CAPTIVE AUDIENCES: an Intersection of Pleasure & Danger in the Public Pornography of Prison Rape [part 4]

26 January 2015

This, the fourth in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then surveys some of the elements typically included in that public rape-fantasy. See the first three parts of this study here, 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.

Possibilities for Prison Fantasies

At the heart of mass incarceration, most visibly in its opaque-walled prisons, we find the highest priority given to security and control (Simon, 2014). From Foucault (1977), we have the conceit of an omniscient panopticon that misses nothing in its gaze, while Alexander (2012) in The New Jim Crow notes of this carceral omnipotence that it falls these days preferentially upon people of colour, while embodying and articulating the most recent iteration of those systems of racial control that have vitiated US history from its beginning: first as the transatlantic slave trade, then as slavery per se, and then Jim Crow.

Despite this, even the merely demographic details of US prisons only rarely if ever with any accuracy appear in fictional productions about those sites (O’Sullivan, 2001). From the very outset, then, in our cultural imagining of prison narratives we see a divergence from the most elementary facts in several ways. Besides demographic inaccuracy, prison fictions permit us to see through the walls that otherwise block our view. They provide us a privileged, theoretically panoptic view of the space that actual panopticons themselves can only dream of achieving, especially in those scenes and settings given over to prison rape. And we see in those fictions a space often strikingly devoid of guards—suggesting a place where inmates alone inhabit and control the space.

This points to a key fictional lacuna. While Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (2000) could report at the turn of the twenty-first century that 21% of inmates had experienced at least one incident of pressured or forced sexual contact, they found also that correctional staff accounted for 20% of these assaults. Following the tremendous acceleration of male incarceration with Reagan’s wide-scale implementation of the War on Drugs and the massive subsidies provided to seduce disinterested police precincts into pursuing it, populations within women’s prisons also later began to climb, and researchers there too reported sexual assaults by prison correctional staff (Alarid, 2000; Struckman‐Johnson & Struckman‐Johnson, 2002).

From the 1980s onward, then, a new urgency prompted research on sexual assault in prison (Anderson, 1982; Chonco, 1989; Dumond, 1992; Nacci & Kane, 1983; Porter, 1986), much of which ultimately contributed to the push for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Almost always this research centred on inmate/inmate sexual assault, and if at times researchers took note of staff/inmate sexual assault, this factor has not entered as a dominant enough element in our culture’s collective prison rape fantasy to occur with any notable frequency. Notably, the reported occurrence of consensual inmate/staff sex (Smith, 2006) also goes unrepresented in fictions generally. It seems as if such narratives write authority and force of the prison itself largely if not entirely out of the picture.[2] Tellingly, correctional officers have been identified as perpetuating this myth: first-time inmates reported in interviews to Fleisher and Krienert (2006) “that staff said sexual violence was part of prison life [and that] sexual victimization was part of their punishment” (15); an assertion that echoes the public opinion cited by Dumond and Dumond (2002) above. One former inmate reported to me that staff told him, “the boys are going to love you” at the maximum security prison they were transferring him to (personal communication, 6 January 2002). The message in this and the narratives alike run the same: staff won’t protect you.

Perhaps from the beginning, the conjunction of sex and prison as a locus of pleasure and danger par excellence has been kinky. Fishman (1934) peered into the prison’s secret world with an eye on homosexuality, and years prior both Oscar Wilde’s warden, and later his biographer, went out of their way to note the smell of semen in their famous inmate’s cell (Ellmann, 2013). Wilde’s convicted sexual non-conformism may be wholly apposite here, since the public imagination knows unambiguously enough that prisons are overwhelming monosexual; so what, then, do all of those inmates do with that idle time on their hands? This question of sex or sexuality doesn’t bear only on the public imagination or the distant past of prison sex culture research (Fishman, 1934), but remains virtually a centrepiece of the field. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) conclude their survey of prison sex culture research by noting:

Since the 1930s prison research literature removed inmates’ conscious motivations for their choices of sexual behavior and replaced individual, conscious deliberation with unconscious forces compelled by sexual deprivation. Deprivation has its origin in the early 20th century as a psychological theory of homosexuality (Gay, 2002, p. 66). This concept diffused into prison research on homosexuality in the 1930s (see Footnotes 1 and 2). Nevertheless, deprivation still accounts for variation in inmates’ sexual behavior. Variation extends on a continuum from homosexuality to sexual violence to female surrogates (“queens”). If deprivation were removed from the calculus of prison homosexuality its absence would leave a hole in the theoretical landscape. The power of deprivation, researchers argue, imputes to prison culture power sufficient to cause straight inmates to become gay. However, without deprivation as a cause, what conditions compel men and women to homosexuality? What would cause straight inmates to become gay? (58, emphasis added).

Whatever prurient or titillating curiosity about homosexuality this reflects, while Alexander (2012) specifically identifies the incarcerated black male as the Other now most subjected to unqualified scorn and hatred, she generally elides that history of what Halpin (1989) calls a “scientific objectivity” that has at various times and in various ways identified black males as identical with children, animals, and women. Halpin (1989) critiques this “scientific objectivity” for the way it provides a “justification for the oppression and domination of ‘the other,’”(1), but for the collective fantasy of prison rape and the carceral spaces it stalks through, his point introduces additional dimensions of prurience or titillation as well. That is: as the place of confinement not only for the criminal homosexual, prisons serve also to quarantine those labelled as sexual deviants who would rape children, animals, or women as well, to say nothing of one another. This yoking together of child, woman, animal, and black in the criminal setting of the prison has important consequences, as will be shown further below.

First, in general, the data from Fleisher and Krienert (2006) demonstrates “that correctional, program, and administrative staff have a limited understanding of the cultural and social dynamics of inmate social [and sexual] life” (18). Thus, if those persons with the greatest daily access to people behind bars have an only limited understanding of their wards’ lived realities, then those without such access—unless they have the benefit of an informant who was previously incarcerated—will have an even more poorly informed sense of those realities, and likely one derived most from ill-informed cultural productions about prison. For people both in and out of prison—labouring under the impression that “the rates of actual victimization are less relevant than the fact [people] perceive the threat of violence to be widespread” (Eigenberg & Baro, 2003, p. 57), a most colloquial and brutal expression of this perceived threat of sexual violence emerges in the danger of being made “someone’s bitch”—a phrase that draws together not only a negative valuation of “animal” and “woman” simultaneously but may also co-opt in its use by white populations an orientalised sense of “bitch” from black slang.

We use the word “bitch” under protest and in solidarity with observations by Kleinman, Ezzell, and Frost (2009) about the social harms of it, even as the phrase “prison bitch” functions as a practically unavoidable and grievously applicable semiotic phrase from social discourse. Jarvis (2005), in his analysis of the socially ultra-pornographic TV series OZ, notes correctly that “the prison bitch is marginalized and yet occupies a central position in grounding the cult of masculinity” (1). In a policy studies on the adequacy of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the authors casually mention the figure of the prison bitch while quoting song lyrics (DeBraux, 2006). Robertson (2002), in an otherwise dry law review, begins with nearly a full page of italicised and literal prison rape pornography depicting a man being made someone’s prison bitch —a seemingly unintended and complete vindication for what Wicke (1991) identifies as social pornography.

Once again, these examples seem to have their origin more in the discourse about sexual assault in prison—one source of which is the social pornography of prison rape itself—and less in direct interactions with prison realities. In their compendious listing of prison sexual slang gathered from inmates, Fleisher and Krienert (2006) do not actually list “prison bitch” as its own glossary item, but rather only “bitch,” which has “multiple meanings in a variety of contexts. Often used as an honorific term of reference or address to denote a trustworthy fag, or a man’s ‘wife’” (279). This positive sense might surprise laypeople and professional researchers alike. Moreover, while this honorific has no pejorative ring for homosexual inmates—its pejorative equivalent is “he-she”—those male inmates who identify as not homosexual will resist, sometimes violently, any designation as a “bitch.” Hence, the very existence of a non-pejorative use of this term already challenges the public stereotype of “prison bitch” as exclusively negative.[3]

When examining this place of maximum security and control as a quintessential locus for a social pornography around the intersection of pleasure and danger in prison, we might keep in mind the striking fact that, despite the racial demographics of actual prisons, one looks far and wide, and seemingly in vain, for cultural depictions of male prison rape involving people other than whites-on-whites. Studies devoted to analysing prison sexual violence specifically against blacks, by the same token, occur rarely as well (Rowell-Cunsolo, Harrison, & Haile, 2014). However, just as the current discourse within the United States insists on a colour-blind framing to persuade us that we now live in a post-racial milieu (Alexander, 2012), we should not overlook how decades of effort to identify black males as inherently criminal imparts the stigma branded upon black bodies to everyone confined to the space of prison. And just as blackface (Lott, 1992), jungle fever (Scott, 1994), King Kong (Dines, 1998), and a whole sub-industry of black-on-white sexual pornography points to an orientalising exoticisation of the black male without acknowledging it as such (Fanon, 2008), so also should we not permit ourselves to be deceived by the segregated, whites-only character of collective prison rape fantasies in general. In most prison rape narratives, it is typically nameless extras, often identified explicitly with neo-Nazism or white supremacy, who make a “bitch” of another white inmate. Typically, the victim himself is a side character not the protagonist; Kaye’s (1998) American History X provides a notable exception, as also in its more numerous incorporation of black people within the spaces of its depicted prison. Even in Beadle-Blair’s (2005) Bashment, written by a black English author and centred very much on the experiences of some black people in prison, a white side-character gets victimised by white-supremacist-identified extras.

Lockwood (1980) has specifically noted the frequent racial overtones of sexual aggression in prison—racial overtones that seem to vanish in white-on-white sexual assault, but which have only been displaced since the “prison bitch” thus victimised—as woman, child, animal, black—occupies in the discourse a bottom or inferior position both literally and narratively. Whether we consider either the plausibility of real inmate’s fears about sexual assault or the exaggerated inevitability of the experience in cultural depictions of it, the term “prison bitch” functions—like the term “welfare queen” in social pornography about poor black mothers—as a lightning rod that focuses the discourse. It operates like as a symbol in the Jungian sense that “stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites” (Nichols, 1980, p. 7).

Symbols in this sense have a numinous and fascinating quality, which results precisely from the seeming irreconcilability of opposites they embody. Thus, as the image of the “welfare queen” simultaneously invokes images of abject poverty and aristocratic royalty in the same person, the figure of the “prison bitch” simultaneously yokes together the seemingly irreconcilable categories of male and female (or more precisely, male turned “female”), of straight and gay (or more precisely, tacitly straight turned involuntarily “gay”), of perpetrator and victim (or more precisely, a perpetrator turned victim), and of white and “black” (or more precisely, white made inferior by the exercise of inferiorization by white supremacists).

Moreover, we witness the appearance of this symbol the “prison bitch” in a place where what we should not be able to see has been made visible, in a setting where the “injustice” of the rape is negated by the justice of the victim getting what he deserves, and in a head-space where the narrative not only encourages us to identify with the perpetrator but also at a minimum to aesthetically enjoy rape if not simply enjoy it outright. As such, along every axis of a culturally normative white, heterosexual, and vanilla construction of sexuality, the figure of the “prison bitch” appears symbolically in its numinous and fascinating guise as a totally abject negation of those norms.

References

Alarid, L. F. (2000). Sexual assault and coercion among incarcerated women prisoners: Excerpts from prison letters. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 391-406.

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

Anderson, C. L. (1982). Males as sexual assault victims: Multiple levels of trauma. Journal of Homosexuality, 7(2-3), 145-162.

Beadle-Blair, R. (2005). Bashment: Oberon Books Limited.

Chonco, N. R. (1989). Sexual assaults among male inmates: A descriptive study. The Prison Journal, 69(1), 72-82.

DeBraux, J. L. (2006). Prison Rape: Have We Done Enough-A Deep Look into the Adequacy of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Howard LJ, 50, 203.

Dines, G. (1998). King Kong and the white woman hustler magazine and the demonization of black masculinity. Violence Against Women, 4(3), 291-307.

Dumond, R. W. (1992). The sexual assault of male inmates in incarcerated settings. International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 20(2), 135-157.

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

Eigenberg, H., & Baro, A. (2003). If you drop the soap in the shower you are on your own: Images of male rape in selected prison movies. Sexuality & Culture, 7(4), 56-89.

Ellmann, R. (2013). Oscar wilde: Random House LLC.

Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks: Grove press.

Fishman, J. F. (1934). Sex in prison. The Culture of Prison Sexual Violence, 27.

Fleisher, M. S., & Krienert, J. L. (2006). The culture of prison sexual violence. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979). A History of Sexuality.

Halpin, Z. T. (1989). Scientific objectivity and the concept of “the other”. Paper presented at the Women’s Studies International Forum.

Jarvis, B. (2005). The violence of images: Inside the prison TV drama Oz. Captured by the Media, 154-171.

Kleinman, S., Ezzell, M., & Frost, C. (2009). Reclaiming critical analysis: The social harms of “bitch”. Sociological Analysis, 3(1), 46-68.

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

Lockwood, D. (1980). Prison sexual violence: Elsevier North Holland New York.

Lott, E. (1992). Love and theft: The racial unconscious of blackface minstrelsy. Representations, 23-50.

McKenna, D., Dudley, A., & Kaye, T. (1998). American History X: New Line Cinema.

Nacci, P. L., & Kane, T. R. (1983). Incidence of Sex and Sexual Aggression in Federal Prisons, The. Fed. Probation, 47, 31.

O’Sullivan, S. (2001). Representations of prison in nineties Hollywood cinema: from Con Air to The Shawshank Redemption. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(4), 317-334.

Porter, E. (1986). Treating the Young Male Victim of Sexual Assault-Issues and Intervention: Syracuse, NY: Safer Society Press.

Robertson, J. E. (2002). Clean Heart and an Empty Head: The Supreme Court and Sexual Terrorism in Prison, A. NCL Rev., 81, 433.

Rowell-Cunsolo, T. L., Harrison, R. J., & Haile, R. (2014). Exposure to Prison Sexual Assault among Incarcerated Black Men. Journal of African American Studies, 18(1), 54-62.

Scott, D. (1994). Jungle Fever?: Black Gay Identity Politics, White Dick, and the Utopian Bedroom. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1(3), 299-321.

Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press.

Smith, B. V. (2006). Rethinking prison sex: Self-expression and safety. Colum. J. Gender & L., 15, 185.

Struckman-Johnson, C., & Struckman-Johnson, D. (2000). Sexual coercion rates in seven Midwestern prison facilities for men. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 379-390.

Struckman‐Johnson, C., & Struckman‐Johnson, D. (2002). Sexual coercion reported by women in three Midwestern prisons. Journal of Sex Research, 39(3), 217-227.

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] Often, the prison’s warden offers the only dramatization of an authority figure, and then principally in narratives where an innocent finds himself wrongly incarcerated; the warden then stands in as the evil, Power-abusing figure who maintains oppressive force on the inmate. Where episodes of prison rape occur, however, wardens seem never to figure. Even in the ultra-violent, ultra-melodramatic HBO TV series Oz, a prison drama that ran for 56 episodes, the relatively higher visibility and dramatization of correctional officer figures pales by comparison to the inmate-initiated mayhem.

[3] More precisely, use of the phrase “prison bitch” in a prison setting becomes gratuitous and incoherent. Since fantasy offers idealised representations of reality, rather than reality itself, we see how collective rape-fantasies that hinge on someone becoming an inmate’s “prison bitch” has no necessary correspondence with any prison actuality.

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