Sexual coercion of men in Australian prisons: who is at risk?

Gay and bisexual men and men who have had unwanted sex outside prison are the groups most at risk of sexual coercion in Australian prisons. Men in prison for the first time and men who had spent more than a total of five years in prison were also more likely to report sexual coercion, although the overall rate of men experiencing sexual coercion was fewer than one in forty.

These are the findings of a study by the Kirby Institute which used a large random sample of men in New South Wales and Queensland prisons, using computer‐assisted telephone interviewing (a technique which overcomes reporting issues in collecting sexual violence data). Fourteen percent, or about one in every of seven male prisoners in those states, were included in the sample.

Lead author on the publication of the study, Paul Simpson, says that very little research has focused on men or prisoners as victims of sexual violence.

“We asked participants about sexual coercion, defined as being forced or frightened into doing something sexually that was unwanted while in prison,” said Dr Simpson,a research fellow of the Justice Health Research Program at the Kirby. “Of the two thousand men who participated in our study, who were randomly drawn from a list of current inmates, 136 men, or seven percent, reported they had been threatened with sexual coercion in prison, and 53 or 2.3% of the participants had had experienced sexual coercion.”

Gay and bisexual identified men were more than seven times more likely to report having experienced sexual coercion in prison, and more than twice as likely to report having experienced a threat of sexual coercion, compared with their heterosexual counterparts. The findings also showed that those who reported unwanted sexual activity outside of prison were four times as likely to report being threatened with sexual coercion and more than eight times as likely to report experiences of sexually coercion in prison, compared to those who did not report unwanted sexual activity outside prison.

About twenty percent of respondents to the survey were Indigenous, 95% identified as heterosexual, and sixty percent were in prison for at least a second time. The median age of respondents was about 32; 347 men, or 17% of respondents, were born outside Australia and for nine percent, English was not their primary language. 268 respondents or 13% reported having been sexually coerced outside prison. Only 30 % who had experienced sexual coercion reported it to a staff member.

Prisoners with histories of sex work, who identified as non-Indigenous, Australian-born, and in Queensland rather than NSW prisons, were more likely to report being threatened with sexual coercion. Racial and cultural/ethnicity measures such as Indigenous identity, Australian-born, and primary language spoken at home were not associated with reports of actual sexual coercion.

“Prisoners are routinely excluded from community sexual health and behavioural surveys based on household or telephone sampling and therefore represent an under-researched population,”Dr Simpson says. “Although measures such as providing single cells to prisoners, increasing surveillance, and improving prison officer training may help address immediate safety and health concerns of those at risk, given the sensitivity of the issue and likely under-reporting to correctional staff, community-based organisations and prisoner peer-based groups have a role in providing both preventive and trauma-focused support.”

Earlier research*, also contributed to by Kirby researchers, indicated that changes in power structures and control in a modern prison, the attitudes of older and younger prisoners, the concept of ‘duty of care’, the introduction of prison drug programs, and prisoner attitudes toward gender and sexuality have all contributed to a gradual decline in the number of male prisoner sexual assaults in Australia.


The full article, inthe journal  Archives of Sexual Behavior, is titled Factors Associated With Sexual Coercion in a Representative Sample of Men in Australian Prisons. SimpsonPL, Reekie J, Butler TG, Richters J, Yap L, Grant L, Richards A, Donovan B,and can be found at Arch Sex Behav 2016;45:1195-205; doi: 10.1007/s10508-015-0653-7.

*The decline in sexual assaults in men's prisons in New South Wales: a "systems" approach. Yap L, Richters J, Butler T, Schneider K, Grant L, Donovan B. J Interpers Violence2011;26:3157-81. doi: 10.1177/0886260510390961. 

Date published: 
Friday, 26 August 2016