Does General Hospital‘s Teen Prison Rape Storyline Go Too Far?

My sister is a mother with four boys (one is 18) and an addiction to General Hospital. She told me that the soap opera recently started a story line involving a straight 18-year-old virgin who gets raped in prison. And while it’s upset her enough to possibly stop watching, 949 Facebook fans who have commented on the scene feel equally ambivalent. I almost never hear about prison rape on TV (even in Texas, the “Prison Rape Capital of the World”) and when I do, it’s usually in crass jokes. Does that mean General Hospital‘s treatment of such a taboo topic is actually progressive? Or just going scandalous for sweeps week?

For those of you (like me) who don’t watch the show, 18-year-old Michael landed in prison for bludgeoning his crazy stepmother to death with an axe handle after she kidnapped his pregnant mom. Michael’s mobster dad burned all the evidence to protect his son but the court convicted Michael anyway. Once on the inside, Michael’s rapist Carter protected him from an abusive guard and later raped Michael as “payback.”

The soap opera never explicitly shows the rape. Cameras show Michael in bed as Carter somehow enters his cell at night and tells Michael he’s gonna pay. The following week, when Jason (one of his dad’s mob buddies) ends up sharing a cell with Michael, the teenager appears bruised, despondent and flinches away when Jason tries to place his hand on Michael’s shoulder. Later they show Michael having his blood drawn in the prison infirmary (HIV test?) and when Mike sits down, he does so very, very slowly.

Showing its effects on the young man makes for a more heartrending tale than if they’d just shown the attack. It’s perfecting for shocking audiences while turning a young character evil or possibly redeeming his dad’s no-good goon as a protector of the young; and that’s precisely the problem. I’ve seen enough prison porn flicks to know how easily and often the reality of prison rape gets turned into a fictional plot point that’s forgotten as soon as the next scene begins.

But General Hospital isn’t just being sensational—they’re acknowledging a very real problem. Seventy percent of LGBT-identified inmates report having being sexual assaulted during their incarceration. People mistakenly assume that all prison rapists and their victims are gay (why else would a man not fight to the death to protect his ass?). And HIV rates among male U.S. inmates are five times higher than gen pop (that’s general population, for the unaware). That’s partially because most prisons don’t hand out condoms — the conservative argument being that condoms only encourage sexual activity as a tacit permission, the same flawed reasoning behind abstinence-only sex ed.

All My Children, The Young and the Restless, and One Life to Live all intimated prison rape storylines back in the early 80s, but General Hospital may be poised to break new ground by addressing the reality in full. And while some Facebook fans feel disappointed that “the series is turning into a daytime Oz“, my sister’s not disturbed by the storyline so much as the victim being an 18-year-old virgin (like her son). “He’s so innocent and the storyline’s so real,” she said. “I don’t watch soap operas to live in reality, I watch them to escape into fantasy.”

Criminal fathers, crazed stepmothers, and accidental murders make satisfying fodder for daytime soaps, but it seems that some television audiences still feel uncomfortable talking about prison rape, whether real or fictional.