be addressing rape against women in society,” you stop a productive conversation about ending rape.

What Totten—-a person who has dedicated her career to ending prison rape—-is saying is that we should be encouraging conversations about sexual violence against anyone, and supporting all organizations committed to ending this violence everywhere. It’s important to note, however, that these conversations won’t all be happening at the same time, and addressing one form of rape in no way detracts from the task of ending rape in all its other forms. The work of ending prison rape is going to take a vastly different approach than the work of ending acquaintance rapes, or child molestation, or elder abuse, or the rape of LGBTQ victims, or male victims, or female victims. That’s OK—-as long as we also understand that the work of encouraging all of these conversations about all different forms of rape will not be accomplished by jostling for position. As one commenter wrote on another rape stats argument: “I can’t believe you all are arguing over this. Some of you are essentially angry for not including everyone, while missing the point: RAPE = BAD. Do we all agree on that point? Okay! Good.”

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Just Detention International has attempted to edit the Prison Rape Wikipedia page with updated information—-for one thing, the organization hasn’t been called “Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc.” for a few years now—-but the erroneous and unsourced statement has since been restored to the page.

Photo via amandabhslater, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0