CAPTIVE AUDIENCES: an Intersection of Pleasure & Danger in the Public Pornography of Prison Rape [part 1]

8 January 2015

This, the first of a multipart post, introduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then situates that as part of the “sex wars” raging on and off since the 1980s.

Introduction

In this study, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “the truth of a period corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and product” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this study a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Pleasure & Danger: the Sex Wars

A central disclosure of the sex wars, along with the volatile and on-going controversies that accompanied it, turned on the myriad contestations of a then-assumed white, heteronormative, and vanilla construction of sexuality—especially female sexuality—through Otherings of whiteness, queerings of heteronormativity, and wide-ranging defamiliarizations or “making strange” of vanilla and presumptively “normal” or “non-deviant” sexual behaviour and identity. During that period, a then-burgeoning feminism, perhaps unsure what to do with itself after the high-watermarks of the 1970s, found itself confronted on all sides by demands, amongst other things, for the recognition of (1) an erotic validity for rape fantasies, (2) the legitimacy of economic rationales for pornography and sex work, and especially (3) a recurring insistence on non-conformist sexual impulses and identities as non-deviant—a confrontation that itself played a central role in helping to unleash en masse those countless voices of the Other not until that time given any wide publicity or much of a platform within dominant feminist discourse.

Along every axis of this white, heteronormative, and vanilla construction of sexuality, erotic pleasure and identity made its contrary claims. Against the sentimentality of monogamy, bodies expressed desires for plurality, polyamory, & promiscuity. Against cis-gendered constructions of a (heterosexually conceived) Other, voices described pleasures in objects, in other species and age-groups, and in still more unsettled or multiplying or fluid genders generally, if any at all. Against prevailing filmic aesthetics of beauty, critics exposed the kink of orientalization and laid bare the racist roots of a taste for the exotic. And against every presumptively healthy and often relentlessly vanilla psychosexual urge, a whole pantheon of desires rose up to throw off the label deviant and revel either positively in a self-designation as perverse or to insist that it embodied nothing more, and nothing less, than a deviation, not a deviance, from some otherwise wholly imaginary norm.

At times—sometimes explicitly, as an open sore or hotspot, but more often only implicitly—there lurked near the heart of these visceral debates an unsettling and disturbing intersection of some variety of pleasure and some one of the many different varieties of danger, whether in the forms of violence and domination per se or in the shape of fear, taboo-breaking , or, most unsettling of all perhaps, perpetration. To the extent that feminism to date had grounded itself on a thoroughgoing analysis and rejection of coercive and abusive (patriarchal) Power, while it found itself on one front facing from suddenly numerous voices the groundless historical conceits of its white privilege, it found itself also pinched by a rear-guard action—at times seemingly a rebellion if not a betrayal outright. In that rear-guard attack, other voices, bodies, and desires—best known or most widely publicised at the time perhaps via advocates within the lesbian BDSM community (c.f., Rubin, 1975)—declared as specifically legitimate and desirable the erotic exercise and experience of dominance, submission, and Power generally.

Only slowly—and to date still not always everywhere—there arose something of a grudging acknowledgement of a distinction between consensual domination (at least in the sexual sphere) and non-consensual oppression (in the political sphere).[2] Meanwhile, other controversies followed, often turning fundamentally on questions of identity, but the rapprochement of pleasure and danger remained something more akin to a truce than an armistice. In psychosocial terms, we might say that a then-dominating (not simply dominant) discourse sought to control or repress an emerging visibility around this intersection of pleasure and danger, sometimes by marginalizing or attempting to drive it back underground into a collective unconscious, or by reframing its most uncontrollable forms in that tentatively acceptable public guise that Wicke (1991) termed social pornography, i.e.:

[those] pornographic fantasies the society collectively engenders and then mass-culturally disseminates, usually in the cause of anti-pornography. The past decade’s fascination with explicit and imaginary child sexual abuse is the best example, although there are many others, not the least of which is the public discussion of pornography, which allows for pornographic enactment in the most explicit if mediated forms (54).

Given the informal and formal public’s “fascination with explicit and imaginary [prison] sexual abuse”—as well as the virtually ubiquitous “pornographic enactment [of it] in the most explicit if mediated forms” that we find in narratives set in male prisons and studies about them—in order to further analyse and rupture the eros of this social pornography, we must first dig into and thus dissect more completely the dichotomous pleasure/danger binary of it that lurks at its heart or, rather, in its groin.

References

Dumond, R. W., & Dumond, D. A. (2002). The treatment of sexual assault victims. Prison sex: Practice and policy, 67-87.

Leps, M.-C. (1992). Apprehending the criminal: The production of deviance in nineteenth-century discourse: Duke University Press.

Rubin, G. (1975). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex. In R. Rapp (Ed.), Towards an Anthropology of Women (pp. 157-210). New York: Monthly Review Press.

Wicke, J. (1991). Through a gaze darkly: pornography’s academic market. Transition, 54, 68-89.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] The perverse utilization of the arch-sexists Freud and Lacan to ground this avowal seems much in the spirit of the times.

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