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 It was actually withdrawn from broadcast due to its graphic portrayals of sexual violence.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’.
WHY DO THESE ASSAULTS OCCUR?
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 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?”
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.
ISSUES OF RACE
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.
WHY SEXUAL ASSAULT IS RARELY REPORTED & DISCUSSED
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.
WHAT THESE FINDINGS REVEAL ABOUT MASCULINITY IN WIDER SOCIETY
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.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS & RECOMMENDATIONS
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.
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