Male on Male Prison Rape – Where is the Outrage?

 The following is adapted from a paper that I wrote whilst studying at the University of Amsterdam, and is an issue that I believe needs a lot more coverage:


Male sexual assault in US prisons was once described as ‘America’s best kept secret’ (Eigenberg, 1989), but also one that appears to have become an ‘accepted’ fact of prison life. It can be an extremely prominent and harmful issue for inmates, but steps are rarely taken to prevent this form of abuse. I became very interested in this topic after reading a report which labelled male prison rape as ‘one of the most widespread and neglected human rights crises in the U.S. today’ (McFarlane & Rothstein, 2010). As an International Development student, the issue of human rights always concerns me and I was shocked that I knew so little about something so prevalent and alarming.

The secretive nature of this practice was further realised when I did an extensive online search of some of North America’s largest newspapers (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today) using the terms ‘male prison rape/male jail rape’ and found almost nothing published about it. This form of assault has either become so drearily commonplace, or so hidden and overlooked, that it no longer counts as a newsworthy story. My examination of British newspapers was a little more successful, particularly the discovery of two articles that really helped to fuel my interest: ‘Prison rape: Is the US doing enough to protect inmates?’ (BBC News, 2012) and ‘My son was raped in jail – the crime was ignored’ (The Guardian, 2010). Even though this issue often goes unnoticed in the press, it has been addressed in popular, fictitious films and television programmes, most notably the American blockbuster Shawshank Redemption (1994), which portrayed a more subtle depiction of sexual assault in prison, and British TV drama Scum (1979), which was much more explicit and one of the most controversial films made at that time. It was actually withdrawn from broadcast due to its graphic portrayals of sexual violence.


In academia, male sexual assault in prison has been theorised substantially, although some scholars still maintain that it has not been given enough attention. In terms of statistical and factual data, this area remains woefully under-researched – the reasons for which will be highlighted later in the report.

Overall, this paper explores why these assaults occur, especially between men who would usually identify themselves as heterosexual, and the reasons that people are reluctant to discuss it – both inside and outside prison walls. I will then detail what this reveals about theoretical issues of masculinity in wider society – particularly the ideas of ‘Hegemonic Masculinities’ by Connell and ‘Compulsive Heterosexuality’ by Pascoe.


Why is sexual assault in US prisons so rarely discussed, and what can this tell us about views of masculinity in wider society?

My sub-questions are:

– What factors are likely to lead to an instance of sexual assault in prison?

– Why do inmates, prison staff and those on the outside often choose to not discuss sexual assault in prison?

What can our findings tell us about how society views and values masculinities?


As noted previously, this issue has been theorised and speculated about by scholars for many years, but finding official data and statistics has been difficult due to the very natu$re of the topic. Primary data is not easy to find, even for established scholars, as the practice is secretive, confidential and often underreported. Therefore, my report relies on newspaper articles, online documentaries and academic papers to help answer its research question, and focuses primarily on the US as its prison system tends to dominate academic discussion. However, there is no doubt that this practice occurs worldwide.


Most studies have found that between 10 and 20% of US prisoners have been sexually assaulted in some way (McFarlane & Rothstein 2012, Struckman-Johnson 1996), although this can never be more than an estimate. When these figures are applied to the levels of incarceration in the US, it could mean that in excess of 1 million victims may have been assaulted over the last 20 years (Podmore, 2013). Of course, with the stigmatization and fear of repercussions that can often come with reporting a crime of this sort, the numbers may actually be much higher. In addition, the discovery of this data can also be compromised by the nature of prison conditions, inmate codes and subcultures and negative staff attitudes (Dumond, 2003). Podmore (2013) notes that the results of cell-sharing can range from supportive friendships to murderous violence, and they can also include both consensual and coercive sexual relationships where the dividing line can be very fine. Therefore, the idea that ‘sexual relations between prisoners are not commonplace’ is based on hope rather than evidence. Dumond (2003) critiques the lack of concrete study on this topic, noting that in the 35 years prior to his time of writing there had been less than 20 studies executed to obtain an accurate assessment of its epidemiology.

A report released in 2010 entitled Survivors Behind Bars: Supporting Survivors of Prison Rape and Sexual Assault offers a good grounding for the more basic details of this issue. They note that inmates who have been victimised once are likely to be assaulted multiple times during the course of their incarceration, and that they are sometimes marked as ‘property’ by gang members. They refer to the rape of a male in prison as being ‘turned out’ – implying that they are now a ‘victim’, a ‘woman’, or have been ‘made gay’.


Earlier studies linked sexual assault in prison to structural factors. Ibrahim (1974, cited in Knowles 1999:272) advocated this idea, believing that conditions in the penal system fostered abuse. For example, he noted that prison is a single-sex, closed society that inhibits heterosexual activity. In such an unusual situation, deviant sexual behaviour is tolerated by everyone involved in the prison system, which isn’t helped by the fact that prisoners are often left with lots of idle time due to insufficient work and recreation opportunities. Also, privacy is often impossible due to the sharing of cells, showers and rest rooms and Ibrahim argues that decreased communication from the outside world reduces identification with the ‘sexual norms of society’.

Whilst these factors may certainly have a role to play, more recent studies have criticized that this idea is only half-formed, and have added the issues of power, protection, hierarchies and race into the general body of thought.

Knowles, in particular, believes that rape in prison is rarely a sexual act, but rather one of violence, politics and dominance. He states: ‘Sociologists have long known that rape is not so much about sex, as it is about power’ (1999:273). Keeping a powerful status in an intimidating, violent prison setting is vital to inmates, with rape and domination being one way in which this is achieved. In the ultra-masculine prison world, Knowles argues, rape constitutes the ultimate humiliation for a male by forcing him to assume the role of a woman. This ‘feminine’ role is mostly accepted in a prisoner’s belief system, which maintains that a ‘real man’ cannot be raped or exploited.

Dumond (2003:355) notes that inmates who are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault may be: young and inexperienced; physically weak and small; suffering from mental illness or developmental disabilities; seen as not ‘tough’ or ‘streetwise’; homosexuals, transgendered or the overly effeminate; violators of the code of silence; disliked by staff or other inmates; and those that have already been sexually assaulted. Furthermore, for many convicts who have been socialised into this system, eroticism has come to be associated with aggression. Therefore, the degree of satisfaction derived from rape is ‘often in direct proportion to the degree of force and humiliation to which the partner is subjected’ (Wooden and Parker 1982: 14, cited in Knowles 1999:274).

Like most social systems, prisons have hierarchies. For the rapist, or the ‘jocker’ as he is commonly known, these sexual conquests serve to not only establish his status and dominance within the convict hierarchy, but also to validate his manhood (Knowles, 1999). To the general public, this may seem peculiar, as a man who is forcing other men to have intercourse with him is not viewed as a homosexual. This is because homosexual behaviour is ‘rewritten’ in prison (Knowles, 1999), meaning that the jockers are able to convince others that their homosexual interests are highly physical, unemotional and temporary, enabling them to retain their ‘straightness’ and power. In contrast, it is the unwilling victims who are labelled as ‘homosexual’, as they are not ‘man enough’ to fight back against their aggressor, which is generally (and unfairly) seen as a feminine tendency. Finally, Knowles explains that even though the male prison environment allows for sexual aggression, it does not approve of sexual affection or love between inmates, and very rarely does this positive element occur.


Protective Pairing (PP) adds a complicated element to this issue, and it serves to blur the lines between forced and consensual sexual activity. McFarlane & Rothstein (2010) explain that, in a PP, a more powerful prisoner offers protection to a less powerful prisoner in exchange for sex. They argue that it mimics the dynamics of outsider domestic violence, both in the behaviour of the perpetrator and the impact on the victim. These relationships are often visibly abusive or violent, but yet may still appear the safest option for the weaker inmate who is attempting to avoid more vicious assaults or gang-rapes.

This unique type of relationship can clearly be seen in the documentary Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars, which was released in 2004. It partly focuses on the liaison between Lemark, a gang leader, and ‘Mindy’, a young new inmate, who were incarcerated in Limestone Penitentiary, Alabama. It is revealed how terror tactics and loan sharking are common methods used ‘turn a guy out’ – with rape being used as a punishment for not paying back debts. Lemark and Mindy became acquaintances through business transactions, which consequently led to the ‘turning out’ of Mindy.

However, rather than this being a completely exploitative relationship, both parties explained how they soon became companions and developed feelings for one another. They soon became best friends as well as ‘lovers’. Lemark explains: “In prison, your ‘boy’ or your ‘sissy’ is like your wife or woman on the street”. He said that their relationship wasn’t just about sex. “It was more than that,” he explained, “I cared deeply about him.” Likewise, Mindy described his strong feelings for Lemark, who looked out for him, which was something of a rare occurrence in a prison environment. Yet despite the seemingly reciprocal feelings shared between the two, it must be noted that Lemark always retained his dominant and manly position as the inserter in the sex act. More significantly, he never described himself as a homosexual and was the one to give ‘Mindy’ a feminine pseudonym – his actual name is David Mendenhall Jr, thus emphasizing the ‘male’ and ‘female’ dichotomy of their relationship.

Trammell (2011) expands on the idea of PP.  She conducted a study in which inmates described their own experiences, thus allowing us a better picture of both inmate culture and prison sex. She notes how there is always a man and a wife, and they play a gendered performance, much like that of Lemark and Mindy. She notes that the social construction of a ‘prison wife’ in an all-male environment, as well as a lack of physical violence, is used to legitimise the arrangement of a PP. To pair up with another male in prison seems like the most logical choice for men who cannot physically protect themselves. She explains:

“Men create a wife not only for sex but to maintain a hierarchy through the division of labor and subordination. The prison wife loses social power in this arrangement but is protected from physical violence. This paternalistic arrangement is also normalized by the fact that sex is common in prison”
(Trammell, 2011:320).

Trammell draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s (2011) theory of ‘symbolic violence’ noting how, in a PP, forms of non-physical violence are used to subordinate those with little or no social power.  She says “scholars find that we use gender as a way to divide and create social hierarchies” (Trammell, 2011:307). This occurs within the confines of cultural norms and institutional roles, where some hold great power over others without the need for physical violence. By labelling one of the pairing as a ‘female’, this arrangement appears ‘natural’ and facilitates male domination (Bourdieu, 2011, cited in Trammell, 2011:30).

Interestingly, Trammell’s study, in which she interviewed 40 male parolees in a Californian prison, found that most of her respondents did not see PP as sexual abuse, but rather a viable option for men who cannot take care of themselves. The men explained that PP is ‘functional’ and ‘reduced violence’ (2011:307). Many of the men refuse to see PP as rape or sexual abuse. Anthony, a 39-year-old Mexican who served 5 years, stated:

“Do you think someone could rape me? I would take a bullet first. There are guys having sex, that’s a fact. This is not rape. It is like a marriage, everyone is happy about it. If they’re being raped why aren’t they fighting back?”
(Trammell, 2011:318)

It is clear that Anthony is refuting victimization. PP is not seen as rape in the eyes of the prisoners because there is no physical violence. This absence of violence indicates that men consent to be prison wives and are happy with the arrangement. Could this denial be a way for the men to cope with and defend their own ideas of masculinity, which may be challenged when they enter into a somewhat coercive sexual relationship with another male?

Trammell concludes her paper with two avenues. On one hand, it may be true that men volunteer for the role of ‘prison wife’. They may believe that, given their unusual living situation, this is a practical option for them – a ‘solution’ to fending off future acts of sexual violence. In reality, she reasons, this is a ‘false choice’ as inmates have little (if any) consent to truly give. It appears consensual only because the subordinated man has succumbed to his loss of power and endorsed his role as a female. For other men who do not accept this arrangement in any configuration, PP could constitute a form of sexual enslavement and a terrifying, humiliating experience.


Another element that cannot be ignored is race. It is important to touch quickly on this subject –recognizing, of course, that this should ideally be discussed in much more detail. Many scholars, including Scacco (1975), have noted that sexual violence in prison tends to have a strong racial aspect, with it being common for blacks to rape whites – this was seen in the case of Lemark and Mindy. As we have already discussed, many rapists in prisons may not be homosexual at all, but rather heterosexuals who crave personal power and revenge.

Starchild (1990:40) elaborates, noting that over 90% of prison rapes are inter-racial and may be motivated by sexual dominance rather than satisfaction. From various data gathered, it is clear that the victims are almost always young, white prisoners. This could potentially be explained if we consider the lower-class black man, who perhaps has felt trod upon all his life, and now finally has his chance to truly dominate a white person. Scacco (1975:5) would agree with Starchild, stressing that the oppressive characteristics of race relations in general society will penetrate and dictate the relationships between whites and blacks inside prisons.


In 1989, Eigenberg explained the lack of reporting by looking at the attitudes of correctional officers. She noted that male rape is a taboo subject, and reiterated how difficult it was to obtain clear data for victims because with reporting comes a lot of stigmatization, leading the victim to feel embarrassed and humiliated. Furthermore, she stated that it is not always so easy to distinguish between an act of rape and a consensual homosexual act. In fact, she found that even some of the victims were unsure if they had been raped or not (this is especially significant with the rise of protective pairing). With regards to the correctional officers, Eigenberg stated that their responses were ‘neither supportive nor sensitive’ (1989:44).

Eigenberg interviewed 166 correctional officers working in Texas and found, shockingly, that most of them believed that rape victims ‘got what they deserved’ if they had participated in previous consensual sexual acts. She also found that there was a wide disparity in the types of victims that the officers were willing to believe – for example, they were less likely to believe that a muscular man had been raped because he didn’t fit the effeminate stereotype. They helped to add to the commonly held ‘real men cannot be raped’ idea, thus contributing to the harsh judgement of male rape victims.

A further study published in 2000 showed Eigenberg following up on her ideas. She found, through further surveys, that correctional officers were fairly in touch with the occurrences of rape happening in prisons, but were reluctant to discuss the matter with prisoners, which could result in fewer reported incidents.

In addition to correctional officers’ attitudes, Struckman-Johnson et al (1996) look at why sexual coercion has not been heavily studied by social scientists. They concluded that it could be a lack of awareness due to the secrecy surrounding prison, or they may have misconceptions about sexual assault. For example, there are many myths surrounding consent which may influence their own prejudices about sexual coercion. Like the media and general public, who are typically not too concerned with this issue, do they question whether prison inmates are ‘true’ rape victims?

McFarlane & Rothstein elaborate on these dangerous myths surrounding prison sexual assault that may work to deter people from caring more about this issue, including the following: prisoners who are raped must have deserved it; only child molesters are sexually assaulted in prison; a gay man cannot really be raped; and transgender women and feminine men ‘like’ the attention. These myths, of course, are extremely damaging and not only prevent victims from getting justice but may add an element of self-blame among them and effectively halt the healing process (2010:8).

The 2001 National Survey on Prisoner Sexual Assaults confirmed this widespread denial, and stated that criminal prosecution is almost non-existent in these offences. In fact, at the time of writing, Dumond (2003) noted that only one case had been brought to the US Supreme Court. This was that of Farmer v Brennan, in which the Supreme Court noted that, in the case of transgendered serial-rape victim Dee Farmer, the prison official’s deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violated the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. In the concluding statements of the case, Justice Blackman stated that “being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty” (Dumond, 2003:358) but, unfortunately, many of us continue to turn a ‘blind eye’ to this pervasive and horrendous abuse.


Raewyn Connell and Cheri Pascoe are two of the most prolific scholars working on areas of masculinity today, and their theories and findings have proved very useful in my attempt to analyse and make sense of male sexual assault in prison.

In Masculinities (1996) Connell argues that masculinity is not an isolated object, but rather an aspect of a larger structure, and one that could not be properly understood without the contrast to femininity. She argues that we ‘do’ and ‘perform’ gender in culturally specific ways, and that gender relations are a major component of the social structure as a whole – one that is based on power and dominance. Her ideas are truly evident when we place them into the prison world. For one, the idea of gender performance can clearly be seen when we consider protective pairing, which always includes a ‘husband’ and a ‘wife’ despite both parties being male in this situation. Without the presence of the stronger, more dominant male and the weaker, feminised wife, the whole fabric of protective pairing would collapse. It is a unique relationship that is based on the power and dominance of one over the other, which is precisely what Connell argues when she looks at the wider social structure.

Furthermore, Connell argues that only a very small number of men actually fit the idealised ‘hegemonic masculinity’, but anyone who finds themselves exempt from marginalization do so at the authorization of the dominant group. This idea is also extremely relatable to the prison structure. As it has been noted, sexual assault and protective pairing have become fairly commonplace and accepted in prison life amongst inmates. If we took this unusual situation and transported it into every day society, the sexual aggressors would be extremely marginalized and most certainly viewed as predatory and homosexual. However, because prison is so isolated from the outside world – it is almost its own society within a society – sexual assault has become ‘accepted’ as it is actually the dominant, powerful group that is doing the assaulting.  They are the ones with the power, and since they have authorized this practice, it makes it very difficult for others to dismiss or marginalise it.

In Dude, You’re a Fag (2007) Pascoe contends that, contrary to the popular idea, using the word ‘fag’ does not relate solely to sexual preference for other men, but rather those that are perceived to be ‘unmanly’ or ‘feminine’. Using ‘fag’ as an insult is actually a way that males police the borders of masculinity. She states: ‘Becoming a fag has as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess, and strength or in any way revealing weakness or femininity as it does with a sexual identity’ (Pascoe, 2007:54). Again, I can see great similarities with this theory in prison life. With protective pairing, one way in which the aggressors normalize the practice is by asserting that it is the weak, feminized individuals who are in fact homosexual, and not them, as they are too manly, strong and unemotional to be a true ‘fag’. In order to police their own borders of what it is to be masculine in an unusual, one-sexed situation, they are quick to profess that they are not homosexual, even though they are forcefully having sex with other men, because they still possess traditional masculine traits.

Finally, Pascoe also mentions the idea that heterosexuality is an oppressive social institution, and heternormative practices are the ways in which boys demonstrate their dominance over females and other sexual minorities. Locker room talk in high schools, that revealed males wanting to impose their sexualized dominance, can also relate to those in prison. Of course, in this case it is not teenage girls that they are focusing on, but the ability to have sex with and dominate another male, which reaffirms their true ‘manliness’. Therefore, their compulsive heterosexuality in this context gains them masculine capital. As was described at the beginning, men falling in love in prison is generally not accepted by other males, as revealing a loving, caring side could threaten their masculinities, but having dominant and aggressive sex with another male against his will is, shockingly, much more acceptable.


Throughout my research, it became clear that this issue is pervasive, cruel and overlooked far too often. Whilst there is scholarly data available, it could use much more research, and official data records are very poor.  Sexual abuse in prisons is a huge problem that needs addressing but, sadly, the myths surrounding inmates lead many people to believe that the abuse is ‘deserved’ by  many prisoners, who are generally the outcasts of society, and so most people choose to simply ‘turn a blind eye’. In order to improve research in this area, more in-depth interviews with prisoners and wardens are essential for better insight, but this is often difficult due to the nature of the topic and the inaccessibility of the inmates.

This topic invites a lot of scholarly debate, and some academics are now arguing that previous theories and models are too essentialist, labeling inmates simply as either heterosexual or homosexual, and do not allow for the idea that sexualities can be fluid and people may change their sexual orientation (Gibson & Hensley, 2013). Whilst I encourage this idea to be explored further, I hope that it doesn’t detract from the severity and seriousness of sexual coercion and rape if people entertain the thought that all sexual relations in prison are consensual and voluntary.

One of the most important things to consider is the effect that prison rape can have on offenders, which hasn’t really been discussed in this paper but is imperative nonetheless. Scacco (1982:79) postulates that the most serious cost of prison rape to society is that it takes non-violent offenders and turns them into people with a high potential for violence. These men, who have been largely ignored and outcast during a painful time, may leave prison full of rage and eager for revenge on the society which they hold responsible for their humiliation. It has been suspected that the majority of prison suicides are rape victims, but if they do not turn their frustrated feelings against themselves, they may turn it on the world outside. These men may even become rapists themselves in a desperate attempt to ‘regain their manhood’ (Scacco, 1982), especially in a world that places hegemonic masculinity at such a high value.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –


Connell, R. (1996) Masculinities, Chapter 3, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

Clarke, A. (1979) Scum [DVD], UK: Blue Underground

Darabont, F. (1994) The Shawshank Redemption [DVD], USA: Columbia Pictures

Doward, J. (2010) My Son was Raped in Jail – the Crime was Ignored, The Guardian [online], accessed 23/11/2013

Dumond, R. (2003) Confronting America’s Most Ignored Crime Problem: The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp 354-360

Eigenberg, H. (1989) Male Rape: An Empirical Examination of Correctional Officers’ Attitudes Toward Rape in Prison, The Prison Journal, 69:39.

Eigenberg, H. (2000) Correctional Officers and their Perceptions of Homosexuality, Rape, and Prostitution in Male Prisons, The Prison Journal, Volume 80, Issue 4, pp 415-433

Filipovic, J. (2012) Is the US the only country where more men are raped than women?, The Guardian, [online], accessed 22/11/2013

Fishman, J. (1951) Sex in Prison, London: John Lane, Bodley Head.

Gibson, L. & Hensley, C. (2013) The Social Construction of Sexuality in Prison, The Prison Journal, Volume 93, Issue 3, pp 355-370

Knowles, G. J. (1999) Male Prison Rape: A Search for Causation and Prevention, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 267-282

McFarlane, L. & Rothstein, M. (2010) Survivors Behind Bars: Supporting Survivors of Prison Rape and Sexual Assault, California Coalition against Sexual Assault [online report] (accessed 11/12/13)

Pascoe, C. (2007) Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, Chapters 3 & 4, USA: University of California Press

Podmore, J. (2013) Sex in Prisons: Why we need to find out what’s really going on, The Guardian: Comment is Free [online] (accessed 11/12/13)

Pressly, L. (2012) Prison rape: Is the US doing enough to protect inmates? BBC World News [online], accessed 22/11/2013

Scacco, A.M. (1975) Rape in Prison, Springfield Illinois, USA: Charles C Thomas.

Schwartz, J. (2004) Turned Out – Sexual Assault Behind Bars [Documentary], Link:, Alabama: USA

Starchild (1990) Rape of Youth in Prisons and Juvenile Facilities, Journal of Psychohistory, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 245-57

Struckman-Johnson, C. et al (1996) Sexual Coercion Reported by Men and Women in Prison, The Journal of Sex Research, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 67-76

Trammell, R. (2011) Symbolic Violence and Prison Wives: Gender Roles and Protective Pairing in Men’s Prisons, The Prison Journal, Volume 91, Issue 3, pp 305-324

Unknown Author, (2012) Facing Prison Rape [Documentary], Link:, USA: Pip Gilmore Productions





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My #Journocomp Experience

Tomorrow. The Big Day. The day I finally get my article published in the Guardian.

It’s strange. It feels like this day has taken so long to arrive, whilst also taking no time at all.

I entered the competition on a complete whim. I had never heard of it before, and discovered it via a link on Facebook. Figuring I had nothing to lose (what a good decision that was), with about 5 days until the deadline, I decided to take a break from writing university essays about failed states and organ donations, researched sexual violence in the DRC, and submitted my application.

I remember, so clearly, the day that the longlist was announced. I had been obsessively checking the competition’s Twitter page, refreshing it every 5 minutes. The suspense was dreadful. My article was one of the last to be listed, and my heart grew heavier and heavier as I scrolled through the titles, mine nowhere to be seen. And suddenly, as if by magic, there it was. I absolutely couldn’t believe it. I must have sat there for a full minute just staring at it. I was so happy. I kept revisiting the website just to check that it was still there, almost afraid that it would disappear if I didn’t.

Finding out that I had made the shortlist was even more of a surprise. I was in a restaurant with a close friend when I got the call. After I hung up, I just sat there laughing, crying, disbelieving. It was a similar scenario when I asked my boyfriend to read the email which told me that I would be travelling to Zambia with UNICEF. I couldn’t bare to look myself. I don’t even want to think about how many times I uttered: “I just can’t believe it! I just can’t!”

I never fully appreciated how much hard work goes into a piece of journalism, especially when you travel overseas to get the story. The meticulous planning, the interviews, the tiredness of the long days, the negotiations with the (fussy, but hilarious) photographer, the many hours of transcribing, the statistical research, the pulling-your-hair-out when the dreaded writer’s block appears, the proof-reading – again and again – until you know your story almost word for word.

And, tomorrow, all those months of hard work will be worth it.

Waiting to interview Derek, a charming chicken farmer.

Waiting to interview Derek, a charming chicken farmer.

To say that it was a ‘once in a lifetime experience’ is an understatement. All of the amazing aspects of this competiton – the trip, the publication, the awards ceremony – were wonderful. But, even more than that, it gave me self-confidence and self-worth. I never saw myself as a writer before this competition. I always doubted my own opinions. I never thought I was good enough, as I was just a very ‘average’ student, never really excelling at anything. Before I started my degree two years ago, I had no knowledge about international development, just a very strong desire to learn about global poverty and injustice.

If you would have told me three years ago that I would have been a finalist in this competition, I would never have believed it. Never in a million years. But, here I am.

Great memories, encapsulated on an escalator.

Great memories, encapsulated on an escalator.

My boyfriend, and persistent proof-reader.

My boyfriend, and persistent proof-reader.

Finally published!

Finally published!

Standing on the stage at the ceremony was such an emotional experience. I had to keep telling myself to ‘hold it together’ and not start blubbering whilst the photographer snapped our pictures. I’d never found myself in such a situation before – it was overwhelming. I thought that I might feel a bit sad about not winning overall. But I actually don’t at all. It went to such a deserving winner, and dear friend, and I burst into happy tears when they called her name. She is going to go far!

For me, just having such accomplished writers praising my articles, telling me that they loved my blog posts, or even stating that I was a good ‘tweeter’ is more than enough! To have your work appreciated, especially when you are so inexperienced and unsure of yourself, is such an indescribable feeling. I am so honoured to have been chosen to tell the stories of my interviewees, all of whom inspired me in so many ways. I’m really excited now to see what the future holds and, as ever, I am so grateful to the Guardian, UNICEF and Barclays for such an opportunity.

My heart is happy,

My heart is happy,

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My Thoughts on Sex Work

I was 17 the first time I saw a prostitute. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous – I’m aware of that even as I’m typing this – but it’s true. I was headed to a house party, and there was a woman on the other side of the street, walking slowly up and down the same road, not wearing very much, and sticking her head into approaching cars.

I remember this so clearly because I was absolutely shocked by it. Of course, I’m sure I’d seen other prostitutes before and just not been aware of it, but this time I definitely was. She was right there, on the other side of the street. I remember feeling a lot of pity for this woman, and a bit disgusted, wondering what could have possibly gone so wrong in her life that she had to resort to this. But, after that, I didn’t give it too much thought.

And then I moved to Amsterdam.

Being an International Development student back in the UK, we had touched slightly on prostitution in some areas, but I hadn’t really delved too deeply into it. I had learnt a little about human trafficking, and we’d had one class focused on this article by Andrea Cornwall, which I’d whole-heartedly disagreed with at the time. I couldn’t find it within myself to accept sex work as empowering in any form. I couldn’t possibly imagine that any woman (in the right frame of mind) would willingly choose to sell her body over other forms of employment. I just couldn’t.

But, luckily, minds are susceptible to change. Mine was certainly opened in Amsterdam, particularly after I took a fantastic course called The Local and Global Complexities of Prostitution. It was an intensive 7 weeks, which included visiting the world-famous Red Light District late at night to observe and interview tourists, interviewing a sex worker herself (at 9.30am on a Tuesday morning – a very bizarre experience), interviewing a regular client, interviewing people back home and of course, lots of reading and presentations.

I could talk about this for ages and ages, but the one thing I wanted to make clear is that YES, some women actually CHOOSE to become sex workers and YES, some of them enjoy their work. For many of them, it’s just a job like any other. For others, it makes them feel good and allows them to explore their sexuality. It’s easier for us, and perhaps more comfortable, to immediately view them as victims that have been forced into the sex trade, either by a person or an unfortunate circumstance. But that is not always true. I would have never believed it myself, but I have seen it with my own eyes and I have come to accept it. We often let our own prejudices about prostitution, and the fact that we would never consider it ourselves, cloud our judgments.

In fact, the most important thing that I learnt from this course was that one of the main problems that a prostitute faces is not the work itself, but rather how they are treated in society. How they are pitied, viewed with disgust and treated like criminals. How everyone either wants nothing to do with them, or otherwise desires to ‘rescue’ them from their hell. Mainstream media is inundated with images and narratives of the ‘poor prostitute’, waiting for someone to lend her a hand. This image is not always true. Another common misconception is that prostitutes have to do every sexual act that a client asks of them. Again, this is often false. Ilonka, the prostitute that we interviewed in class, explained to us that she never did anything that she didn’t want to do. If a client didn’t like it … well, that’s too bad. In her situation, she was lucky to have the support of living in The Netherlands, with people and places to go to if things ever got bad. However, Ilonka told us that, in her 25 years of being a sex worker, she had never been exposed to a violent situation.

As a society, I feel that it’s our job to make prostitution as safe as possible for those wishing to engage in it, because it’s always going to happen whether it’s legal or not. The Netherlands provides one of the best, and safest, models for prostitutes anywhere in the world. It isn’t perfect, but its definitely preferable to what some sex workers around the world have to endure. I think it’s about time that other countries followed suit, and started having an open, honest conversation about prostitution, instead of brushing it under the carpet.

Don’t get me wrong. Forced prostitution and human trafficking exists, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be tackled. But it’s wrong to assume that all sex workers have come into the trade this way. To assume is to deny agency to the women (and men) that actively choose to be in sex work. Whether we agree with it or not is irrelevant. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution can simply just be a private, consensual act between two adults. Because of this, there needs to be a clear distinction made between human trafficking and prostitution, which are often put together in a nice big box, despite them not being the same thing.

Not all prostitutes want to be rescued.


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Volunteering – how do we get this right?

This post was actually written about a year ago, when I didn’t have a blog, but had so many thoughts swimming in my head that I just had to write them down. It was all but forgotten about until something jogged my memory today, and now seems like a good time to share it.

I have a fairly extensive volunteering history. It started when I was 18, and travelled abroad for 7 weeks to Costa Rica & Nicaragua with Raleigh International. I was very fortunate to be sponsored by the Jack Petchey Foundation, which provides opportunities to disadvantaged youths, to be able to go. Because my trip was fully funded, I was required to do lots of volunteer work across London upon my return in order to ‘give back’ to my community. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this, and my jobs ranged from sorting out flower bulbs, serving food and drinks at charity functions and completing office work for the organisation that helped to arrange my trip.

My trip with Raleigh was the most challenging thing I had ever done, but it ultimately fuelled a fire in me and set me up on the path to international development.  Upon returning home, I worked all hours to save up for more international trips – first to South Africa where I volunteered in a care home for babies and in a wildlife rehabilitation centre, then to Kenya where I worked in a school, then to India (though I had to come home early due to a family emergency before I actually started volunteering) and then back to Kenya again to volunteer at the same school (this time as a chaperone for other volunteers). Some of my placements were arranged independently with the centres, and others were through volunteer organisations.

I can’t really explain why I feel so compelled to keep volunteering and travelling, but my next trip is never far from my mind. I just love it. I am at my happiest when totally immersed in, and learning about, a culture so different from my own. And I’ve always loved helping people, ever since I was young. In my naiveté, I never really thought about the effect my ‘voluntouring’ had on projects and communities until I started studying for my degree. I always thought: helping others = good. I have since discovered that this is not always the case, and have seen with my own eyes some of the problems that can occur when volunteering overseas. For example, I have experienced fellow volunteers who decide that they knew better than the locals (and proceed to make their criticisms very vocal), and I have also seen the downsides of fundraising. On one occasion, I decided to raise some money and spent over £500 on playground equipment, exercise books and a few other things for the school. Whilst we had an absolutely brilliant day giving the children all of their gifts, I was extremely disheartened to discover when I went back two years later that absolutely nothing remained. Goal posts that we had constructed with the children in the field were gone, the globe and dictionaries were nowhere to be seen, and the field was empty once again. I’m sure I can think of many other examples, too.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been thoroughly researching this issue and have learnt about traumatic attachment issues that can occur from working with children, dependency on hand-outs, taking jobs away from locals and all those other issues that you can find in abundance floating around internet blogs and forums.

I have read many comments suggesting that us volunteer-lovers should go and help in our ‘own countries’. Now, herein lies another problem. Last year, I decided to do just that, and signed up to volunteer with a homeless charity over Christmas. ‘Finally,’ I thought ‘I can do some volunteering and not be made to feel bad about it!’ At this point, I was becoming totally fed up with the consumerist attitude that comes hand-in-hand with Christmas, and wanted to do something more meaningful that would make the holiday really special. I was so looking forward to volunteering at the shelter. Sadly to say, I really, really disliked volunteering there. In fact, I disliked it so much that I walked out before my shift ended as I couldn’t bear to be there anymore. Considering my past volunteer history, this was totally unexpected for me. I found the shelter to be extremely patronizing towards the guests, and the volunteers were given jobs that were absolutely pointless. We were placed in groups of 4 and told to clean handrails that had literally just been cleaned by other volunteers. We were told to ‘guard’ doors to stop the homeless guests going through them, almost treating them in a childlike manner. In fact, over 50% of my day was spent guarding a door that nobody attempted to go through. I felt like a spare part, just tossed aside and forgotten about. I had very little option to interact with the guests and, when I did (attempting to clear his breakfast plate as I had been instructed to do), I was snapped at so harshly that it actually made me cry! I felt totally unsupported by this organisation and we were not given a proper briefing about how to act around the guests or what to do should a provocation occur.  I decided to walk out when I realised that my time was being wasted and I wasn’t doing anything at all productive or helpful. My experience with the snappy guest made me feel that they didn’t actually want my help or company. They just wanted a hot meal and a warm bed for the night (and fair enough, I suppose!). I have read reviews about this organisation from others who have absolutely loved their experience, so I’m not sure if I was just having a bad day or if people are just not questioning whether they were really helping or not. I could be totally wrong, but I got the impression that most people were content with the idea that they were doing something good around Christmas time, regardless  of whether they actually were or not.

Another common opinion that I have read on blogs is this: “Why do you need to go out and help? If you want to be effective, just donate money instead.” So, I decided to give this a go. When I was in India, just before I moved to university, I discovered that my mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer and jumped on the next plane home. I couldn’t think about volunteering with others when a loved one needed support. Once her treatment was underway, I began to think about how I could help in more ways than just attending hospital treatments with her. I decided, along with family members and friends, to take part in a sponsored walk in our bras to raise money for breast cancer research and support. Over the course of the summer, we managed to raise almost £3500. I felt extremely proud of this achievement. Then, a few months later, I was invited to a film screening of Pink Ribbons, Inc. by a seminar tutor. This film opened my eyes to some of the truths about breast cancer fundraising. It criticised the idea that we raise so much without following up on where the money goes. It suggested that breast cancer research was flawed and not collaborative, and that lots of the money is wasted on the same treatment tests being repeated over and over again. It suggests that the pink ribbon has been hijacked and glamorised, abused for profit from companies who use it to promote products, thus painting a ‘pretty picture’ of a very horrible disease. It also suggested that the constant use of the word ‘survivor’ in fundraising to describe people given the all-clear could have negative impacts on the loved ones of those who weren’t as lucky. Now, I am unsure what to think. Should I feel proud that I raised lots of money, or ashamed that I didn’t realise the harsh truths that can creep up behind the ribbon?

(Here is a link to the trailer of Pink Ribbons, Inc. for anyone interested).

And, here is my dilemma. I love charity work. I believe that caring for others, helping those less fortunate, giving a little of your time etc. is so important for our society. I think that people should be surrounded by kindness and have somewhere to go in times of need. But, how do we do this right? I have tried volunteering overseas, I have tried volunteering at home and I have tried simply raising money. But my efforts on all three parts feel tainted. I feel that, in a lot of cases, I’m just doing more harm than good, and that makes me very sad. I want to be able to help people. I think it’s so important. I’d like to think, too, that people would be there to help me should I ever fall into a bad situation.

Is there a way to do charity work with minimum harm? Or how do we lessen this impact? Should we give up trying to help strangers and just look after those that we know? Is it better to establish a long-term relationship with just one charity that you can invest your time in? Is volunteering ever just 100% worth it? I’d be really interested to hear any responses to this blog, and any positive experiences that you may have had. I could certainly do with some inspiration!


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Is Privilege Poverty?

Just came across a really interesting video and response. Very thought-provoking,

If you’re at all interested in international development it’s worth having a look!

Is Privilege Poverty?.

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A Boy called Desire: living without a financial safety net

As soon as I met Desire, seventeen, I took an instant liking to him.

Sitting across from me in his roadside hut, located in the village of Chongwe, his account spoke of experience beyond his years.  Orphaned at the age of seven, he was forced to grow up quickly, and bears a fierce charisma that demonstrates an essential strength of character.


Desire lived with his uncle for several years following his parents’ deaths. However, when his uncle started struggling financially to support him, he decided it would be best to move in with his elderly grandfather, who is approaching full blindness and now relies heavily on Desire for help.

In Zambia, where the youth population is booming, the OECD predicts that less than half of them are in stable, full-time employment. In fact, many of the youths that we interviewed spoke to us about doing ‘piecework’ – irregular and often challenging physical tasks, for a small stipend at the end of the day.

In order to pay for his schooling and food, Desire will frequently ask for piecework around his village. His jobs have included cutting roses, chopping trees and clearing yards. When possible, he supplements this income by selling chickens for 1 kwacha (roughly 12p) as well as bananas and mangoes by the side of the road.

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to my own small struggle to find work in the UK. I realised how fortunate we are to have a welfare state and the provision of a job seekers allowance, when Zambia has no such safety net. I remember, aged 19, the feelings of hopelessness and frustration that arose from waiting in line at job centre. But this pales in comparison to Desire, who often wakes up very uncertain about whether he will have the opportunity to earn any money that day.

He says: “When I start a job, I’ll wake up early in the morning … and I’ll know what I’m doing every day … With piecework, I don’t know the type of job I’m going to do … [but] no matter how hard that work is, you do it, because you need that money.”

Desire’s most arduous task was weeding during the rainy season. The fields are very long, and he is awarded 1 kwacha for each line he completes. Even after a full day of tireless work, Desire might only be able to afford some cooking oil and rape – a bitter, leafy vegetable.

Despite the obvious challenges, Desire is an extremely resourceful and business savvy young man, and a neat row of colourful ties strung across the wall behind him clearly display his organised nature. His training with Building Young Futures has only enhanced this characteristic. He makes a huge effort to ensure that he saves whatever little money he has – so that he and his grandfather are never without food.  

He is now making plans to expand his supply of chickens and build a solid coop for them. He reassures me, “In one year I can do something which is great.”


Desire’s Home

* This blog was written especially for the Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition.

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Third Vlog – A Dress from Isabel

Planning to wear this to the Guardian’s award ceremony in November! (Excuse
the pink shirt underneath!)

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August 25, 2013 · 10:45 am

Second Vlog – After interviewing Edward

Taken on day 4 of trip – I still need to get used to being filmed for these things! 🙂

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August 25, 2013 · 10:32 am

My first ever vlog!

Just explaining what we were doing that day! This was filmed in Katembula village by Kate Wills of UNICEF UK 🙂


August 22, 2013 · 9:09 pm

“How to Sell with Success”


Today I had the pleasure of observing a Building Young Futures training session. This event, run in partnership with UNICEF and Barclays, will serve as a primary focus of my upcoming article.

After a short drive, we arrived in the charming little village of Katembula. The training session, which aims to foster business and entrepreneurship skills in the unemployed youth of Zambia, was being held at the local Youth Resource Centre.

As we walked in to observe, 36 pairs of eyes fell upon us, but once we had introduced ourselves and stated why we were there, we quickly managed to fade into the background.

The trainer addressing the youths was a charismatic and bubbly woman, and it was clear that she was able to engage well with her students. The room was large and airy, particularly cool compared to the harsh sun outside, with a deep copper-coloured floor and pale yellow walls – one of which boasted a dusty, unused chalkboard. The windows were draped with light brown curtains and various hand-made posters adorned the walls. The posters included things like a map of businesses in the village, the names of their modules and, of course, the famous ground rules:


The session was taught mainly in Bemba, a common language that all of the students could understand, as they came from many different tribes. Luckily I had Annie, of UNICEF Zambia, to translate for me.

A couple of the students were performing a role play to demonstrate good business practice verses bad business practice. In the front of the room was a wooden table featuring an array of groceries – including juice, cooking oil, sugar, eggs, oranges, body lotion and a ball of string.

The role plays went a little something like this:

Scenario 1

Customer wants to buy something, but doesn’t have enough money. Employee refuses – aware that he allows too many people to buy on credit and his boss will be angry.

Customer: “Please just give to me. My children are hungry and crying at home.”

In the end, employee relents and allows the customer to take some juice, oranges and eggs. Customer assures that she will pay next week. Boss returns and is very cross with employee. He tells him that he will increase his salary next month, instead of this month as promised, because he is not making as much profit as he should be. This causes a huge argument between them and they both storm out.

Scenario 2

Boss is worried that the business is not doing very well as she is often away in Tanzania to buy new products. She employs a new person and tells her to put all the money into the business bank account. She will teach employee about stock-taking when she gets back.

Customer: “How much for eggs, cooking oil and oranges?”
Employee: “Eggs 20 kwacha, oranges 6 kwacha, cooking oil 2 kwacha.”

Customer asks to pay on credit but employee refuses, stating that it is not allowed. Customer pays, but does not buy the oranges. The boss returns. They decide to go to the bank together to deposit the money. The boss tells employee that she is saving up to buy a guesthouse. They both walk out.

The trainer then asked the students what were the main differences between the two businesses. Hands shot up all around the room. Some of the responses were:

– “The first business was giving out too much on credit”.
– “The first business never banked their money, and the boss was always coming to spend what had been earned.”
– “The first business owner didn’t know what he was doing and where his business was going.”
– “The increment in salary never came and the worker became demoralised and lost interest in the business.”
– “The owner [of the first business] did not separate his business money and his personal money.”
– “The second business did not give things on credit.”
– “The second took their money to the bank.”
– “The employee found from their customers what was demanded of the business.”
– “The boss was looking forward to see what else they could do.”
– “The first business had rules set from the beginning.”

Once the responses had been discussed, and it was clear to the students why the second business was clearly more successful than the first, the trainer asked for real life examples. One student raised his hand and said that he once owned a shop, but felt sorry for people who could not afford to pay and often gave things out on credit, which eventually caused his business to fail. Another student said that he too owned a shop, but was always tempted to take the profit for personal use, and thus his business also failed.

What I found fascinating was how totally engaged and enthusiastic the youths were about the session. The trainers were really skilled in making it interesting, fun and, most importantly, relevant to them. The advice given was extremely valuable as many had witnessed their previous small businesses fail, perhaps without fully considering why. The advice will definitely be useful in their futures as young entrepreneurs.

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August 21, 2013 · 10:45 pm