CAPTIVE AUDIENCES: an Intersection of Pleasure & Danger in the Public Pornography of Prison Rape [part 3]

20 January 2015

This, the third in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then examines the problems of conducting research on sex in prison. See the first two parts of this study here and here.

Introduction

In this paper, 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 paper 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.

Impossibilities for Prison Actualities

Again, Leps (1992) 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 products (3).

The socio-dynamic operations of this truth in a period manifests as discourse, while the term “truth” itself points not merely to whatever a given society in a period deems recognisable but also specifically to the regulatory or disciplinary structures that mediate that recognition. In the present case, this involves academic discourse around the subject and the culture industry’s production of prison rape narratives, visual and otherwise.

The generation and mediation of this “truth” rarely occurs flawlessly—for all that the panopticon claims omniscience, its subjects may find gaps, blind spots, and even silences to hide in; Eagleton (1976) specifically notes, citing Macherey’s (1970) Pour Une Théorie de la Production Littéraire, “It is in the significance silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt” (34–5). To examine the “truth” of prison sex culture, then, will principally disclose only the discourse about it.

Since “power and knowledge directly imply one another” (Foucault, 1977, p. 27), we may then fairly speak of the myth or fantasy—or with less of an ironic whiff, the discourse—that resulted, consciously or not, from efforts by researchers to penetrate the concealing walls of the prison in their effort to know the “criminal”. Nonetheless, to generalise about more than eighty years of research into the actualities of sex culture in prisons permits admits of only two stably recurring, and noticeably obvious, loci of attention: homosexuality, or more simply homosexual sexual behaviour, and criminals, or more simply people accused of criminal behaviour. Notably, whether we consider the earliest studies in the United States by Fishman (1934) or Clemmer (1940) with their emphasis on homosexual behaviour per se or any of the vast wealth of more recent studies focussed expressly on sexual assault (Davis, 1968; Fleisher & Krienert, 2006; Lockwood, 1980), the trend overall is to make what the researchers view as deviant behaviour (criminality, homosexuality, sexual assault) the centre of attention. For the criminal, homosexual, and rapist alike, whether researchers took a compassionate view of their subject or not, investigations of prisons have subsequently generated a vast body of social pornography that now functions as a myth-discourse about sexual culture in prison, as our truth of the period.

Contrary to the sort of self-reflexivity pioneered by and now standard in the discipline of anthropology, as a methodological check when presuming to describe an Other (Watson, 1987), one finds little to none of this self-reflexivity in the bulk prison sex culture research, much of which remains rooted in the at-best dubiously scientific field of criminology (Leps, 1992). In much the same way as the voices or words of homosexuals in the early part of the twentieth century appeared as social pornography within the psychology journals of the day, surrounded entirely by an either condemning or compassionate commentary by some psychological expert (Brill, 1913; Ellis, 1915; Ferenczi & Jones, 1916), so also do the homosexual and criminal subjects of prison sex culture research similarly appear in this quoted, but selectively edited and circumscribed, form (Fleisher & Krienert, 2006).

If anthropology established as proper methodology, at least in principal, the setting aside of a researcher’s “mixture of fear and fascination confirmed by scientific conceptions” (Leps, 1992, p. 8) when gazing at the “native” Other, the history of much prison sex culture research seems unabashedly run aground on this fear/fascination shoal, another pleasure/danger itself. As “anthropologists have long recognized the importance of language as a means of controlling behaviour and expressing ideas” (Kuper, 1966, p. 5), a researcher’s mastery of the local dialect thus supplies a precondition for breaking through “the fence of noncommunication” (5) and entering into the actual and lived discourse of those gazed upon. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) make this an explicit aim of their ethnographic research; “This project was a cultural study that would yield prison inmates’ worldview, or their ways of interpreting, of prison sexual behavior and sexual violence” (59).

In addition to this problem of disciplinary framing, methodological challenges make data collection in prisons difficult (Jenness, Maxson, Sumner, & Matsuda, 2010). Not only must one obtain permission to gain access to people in prisons in the first place—usually in an only limited or highly circumscribed way—external criteria may apply as well. Researchers with a history of contact with the judicial system, however slight, may automatically be denied access by the prison authority. From this, we may understand that all prison sex culture research that has relied on access to inmates directly has done so to date with the tacit or grudging approval of the prison authority itself. Further threats to the validity of research arise also not only from the risk of self-selection on the part of inmates who would choose to participate in the research but also simply in any vetting by the prison administration of which inmates get approved for participation.

Fleisher and Krienert (2006) state in considerable detail how they secured participation from different prison sites:

Given the sensitivity of research on prison rape, the Principal Investigators and NIJ [National Institute of Justice] knew that without explicit consent from the American Correctional Association (ACA), state corrections directors would not likely respond positively to requests to conduct prison rape interviews. Therefore, NIJ and the advisory panel determined at the outset that research would proceed with consent of the ACA and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). An agreement of anonymity that applied to regions, states, institutions, and institution staff was achieved with input from both associations (69).

Not insignificantly, this study immediately makes clear that it did not have as a goal to “gather rape prevalence or incidence data” (59), but rather “to understand prison rape as a cultural concept, a culture artifact, which inmates may know something about even if they’d never been raped or threatened or intimidated by a physical or sexual threat” (59). This orientation, presumably already more agreeable to prison authorities as a topic of study, shows again a securing of the tacit approval of prison authorities for prison sex culture research. Methodologically, rather than asking, “Does this prison keep you safe,” the researchers would ask a question like, “Can an agency keep you safe” (81)? And both the ACA and ASCA played major roles in determining the actual methodology of the study, including ruling out several types of established research sampling while also placing limitations on who could be interviewed. The authors elected to draw participants only from the general prison population and state that “each institutional liaison [at a prison] provided researchers with an inmate general population roster” (85). They do not indicate, however, any method to confirm if this list actually reflected the entire general population. They do acknowledge, however, that the entire population of a prison does not consist only of general population inmates:

Special inmate populations including inmates in administrative detention; disciplinary segregation; hospitalized inmates; inmates in residential substance abuse units; inmates in mental heath [sic] residential units; protective custody; non-sentenced inmates; inmates in transit units; and INS detainees or deportees were not included (86).

In terms of data validity, one finds little methodological reason excluding special inmate populations from the study. It seems, rather, motivated a desire to avoid any inconvenience or security risk, real or imagined, for prison officials. Moreover, for this study, the validity risk of self-selection takes an interesting form:

Sampled inmates on call-out arrived at the interview location knowing they had been selected for a research project. Inmates refused to be interview about twice per institution. They refused when they heard the interview was about prison rape. Either they said they had not raped anyone on the street or in prison, or knew nothing about rape in either place. In any case, refusals didn’t want to be associated with the term rape. Some refused when they learned they wouldn’t receive a letter of cooperation to place in their file to help at parole time (87).

If a typical research project hazards the risk of self-selection by putting out a call to the general public for participants, the authors here give no sign if pressure from prison officials or if their own lack of consideration of such an approach ruled it out. It seems striking that inmates had no idea in advance what the study sought to do but that they were simply called-out to the interview office. Notably, even in the randomization of numbers used to pick inmate names from the general population roster, members of the prison staff were included; “A staff member was asked to pick a number …. This number was applied to the roster to find the first interviewee” (86). Whatever justification we might imagine for this inclusion of staff in even the very randomness of the process of selection, it points to the degree of intimacy with the surveillance mechanisms this research allowed—or required—with the prison system itself.

It is hard not to be struck by the considerable number of hoops the researchers are at pains to demonstrate they jumped through on the side of prison officials, despite being a Federally funded study. By contrast, and despite the fieldwork they did in advance with formerly incarcerated people in order to develop their interview instrument for use in the prison setting, the authors seem not to have foreseen the social consequences that inmates might imagine when “surprised” in the interview room by an announcement that the study they’d been selected for concerned rape. Imagine receiving an announcement in the mail and a mandatory requirement to appear for a study without being told anything about it in advance to get a sense of how imbalanced the ratio of “surveying power” and “the subject studied” seems in this setting. From the refusals by selected inmates, one readily discerns that participation would either pose a threat for the sense of their reputation amongst the general population or offer no meaningful benefit to them, e.g., as a letter in their file for the parole board.

The distortion of typical research protocols that arise from doing work in a prison setting comes out sharply in the handling of one of the most elementary gestures of humanistic research, the informed consent form:

The research team provided as much protection as possible for inmates and correctional agencies. We had to guarantee to corrections agencies, institutions, and inmates confidentially for their participation. To achieve confidentiality we did not give interviewed inmates a copy of the informed consent form. Once an informed consent form was in inmates’ possession we couldn’t control what happened to it, who saw it, how it might be used against inmates or corrections agencies, or in legal proceedings when inmates allege they were co-opted or forced to participate or threatened by officials that non-cooperation would end up in their parole file or that they would be given an incident report for failure to program or something similar. Further we didn’t want this study broadcast in the media, thus violating confidentiality, if an informed consent statement ended up in a newsroom or courtroom in a lawsuit against a specific correctional agency as identified by a released inmate (87–8, emphasis added).

We detail these methodological challenges to debunk not the basis of this research or research similarly situated but only the idea that researching a site like the prison can ever involve something less than a hyper-mediated construct. Unlike in other spaces within culture, here the discourse—or the myth or the fantasy—travels in much narrower channels. Discourse analysis, if not plain literary sense alone, for instance, can hardly overlook the nervous, ungrammatical logorrhoea of the astonishing run-on sentence from above:

Once an informed consent form was in inmates’ possession we couldn’t control what happened to it, who saw it, how it might be used against inmates or corrections agencies, or in legal proceedings when inmates allege they were co-opted or forced to participate or threatened by officials that non-cooperation would end up in their parole file or that they would be given an incident report for failure to program or something similar (88).

The “or something similar” at the end seems simultaneously not only an almost tragi-comically exhausted collapse but also an echo of the kind of verbally exhaustive language of the Law employed when attempting to list in concrete specifics every imaginable possibility.

The above should make clear that any talk of “truth” in any objective sense where research into prison sex culture occurs remains extremely problematic. Both the mediated character of social pornography generally and its even more hyper-mediated forms that arise when gazing into the site of the panopticon remove over the horizon any good prospect for a view of the actuality of prisons, but it does not end there. Like the previously pathological category of homosexual and the currently pathologised category of mentally ill, the very status of the term criminal and the perception of criminals as such, whether sympathetic or not, has shaped the interpretation of data drawn from the prison site both past and present (Carroll, 1977; Davis, 1968; Dawson, 2014; Gardner, 1975; Listwan, Daigle, Hartman, & Guastaferro, 2014; Moss, 1979).

While the State in its criminal proceedings often shows no hesitation whatsoever to use paid, criminal informants to secure prosecutions, the sort of legal bias against credibility directed at the testimony of prisoners for the defence can enter into interpretations of prisoner reports as well. That is, whatever the credibility of an inmate’s report or not, the dominant discourse readily allows the questioning of the validity of that report simply by virtue of the pejorative label criminal applied to the one giving the report (Cheung, 1990; Leps, 1992; Wexler, 2014). As simply the obverse of this tendency, a too-sympathetic researcher may credulously accept less ingenuous reports by inmates; more precisely, the dominant discourse permits a critic to suggest as much of a researcher. The mere fact of a person’s criminality, then, can serve to render his or her report open to no end of doubt.

Sometimes researchers invoke those demographic characteristics—long identified with the “criminal”—rather than criminality itself to disqualify or problematize statements by incarcerated people. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) reported that “Standard English vocabulary was sometimes too complex. Some questions exceeded inmates’ education level to give answers” (75).[2] Alarid (2000), studying women’s prisons, suggested that the low incidence of sexual assault among women studied resulted from those women failing to recognise what had happened to them as sexual assault in the first place. Even in Fleischer and Krienert’s (2006) shift away from collecting data on the prevalence or incidence of rape in prison to an exploration of inmate awareness about the cultural artefact of prison rape makes their findings legally hearsay, i.e., simply a rumour drawn from amongst a historically discredited class.

The extremity of the epistemological situation involved in trying to establish the “actuality” of prison sexual violence may explain why a meta-analysis of studies on the topic cites rates of incidence ranging from 1.9% to 41% of all inmates (Gaes & Goldberg, 2004). Researchers adduce factors such as an unwillingness to report sexual assaults (Fowler, Blackburn, Marquart, & Mullings, 2010), including “embarrassment, fear of harassment, and retaliation from the perpetrator” (Levan Miller, 2010, p. 1), institution-wide misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia (Erni, 2013; Kupers, 2010), the (perception of) disinclination on the part of prison officials to prosecute sexual assault in prison (Capers, 2011), and the perception of reporting as snitching to low-incidence numbers (Garland & Wilson, 2013), while a tendency to refer in studies to the “myth” of male or prison rape, even while acknowledging the occurrence of, seems positioned to deny the problem exists (Fleisher & Krienert, 2009; Saum, Surratt, Inciardi, & Bennett, 1995; Turchik & Edwards, 2012). Since this locution of “myth” has appeared more often following the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (Rowell-Cunsolo, Harrison, & Haile, 2014), attempts to minimize liability exposure or simply to reduce the presence of researchers in prison may inform this assertion of “myth”.

While Smith and Batiuk (1989) indulged in overstatement when they asserted that “the threat of sexual violence dominates the prison environment and structures much of the everyday interactions that goes on among the inmates” (30, emphasis added), they nevertheless concluded more in that spirit identified fourteen years later in Eigenberg and Baro (2003), who noted how the body of research on sexual assault in prison “contends that the rates of actual victimization are less relevant than the fact that inmates perceive the threat of violence to be widespread” (57). From the most extensive study to date, which relied explicitly on interviews and perceptions of inmates regarding sexual violence in prison, Fleisher and Krienert (2006) report that 21.3 present of men and 9.0 present of women “reported some worry or sense of threat caused by a potential rape” (12); more specifically, “inmates reported they did not fear imminent rape. However, they acknowledged that such behaviour may occur” (12). By the mid-1990s, as researchers began to explicitly consider the myths and realities of prison sex and sexual assault (Saum et al., 1995), Lockwood (1994) could write that inmates and researchers alike “have been perpetuating certain ideas about prison sexual violence that are not supported by systematic research on the topic” (98). In all of this, we see a subtle or overt shift away from any actuality of prison sexual assault and more toward the discourse around sexual assault in prisons.

Given all of this contradictory material, which seems to gain rather than lose in obscurity from widening the field of view to include women’s prisons and international settings (Alarid, 2000; Chen, Lai, & Lin, 2013; Kuo, Cuvelier, & Huang, 2014; Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011; Richters et al., 2012; Schneider et al., 2011), rather than decry a methodological failure to establish any actual truth about prison sexual assault—or to continue to insist that we can, despite the difficulties, arrive at such a truth (Jenness et al., 2010)—we might better understand this confusion as an emergent property and authentic function of the prison itself. In other words, the prison embodies a site par excellence where discourse can emerge in its most disembodied form as a myth in the sense of a fiction or a falsehood, i.e., as a place that generates discourse least connected to any ostensible “facts” and thus most distantly removed from objective verification except in the most trivial of demographic details.[3] In this sense, as a hothouse for fantasy, the prison, perhaps uniquely, supplies a crucial element both in the production of and our understanding about the current collective-public rape fantasy set in it.

References

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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] One might remember, as a context for this claim, that the researchers had worked on the streets with formerly incarcerated people in order to develop their interview instrument.

[3] While the mental asylum may share this distinction, the “wilful perversity” of inmates stands in contrast to the “helplessness” of the “insane”. This simultaneously makes the insane less recognizably “human” and thus subject to more pity, especially under the now dominant patronizing that marks psychiatric practice, while the “committed maliciousness” of the criminal also makes her or him not just a threat but an especially dangerous one.

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