Labeling theory as a paradigm for the etiology of prison rape:

Implications for understanding and intervention

Robert D. Hanser

Sam Houston State University



The prison subculture consists of beliefs and attitudes that condone and support prison rape. For victims of prison rape, potential recourse from such victimization is greatly limited because of this subculture. A subculture of prison violence prevents many of these victims from conceding to repeated incidents of victimization that ultimately force the inmate-victim into a forced role of dominance and subservience. A labeling theory paradigm is presented to explain the complex developments that lead from an inmate’s first victimization to the eventual acceptance of their new label. This new social label is rooted in an ascribed social status that ultimately leads to the internalization of their new sex role as part of a newly adopted self-identity. Lastly, implications for mental health practitioners within custodial institutions are discussed, demonstrating the need for therapist awareness of prison sub-cultural norms to effectively understand and treat victims of prison rape.


The purpose of this manuscript is to demonstrate the complexities of prison rape and how it differs from rape in outside society so that therapists can adequately assist victims of this crime. The inmate power structure is dovetailed with the labeling process against a sub-cultural backdrop of inmate and prison staff norms that encourage the likelihood of prison rape.  This power structure and the corresponding sub-cultural norms will be used to demonstrate how the prison environment forces the victim of prison rape to assume a deviant role and an undesired label. The assumption of this role leads to the application of a label that holds negative consequences for the individual targeted during this process. Finally, treatment implications and suggestions for institutional therapists who work with victims of prison rape will be addressed.

Labeling theory as a paradigm for prison rape etiology

            According to labeling theory, group reactions are imperative when trying to understand the events that lead to antisocial behavior. Labeling theory essentially asks why some acts are labeled deviant when others are not (Akers, 2000). This theory asserts that social group reactions serve to make certain behaviors deviant, regardless of the individual context in which they occur (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 1998). This begs the question as to who it is that creates the label associated with deviant behavior. The answer to this inquiry lies with those who hold the power within a given social structure. Some sociologists have asserted that it is the more powerful members of society who create the standard for labels that are applied to individuals who are less socially prominent (Schur, 1973). It is from this perspective that this manuscript will serve to demonstrate the labeling processes involved in homosexual rape within prisons.

However, in order to understand labeling theory, one must also understand the underlying power structures within a given social order where the labeling process occurs. This is crucial because it is the powerful members of a society who impose labels upon those who are less powerful (Schur, 1973). The label is determined by the standards of the affluent and upwardly mobile, with those at the lower echelons being nearly, though not entirely, powerless to “throw off the yoke” of the labeling process (Becker, 1963).

            For the upper and middle classes, power can effectively be expressed through economic, vocational, and academic avenues. For the lower classes, however, many of these routes to upward social mobility are denied, leaving only direct physical means for obtaining power or control (Miller, 1958). Correspondingly, a standard based on physical prowess and ability can develop (Messerschmidt, 1999). Many perform physically oriented jobs, and likewise find the physical realm of achievement to be their best hope in moving upward through the social order (Messerschmidt, 1999). Such an example might be the “ghetto kid” turned pro football or basketball star, or the rural small town kid turned Marine Corps hometown hero. These images themselves are stereotypes that serve to maintain the power structure as well as the means of achievement.

            With the prison population being drawn disproportionately from the less affluent members of society, it should come as no surprise that prison norms may, in various subtle ways, exemplify power status norms held by the lower classes (Tucker, 1981; Miller, 1958). The members of the “prison society” are even less socially powerful than their socioeconomic counterparts who are not incarcerated. For these members, physical prowess and coercion become the primary method for achieving power in the prison setting. Thus, aside from some rare exceptions, such as successful “writ writers” or inmates who have affluent family members, those who are physically powerful tend to also be the most socially powerful within the prison. Within the male inmate subculture, the expression of physical prowess as power is frequently paired with roles of masculinity, which, in turn, reinforces the subculture of physical prowess within the prison setting (Messerschmidt, 1999).  

The meaning of masculinity is different in prison than in mainstream society. In prison these meanings are reinforced as men in these locations act to affirm their masculinity in the limited ways that are available (Messerschmidt, 1999). This results in a modified form of “hegemonic masculinity,” which emphasizes negative attitudes toward authority, control over others, aggressiveness, and social reinforcement for violent acts (Messerschmidt, 1999). Previously learned sexual and social styles of masculinity, as exercised in the broader society, are adapted and altered within prison so that the male inmate does not lose his position of dominance and control. To fail to do so results in the male inmate accepting a subservient role, or as it is termed in the prison subculture, the role and label of a “woman” (Tucker, 1981). In essence, sexual violence among inmates is a statement of power, status, and control.

            It is through both the means and threat of violence that dominance and control are achieved, with the victim ultimately being given the label of “punk.” This is true even in cases that prison officials may term “voluntary” or “consensual” sex. This connection between forced and voluntary homosexuality was illustrated in interviews conducted by Davis (1982), during which he found that “consensual” homosexuals tended to be subjugated heterosexuals who had been forced to engage in sex to avoid physical harm. This process, referred to as being “turned out” or “punked out,” effectively redefines and labels the victims’ role in prison as that of a “punk,” or subjugated homosexual (Tucker, 1981). Thus, the homosexual orientation and label placed upon the deviant is not one of self-choice or personal preference, but is forced upon him by more powerful members of the inmate subculture.

            According to Lemert (1999), the deviant is a product of gradual, unconscious processes that are part of socialization, especially subcultural socialization. Lemert (1999) also asserted that the personality change that occurs from accepting and internalizing a deviant label is not always gradual but can be sudden. As Lemert (1999) states, “…it must be taken into consideration that traumatic experiences often speed up changes in personality…” (p. 386). This is especially true for inmates who are victims of prison gang rape in which multiple assailants attack and repeatedly rape an inmate-victim. For the victim of gang rape, entering into a sexual relationship with one man in return for protection can be an adaptive coping mechanism for survival within the prison subculture.

Lemert further states that “when a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or role… as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviance is secondary” (1999, p. 388). In the previous example, the initial gang rape can be thought of as the source of primary deviance, whereas the deliberate decision to engage in “consensual” homosexuality with one partner essentially results in a more solidified self-identity. But this process creates a degree of cognitive dissonance within the individual which, when resolved, tends to leave the victim more willing to engage in future homosexual conduct. Indeed, this dissonance is the crux of this adjustment process where the victim’s original identity is juxtaposed against their newly ascribed identity, resulting in an eventual psychological metamorphosis from the point of primary deviance to that of secondary deviance through future acts of homosexuality (Festinger, 1958; Lemert, 1999). 1 Throughout the process of coping with this dissonance, typical acute symptoms of this trauma such as intrusive recollections and/or dreams about the assault, intense distress over stimuli that remind the victim of the assault, hyper-vigilance, difficulties sleeping and eating, and unexplained or exaggerated outbursts of anger, are likely to be experienced. Those who cannot successfully navigate this dissonance are those who present with the previous symptoms on a chronic level, coupled with more serious and self-damaging psychological impairments that are associated with rape trauma (e.g. self-mutilation and suicide). The fact that these victims must repetitively subject themselves to subsequent victimization naturally exacerbates the victim’s likelihood for long-term psychological impairment and emotional injury.

            But the victim of male prison rape will find it necessary to adjust to this new role since the sexual values of mainstream society are completely inverted within the prison subculture. The inmate perpetrator who willingly engages in predatory homosexual activity would typically be given the marginalized label of “homosexual” or “bisexual” in the broader society. Ironically, however, within the prison there is exactly the opposite effect with a corresponding increase in social status and “manhood” for the perpetrator of sexual assault. Within the prison subculture, rapists are considered masculine conquerors of effeminate “punks” (Weiss & Friar, 1974). The aggressor is not held as homosexual in orientation but is simply assuming a position of power within the subcultural norms of prison life. The victim of the prison sexual assault, however, suffers an injury greater than the sexual assault alone, as the victim’s entire social position within the prison is effectively compromised and redefined.

            According to Becker (1999), “being caught and branded as deviant has important consequences for one’s further social participation and self-image,” adding “the most important consequence is a drastic change in the individual’s public identity” (p. 392). This also applies to inmate-victims of prison rape. For many inmates, the role of prison “punk” produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over time, many inmates who are forced into the subjugated role of “punk” learn that certain creature comforts can be obtained if they are willing to comply with sexual demands. Thus, many come to identify with and dress the part, act the part, and even to rationalize their role. Indeed, this role can frequently go well beyond that of simple sexual services, extending to a relationship of complete and total servitude. Many will submit to cooking, cleaning, mending, and other activities typically held to be “feminine” by the prison subculture as well as mainstream society. Some inmates, upon acceptance of the “punk” label and resolution of the dissonance associated with secondary deviance, will even go so far as to involve themselves in competitive hypergamy, or the practice of achieving upward mobility through “marriage” within the prison subculture (Tucker, 1981).

            While these inmates will frequently rationalize their activity as one of survival, their participation can lead them to a complete internalization of the role. With the label fully applied, many “homosexual” inmates will thus make the most of their remaining time in prison and will strive to obtain whatever securities their role can bring them. When the inmate begins to see himself as a “punk” and resolves his feelings of dissonance, the label becomes a source of self-identity. While the label of punk denotes lower status within the inmate pecking order, the punk learns to fulfill the role in a manner that allows a relatively trouble-free existence, so long as he continues to live the role. Thus, what was once a forced or coerced label effectively becomes a label with which the victimized inmate identifies with and accepts as a definition of his self.

Structural issues

            Lemert (1999) maintains that role conceptions of the individual must be reinforced by the reactions of others. Many inmates have found that the institutional system simply does not care, lending tacit approval to sexual violence through a form of conscious disregard. According to Scacco, “the shocking fact is that there is both overt and covert implication of officers in the attacks that take place in penal institutions” (1975, p. 30). Likewise, Weiss and Friar (1974) assert that “prisoners are convinced that prison rape is an integral part of the prison punishment system,” adding that inmates frequently contend that “…prison rape is sanctioned by prison authorities. They view it as the ultimate method of control and punishment” (1974, p. X). It is in this manner that the prison staff essentially serves to perpetuate and exacerbate the labeling process for “homosexuals” within the prison.

            What is more, prison staff, both wittingly and unwittingly, serve to further marginalize the inmate labeled as “punk” when separating them from the general inmate population. These protective measures have a negative side effect since they can further reinforce the label punks are given. Likewise, the inmate punk is hesitant to go to prison authorities for assistance, due to further negative labels of being an informant or “snitch.” Similarly, many inmates may be hesitant to discuss these issues with prison mental health staff for fear that such disclosures will be provided to authorities, ultimately making them a “snitch” for seeking psychological services for their difficulties. Such labels can have deadly results for the inmate. Thus, the inmate who seeks to avoid the labeling process finds himself with few avenues of escape or emotional assistance. The inmate either must fight off their assaults or be cursed with one adverse label or another, if not both “punk” and “snitch.” In either case, the prospects are frequently grim, with the most likely result being that the punk label is assumed by the inmate.

            An inmate with the label of punk is cut off and isolated from participating in conventional activities that the dominant inmate enjoys. Once the status of “punk” is given, it is effectively ironclad, and the punk finds himself marginalized within the prison population, leading him to seek out others who share a similar set of circumstances (Tannenbaum, 1938). The role of punk is one that allows the “weaker” inmate within the prison power structure to exist, but through that of an exploitative (rather than consensual) relationship. The powerful residents within this inmate subculture have thus effectively labeled the punk, who “voluntarily” assumes the role. The superior masculine role, desired and maintained by the majority of inmates, has been denied the punk, who is now considered deviant by both inmate subculture and larger social norms.

Implications for treating victims

Scholars of women’s studies have presented arguments contending that heterosexual rape symbolizes the condition and even structural position of women in American society (Cahill, 2001; Knowles, 1999). Similarly, homosexual rape symbolizes the condition and structural position of men in America's prisons (Bowker, 1980). However, few female rape victims in society are forced to repetitively meet and socially acknowledge their rapist with absolutely no chance of avoiding such an aversive experience. What is more, even fewer must repay their rapist for the violence inflicted upon them through acts of long-term and tacitly sanctioned servitude (Knowles, 1999; Rideau and Wikberg, 1992). However, as previously discussed, many male prison rape victims must unwillingly devote their existence to servicing their rapists during a period of several years within the prison environment (Knowles, 1999).

Assessment of physical and psychological harm inflicted upon individuals who have been sexually victimized in prison has been very difficult, though it is easy to conclude that the same forms of trauma experienced by those raped in society must likewise be encountered with rape victims in prison. Scacco (1982) cites that research on male rape victimization indicates that the assault triggers an acute disruption of the person's physiological, psychological, social, and sexual life. This was evidenced by somatic problems, interrupted sleeping and eating patterns, and the development of mood swings and fears specific to the circumstances of the assault (Knowles, 1999; Scacco, 1982). Some victims turn to suicide to escape the trauma or fear of rape (Knowles, 1999; Tucker 1981). Thus, rape in this context, represents an external and traumatic crisis inflicted on the victim (Knowles, 1999).

In fact, the symptoms of rape in prisons include all of those typically experienced by a person who is raped outside of the prison (Knowles, 1999; Scacco, 1982; Tucker 1981). Thus, understanding the sub-cultural issues pertaining to prison rape is very important for correctional counselors who may treat prisoners who are victims of prison rape. Failure to understand the underlying dynamics associated with male prison rape can lead to drastic consequences for the victim. Mental health practitioners may make grossly inappropriate assessments of the victim’s position, adding further to the sense of victimization experienced. Take, as an example, the comments of one male inmate confined in a state prison:

I was put in a cell with a gang member who made me give him oral sex…I went to see a psychologist who told me that I’d caused that inmate to sexually abuse me…I can see that I was going through a brake down [sic] mentally.  Anyway, I’d made up my mind that I was taking my life….it is truly impossible to put into words what goes through one’s mind when becoming a victim of rape.  Being made into a person of no self worth, being remade into what ever the person or gang doing the raping wants you to be (Human Rights Watch (2001).

From this, it is easy to see how important it is for mental health practitioners to understand the sub-cultural interplays associated with prison rape. Otherwise, mental health practitioners may develop the sad misconception that such activity is consensual or is in response to some form of provocation produced by the victim. This is of course the complete opposite of what should be concluded from any caring mental health professional, yet it is exactly what the prison sub-culture would promote and condone. Such assessments by mental health professionals thus add further legitimacy to the inversed norms and beliefs of this subculture, ultimately causing more harm than intended good. Because therapists who work within the prison run the risk of becoming jaded by this noxious environment, it is important that correctional treatment staff guard against the strong influences of the prison sub-culture. Therefore, it is imperative that correctional mental health workers understand and challenge the dynamics present within the sub-culture, lest they place their clients at ever greater risk for victimization. 


            The prison sub-culture provides numerous rationalizations and justifications for prison rape. Through a system of inversed norms and mores, the prison sub-culture provides incentive for perpetrators to commit prison rape. Likewise, this sub-culture stigmatizes victims in such a manner that places the victim in a nearly powerless position to resist subsequent victimization. Once this series of events occurs, the victim is labeled in a manner that ensures virtual submission to the newly ascribed lower status. The aversive effects of the direct assault, coupled with the potential dissonance between the ascribed identity and the self-identity held by the victim create a sense of trauma that places the victim at greater risk for psychological impairment. To effectively treat such victims of prison rape, correctional treatment staff must deal with not only the full range of trauma symptoms that any victim will present, but must also be willing to contend with broader sub-cultural issues within the institution itself. Failure to do so can have the inadvertent effect of placing the victim at greater risk than they may have been without mental health intervention, resulting in a paradox that amounts to nothing less than a travesty of justice.


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1 It is not implied here that homosexual conduct is necessarily “deviant.”  Rather, Lemert’s concept of “secondary deviance” is used to illustrate the relationship between the cognitive dissonance and labeling processes.