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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 52   Number 1 Winter 2019

Criminal Justice Interest Group

Edited by Jessica Shaw, Boston College of Social Work

The Criminal Justice Interest Group Column features the work and ideas of our members. We encourage readers to reach out to the authors if they are interested in learning more or exploring potential opportunities for collaboration. We also invite readers to join one of our upcoming Learning Community Series presentations in which Criminal Justice Interest Group members share their work virtually to foster a learning community. More information, and recording of prior presentations, can be viewed at http://scra27.com/who-we-are/interest-groups/criminal-justice-interest-group/.

Forgotten Voices: Prevalence of Nonconsensual Sexual Experiences among Incarcerated Men in Ontario

Written by Jared Davies, Raymond McKie, University of Ottawa; Chelsea D. Kilimnik, University of Texas-Austin; Drake D. Levere, University of British Columbia; Chloe Pednault, Carleton University; Terry P. Humphreys, Trent University; and Alyna Reesor, Ottawa-Carelton Detention Centre

Nonconsensual sexual experiences (NSEs) encompass any sexual activity in which an individual is coerced or forced to participate without their initial or ongoing consent (Kilimnik & Meston, 2018), including childhood sexual abuse (CSA), adult sexual coercion, sexual aggression, and rape. North American estimates suggest that 8% of men and 20% of women are victims of sexual abuse prior to the age of 18 (Stoltenborgh, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Alink, & van IJzendoorn, 2015). Additionally, approximately 4% of men and 20% of women in the United States report being sexually assaulted as an adult. An important distinction is that many do not identify their NSE’s as rape (generally penetration is involved) or sexual assault (generally refers to any unwanted sexual contact), and as such, the terminology used needs to be broadened or more behaviourally assessed to understand these prevalence rates (Kilimnik & Meston, 2018). Moreover, the labels of rape and sexual assault are commonly used interchangeably in the literature, and often are defined differently based on legal definitions (Donde, Ragsdale, Koss, & Zucker, 2018). These legal definitions of what constitutes rape or sexual assault are different across regions (state vs. state, country vs. country) making it even more necessary to use language that pertains to the behaviors in lieu of the legal terminology. Most studies that assess for NSE’s use “rape” or “sexual assault”, which may have a significant impact on prevalence rates, and our understanding of NSE’s. For many individuals, NSEs are associated with various physical and mental health problems (Li, D’Arcy, & Meng, 2016) as well as behavioural problems, including criminogenic behaviour (e.g., Ogloff, Cutajar, Mann, & Mullen, 2012). Individuals who are incarcerated for a criminal offence tend to report particularly high rates of NSEs (e.g., Karlsson & Zielinski, 2018; Jespersen, Lalumière, & Seto, 2009).

In a recent review of incarcerated women in the United States, between 56% and 82% reported at least one NSE in their lifetime (Karlsson & Zielinski, 2018). Fewer studies have explored NSEs among incarcerated men, with lifetime estimates ranging between 2% (Clark et al., 2011) and 22% (Lane & Fox, 2013). In a systematic review, Peterson, Voller, Polusny, and Murdoch (2011) also found that up to 21% of incarcerated men in the Unites States reported NSEs during their incarceration. Notably, research on the prevalence of NSEs among incarcerated populations has almost entirely been based on samples from the Unites States. In contrast, the prevalence of NSEs among men incarcerated is Canada is relatively unknown. To begin addressing this gap in the literature, the current study explored the prevalence of self-reported NSEs among men incarcerated in three correctional facilities across Ontario, Canada. We also examined inmates’ responses to open-ended questions regarding NSEs to gain a better understanding of their experiences.

Methods

A total of 189 inmates aged 19-74 (M = 35.13) participated in this study. Data were collected from three provincial maximum-security prisons in Ontario: Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre - OCDC (n = 45, 22.8%), Maplehurst Correctional Complex - MHCC (n = 60, 31.7%), and Central East Correctional Centre - CECC (n = 84, 44.4%). Most participants were born in Canada (n = 149, 78.8%) and identified as White or from European decent (n = 114, 60.3%). The next most common ethnicity reported was those who identified as African, Caribbean, or Black (n = 14, 7.4%), with another 6.9% of the sample who identified as Indigenous. Just over half of the participants reported having completed at least some high school (n = 64, 33.9% completed, n = 43, 22.8%). Most participants reported being heterosexual (n = 168, 88.9%), and an additional 5.8% (n = 11) reporting being gay, bisexual, or questioning.

Data were collected by a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers led by the second author. All researchers were given training on sensitivity with vulnerable populations, as well as human rights and dignity in research. As the current study is part of a larger research project examining sexual consent, sexual health, and sexual history among incarcerated men in Ontario, inmates completed a battery of self-report measures; however, we only examined a subset of these measures for this study. Specifically, we examined NSEs after the age of 14 with the Sexual Experiences Survey-Short Form Victimization (SES-SFV; Koss et al., 2006). The SES-SFV is a behaviourally specific measure that asks participants about various unwanted sexual behaviours from sexual touching to sexual intercourse. We also examined responses to a question asking participants whether they had experienced childhood sexual abuse before the age of 14; however, note that rates of childhood sexual abuse are only available for participants from MHCC as this question was added later in the data collection process. Finally, we asked participants open-ended questions pertaining to their NSEs (e.g., have you ever been in a situation where you felt your own sexual boundaries [sexual limits that you have set for yourself] have been breached or broken? If, so please describe the situation and how you dealt with it).

Results

Of the 168 participants who completed the SES-SFV, 49.4% (n = 83) reported at least one NSE after the age of 14. Table 1 summarizes prevalence rates by NSE category. Notably, over a quarter of participants reported experiencing forced sexual intercourse (i.e. rape). Note that 11.1% (n = 21) of the original sample of 189 inmates chose not to complete this part of the survey, which may suggest participants felt uncomfortable answering these types of questions. Missing responses may also reflect underreporting of NSEs among men. Of the 67 men for whom we had data regarding childhood sexual abuse, 44.8% (n = 30) reported being sexually abused prior to the age of 14.

 

Table 1: NSEs after the age of 14 by category (N = 168)

Category of NSE

Frequency Reported

N

%

None

85

50.6%

Sexual contact

23

13.7%

Attempted coercion

2

1.2%

Coercion

7

4.2%

Attempted rape

6

3.6%

Rape

45

26.8%

Note: This table does not include the 21 participants who chose not to respond to the SES-SFV.    

Preliminary findings from the qualitative data provide further evidence for the high prevalence rates of NSEs and childhood sexual abuse in this sample. We have included a few quotes that speak to unique challenges of NSEs. These real lived experiences can help illustrate the high rates of victimization and variations of NSE histories.

Discussion

This study examined the prevalence of a range of NSEs among men incarcerated from three correctional institutions across Ontario. Men in the current sample reported higher rates of NSEs both before and after the age of 14 compared to the general population (Stoltenborgh et al., 2015), as well as samples of incarcerated men from the United States (e.g., Lane & Fox, 2013). These findings suggest that incarcerated men in Ontario may benefit from interventions designed to address trauma associated with NSEs.

To date, most of the research examining NSEs among incarcerated men has focused on childhood sexual abuse (e.g., Johnson et al., 2006), but the current findings suggest experiences of sexual violence permeate the lives of this population beyond childhood. Additionally, the qualitative responses presented here highlight systemic barriers to safety and stability (e.g., lack of housing, under-resourced childhoods). Sexual violence experienced by these men is situated in a culture of violence, neglect, and socioeconomic instability.

Table 2: Selected quotes from participants regarding NSEs

Direct Quotes

“I was living with an older man from the ages of 18 and 22 and he would help me out with a place to stay. And with money. In return he would say, ‘you owe me’. I asked how am I to repay you? His reply was oral sex. I did do it.” – CECC Facility, Age 24.

“Yes, when I was a kid, 12, I was abused by a friend who was 18, with a plastic toy sword. I didn’t know two [sic] process/ deal with that, so I blocked it out, mentally, until last year. I’m still struggling with how to deal with this as I haven’t received any counselling.” – OCDC Facility, Age 23.

“Only as a child. But this affected me up through most of my life. This affected three marriages which all ended sadly. I was to blame for this as I now know that in this I was still a small boy when it came to sex. I was a man with the needs of a man But the horror of sex sickened me [sic].” MHCC Facility, Age 49.

“When I was in a boys and girl home. Things would go on with me and some of the staff. I was young 7 years old.” – OCDC Facility, Age 60.

 

These findings are in line with theories of cycles of violence and maladaptive coping skills that result in the perception of abuse (i.e. the victim to offender cycle) and may be a potential reason why higher rates of sexual violence are observed among incarnated men (Thomas & Fremouw, 2009).

Community-based interventions for under-resourced communities need to be implemented to address the broader systemic issues that contribute to sexual violence (Scott & Gosling, 2016). Men who have NSEs (in childhood or adulthood) live in a culture of hegemonic masculinity which has significant sociocultural barriers to reporting and seeking support for these experiences (Fisher, Goodwin, & Patton, 2008; Stanko, 2017). In under-resourced communities, sociocultural barriers tend to be compounded given that aggressive and violent coping strategies are more normative (Guerra, Huesmann, & Spindler, 2003). Interventions, within correctional facilities and within communities, that focus on cognitive distortions and empathy have been found to be effective at reducing recidivism rates and improving mental health (Olver et al., 2009; Beeche et al., 2012). More specifically, interventions that teach vulnerability, boundaries, intimacy, and healthy relationships by challenging the dominant cultural/sexual scripts that limit men in their emotional and sexual expression may help break the silence of men who have had NSEs.

Additionally, we only asked participants from one of the facilities (MHCC; n=60), whether they had experienced an NSE/sexual abuse before the age of 14; thus, prevalence rates for childhood NSEs may not be representative of inmates across Ontario. One notable limitation is that we did not distinguish between sexual victimization before incarceration or while incarcerated, and as such it is not clear as to whether these reports were during incarceration or prior to incarceration.

In conclusion, this study provided a brief overview of NSEs among men incarcerated in correctional facilities across Ontario. We found that rates of NSEs before and after the age of 14 were higher in the current sample than in the general population. This is consistent with previous research that has found higher rates of NSEs among male inmates in the United States (e.g., Lane & Fox, 2013). As such, community-based and correctional facility treatment research is critically needed to address the ways in which men with NSE histories can be supported through their healing and how their trajectories of healing relate to their recidivism rates. Future research should also investigate the sociocultural context in which these sexual violence experiences are situated and how differences in the context of violence may predict differential outcomes and responses to different treatment modalities. Understanding and acknowledging that incarcerated men are likely to have higher rates of NSEs in both childhood and adulthood is a starting point for discussions pertaining to policy review, programming efforts, and increased/more tailored psychological services within correctional facilities. This paper can also be viewed as a call for action, as well as the start of future discussions surrounding social change and psychological/sexual well-being of incarcerated men, and/or those at risk of becoming incarcerated. Community psychologists, and complementary disciplines, may be particularly well-suited to answer this call.

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