The Sexual Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

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At the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Mass Incarceration

Over the past couple of years, sexual violence in America has received much more attention as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has exploded into the mainstream consciousness. As the public, students, and higher education institutions continue to grapple with this epidemic, the Human Rights Project for Girls reminds us with their recently released study, The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, that sexual violence does not impact only college age youth. It impacts young girls, particularly young girls of color (primarily African-Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans) as well as youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or gender non-conforming (GNC). Young girls of color and LGBT/GNC girls are at a particularly high risk because the justice system punishes youth of color and youth who do not conform to gender norms much more harshly than their white heterosexual counterparts.

What does sexual abuse have to do with incarceration?

Experiencing sexual abuse puts girls at enormous risk for arrest and incarceration. When girls are arrested, it is rarely because they have committed a violent crime. More often than not, they are arrested because they have become truant, run away, or engage in substance abuse (which are called status offenses for youth under 18). Why did they stop going to school or run away from home? The answer, in many cases, is that girls are running away from abusive situations. They are then arrested and locked up for running away.  This is the cycle that is the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. At the root of this cycle is sexual violence. The reactions girls have to this violence — which they are punished for — are merely coping behaviors.

Wait, so…they are victims of sexual abuse, and they run away to escape the abuse, but running away is a crime, so they get arrested?

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