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Rape Culture Alive and Well in OITNB (part 2 of 2)

By Karen Moldovan, CCASA Blogger

This blog is part 2 of a 2-part series.  Click here to read part 1.

Spoiler Alert!!  If you haven’t watched the full first season yet, but intend to, stop reading this blog right now, but revisit it when you are all caught up on the episodes!

While Piper and her fellow inmates are the main characters on OITNB, the show also develops the characters of the prison staff. To start with, there’s Officer George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez.  In my mind, he is absolutely, no doubt about it, a rapist.  The inmates all know it, and the other staff seem to know it, but are hardly concerned.  By giving him a nickname like “Pornstache,” they basically find his behavior to be comical. The guy is sickening and truly terrifying. The scene where he isolated Litchfield inmate Lorna Morello and threatened sexual violence if she didn’t follow his orders was truly terrifying.  Anyone who watches the show would uniformly agree that Officer Mendez is a very, very bad guy.

Official OITNB ad

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But things get tricky when looking at Officer John Bennett and his relationship with inmate Daya Diaz.  The show depicts their relationship as a warm, fuzzy love story.  It’s hard to see that with the power imbalance, there’s no way this relationship is truly consensual. And while their relationship is depicted as all roses and sunshine, when Daya gets pregnant and Officer Bennett is worried about being caught as a Sex Offender, things shift.  He seems baffled that there could be consequences for his actions, and it becomes Daya’s responsibility to “save” him.  The ultimate solution is complicated.  Daya propositions Officer “Pornstache” Mendez (scary rapist) for sex, and ensures that he’s caught in the act.  That way when her pregnancy is exposed, prison staff will attribute the paternity to Officer Mendez and not Officer Bennett.

Official OITNB Ad

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Many components of this storyline stood out for me.  I worried that it adds to the inaccurate perception that women lie about rape. The prevalence of actual false reporting cases of sexual violence is low.  For example, a study of sexual assault cases in Boston from 1998-2007 found a 5.9 percent rate of false reports[i]. But the reality is, Officer Mendez is a rapist.  Whether or not Daya propositioned him, it’s still rape. However, none of the other staff saw it that way.  Officer Mendez wasn’t even fired, which deeply bothered Daya.  What was worse though was how Officer Bennett responded.  When he didn’t like Daya’s solution, he was very quick to use his power and control over her.  It wasn’t rainbows and sunshine anymore, when Daya made an autonomous decision he didn’t support.  Only then did we see that clearly it’s impossible for there to be any sort of equality in their relationship.

We know from Daya’s flashback that she experienced neglect as a child, and is desperate for love and affection.  While the show likes to present Officer Bennett as a goofy, innocent romantic, Daya was clearly vulnerable and Officer Bennett exploited that vulnerability.  I’m interested to see how the show will continue representing this issue…  Will Officer Bennet continue to be the “good guy” while Officer Mendez is the true creep?  Will either be held accountable for their decisions?!

But back to reality— will the Prison Rape Elimination Act make a difference for the 2.2 million people currently in our nation’s prisons or jails?  Social change is a long process, but we hope that advocates across Colorado will join us in this work!  Consider attending the upcoming CCASA Regional Trainings on serving survivors behind bars to learn more.  For more information, click here.

[i] http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_False-Reporting.pdf

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