Oz and the Shifting Representation of Sexual Violence in U.S. Prisons


In Oz’s early seasons, rape serves a strictly narrative function, giving various characters motivations for the acts of violence or other machinations they effect; in the show’s final two seasons, however, Oz begins telling rape narratives about healing. The dramaturgical trajectory of rape in the prison becomes one focused on processing and psychological binding rather than revenge or madness. After he is violated in season 2, Schibetta is whisked off screen and ignored, eliminated by the fact that he is no longer a player in the characters’ power struggles. In contrast, after Schibetta is raped in season 5, he is not isolated in the psychiatric ward; this time, he remains on the show, and Oz begins to focus on the process of his healing. The question of how to recover, how to work through this traumatic experience, becomes Schibetta’s weekly narrative arc on Oz.

If rape is a reality at Oswald, by the show’s final season, Oz has dispensed with revenge plots. In the episodes subsequent to the rape, when we see Schibetta we see him dealing with having been raped: working through his feelings about having been violated, taunted by his rapist, in therapy with the prison’s counselor, Sister Pete, deciding when to see his wife, but never plotting retaliation for the rape. Oz asks us to invest in the work of recovery. Indeed, in season 5, other characters also begin meeting regularly with Sister Pete to discuss psychic healing from season 1’s sexual violence. And in its final season – after Schibetta is killed unceremoniously by the other Italians – Oz introduces yet another rape–healing narrative as former rapist James Robson begins to talk about the violence he endured in a coercive sex relationship with another Aryan.

The Robson plot takes place over the final seven episodes of the series. It is the best example of Oz’s late-season conscientiousness toward male/male rape and the show’s shift in focus toward psychology and testimony. Lara Stemple, formerly of the advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape, has called the main episode in this storyline “the most accurate and riveting fictional treatment of prisoner rape I’ve seen, read or heard.” I won’t describe the entire Robson plot – which covers most of the show’s 6 seasons, but in the show’s final season, Robson begins seeing Sister Pete regularly, and he confesses to her that he was sexually molested as a small child. Through tears he also tells Sister Pete that he was raped by another Aryan.