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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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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Capers, B. (2011). Real rape too. Cal. L. Rev., 99, 1259.

Carroll, L. (1977). Humanitarian reform and biracial sexual assault in a maximum security prison. Urban Life, 5(4), 417-437.

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Davis, A. J. (1968). Sexual assaults in the Philadelphia prison system and sheriff’s vans. Society, 6(2), 8-17.

Dawson, M. (2014). The Prison Rape Elimination Act: A Treatment for the US Prison Sexual Assault Epidemic.

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

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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.

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Erni, J. N. (2013). Legitimating Transphobia: The legal disavowal of transgender rights in prison. Cultural Studies, 27(1), 136-159.

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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.

Fleisher, M. S., & Krienert, J. L. (2009). The myth of prison rape: Sexual culture in American prisons: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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Fowler, S. K., Blackburn, A. G., Marquart, J. W., & Mullings, J. L. (2010). Would they officially report an in-prison sexual assault? An examination of inmate perceptions. The Prison Journal, 90(2), 220-243.

Gaes, G. G., & Goldberg, A. L. (2004). Prison rape: A critical review of the literature: National Institute of Justice Washington, DC.

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Garland, B., & Wilson, G. (2013). Prison Inmates’ Views of Whether Reporting Rape Is the Same as Snitching An Exploratory Study and Research Agenda. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(6), 1201-1222.

Jenness, V., Maxson, C. L., Sumner, J. M., & Matsuda, K. N. (2010). Accomplishing the Difficult but Not Impossible Collecting Self-Report Data on Inmate-on-Inmate Sexual Assault in Prison. Criminal justice policy review, 21(1), 3-30.

Kuo, S.-Y., Cuvelier, S. J., & Huang, Y.-S. (2014). Identifying risk factors for victimization among male prisoners in Taiwan. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 58(2), 231-257.

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Kupers, T. A. (2010). Role of Misogyny and Homophobia in Prison Sexual Abuse. UCLA Women’s LJ, 18, 107.

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Listwan, S. J., Daigle, L. E., Hartman, J. L., & Guastaferro, W. P. (2014). Poly-victimization risk in prison: The influence of individual and institutional factors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 0886260513518435.

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Pardue, A., Arrigo, B. A., & Murphy, D. S. (2011). Sex and sexuality in women’s prisons: a preliminary typological investigation. The Prison Journal, 0032885511409869.

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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.

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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.

This, the second in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison and then examines a problem of method in the use of binaries to analyze phenomena (like pleasure and danger). See the first part of this study 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.

Gaping the Pleasure/Danger Binary

Contrary to standard assumptions and procedures, every dichotomous binary (like pleasure/danger) deploys four, not two, analytical categories.

For the pleasure/danger binary, this entails that in addition to the two “openly” defined and acknowledged categories of pleasure and danger, the binary also invokes two “unspoken” (sometimes “unspeakable”) categories as well: danger-pleasure (or the pleasure of danger) and pleasure-danger (or the danger of pleasure). To provide only a briefest example simply to make more clear what this means, even the most elementary dichotomous binary true/false includes in it the two unspoken categories of false-true and true-false, i.e., that which remains false even within truth, and that which is true even within what is taken as false, respectively.

To understand the analytical and political function of these unspoken categories becomes crucial and helpful for untangling some of the difficulties that the uncomfortable intersection of pleasure and danger have engendered in public discourse about it. This, because these unspoken categories point not only to the unspeakable per se, but also to those issues or people that the dominant discourse either would prefer not to have speak or participate in public discourse in the first place or, barring that, would frame (compassionately or not, patronisingly or not) as deviant, mentally ill, criminal, taboo, interdicted, marginal, non-real, unrecognisable, &c.

At times, these unspeakable categories persist as open secrets—as, for example, in the historical social norm that had plantation owners in the US south keeping an octaroon mistress as a necessary accoutrement of their wealth, or at that moment in Forster, Addica, and Rokos’ (2001) Monster’s Ball when Peter Boyle’s character offers a more contemporaneous iteration of this notion, telling his son that a man’s not really a (white) man until he’s had sex with a (black) woman . At other times, social knowledge in principal requires these unspeakable categories to remain silenced or unheard; cases include the expulsion of NAMBLA from national gay liberation efforts (Thorstad, 1991), the initially ungraceful receptions of lesbian BDSM practitioners by a then-dominant feminist discourse (Rubin, 1975), exclusion of transsexuals from women’s music festivals (Rowe, 2014), denunciations of mixed-race critics by proponents of “one-drop rule” politics (Byrd, 2007), and so forth. In general, where the dominant discourse cannot enforce the “limits of the sayable” (Leps, 1992) within public discourse through outright silencing or a marginalization equivalent to silencing, then the interdicted topic at issue may or will appear in discourse pre-eminently in the form of social pornography.[2]

Thus, in a discourse where “pleasure” and “danger” supply our categories for looking—and no one suggests by this that these must be the only two ways to look—we may readily expect, and even predict, that those who favourably avow fantasies about rape—as one of the unspeakable intersections of pleasure and danger—will find themselves either as targets for repression or marginalization or labelled in social pornography as deviant. In terms of the binary “pleasure” or “danger,” this unspeakable claim for a danger-pleasure leaves critics, with methodologically only two available categories to choose from , little choice but to stigmatise it as a “danger” precisely since the fantasists has troublingly named it a “pleasure.” Such an expression of desire, the dominating discourse will tend to insist, clearly cannot or must not be permitted to occupy or stake a claim in that that region of culture and discourse delimited as “pleasure”.

Of course, this stigmatisation need not always be ill-intentioned or moralistic. While some cultural commentators will indignantly dismiss rape fantasies as inherently deviant, nonetheless even a less bigoted critic, trying to engage the issue, will be faced with choosing—if they accept the pleasure/danger binary as legitimate in the first place—between either “pleasure” or “danger” as the category for making sense of a claim for the erotic validity in rape fantasies. Some will find naming it a “pleasure” simply untenable and so, by nothing more than a logical consequence of the binary whether they desire it or not, the commentator must then file away this erotic claim as a “danger”. In this way, under a pleasure/danger binary, the dominant discourse enforces a sort of tacit or pseudo-consensus that must either ignore/marginalize or problematize/pathologise this kind of danger-pleasure and others like it. This latter pathologising gesture, of course, opens up those who espouse such pleasures of danger as vulnerable to calls by the dominating discourse to quarantine them, whether in the prison for the criminal, in the mental asylum for the deviant, at the margin for the unrecognisable or taboo or interdicted, or within the social pornography of academic discourse as a problem-issue.

The above makes clear that rape fantasies, as well as other forms of sexual non-conformism,[3] will not fit properly into only the category of “pleasure” or “danger” alone but require, even presuppose, a hybridity of these otherwise treated-as-separate categories. As such, to espouse out loud the unspeakable category of danger-pleasure entails that the unsettling or disturbing quality of this utterance in public discourse prompts the dominating discourse to respond to it as a “danger”, i.e., (1) as an open secret, (2) as something requiring repression, marginalisation, or silencing, or, barring that, (3) a reframing as social pornography subject to mass-cultural dissemination and public discussion, often in opposition to it (Wicke, 1991). And while the public face of this labelling employs the category of “danger” to interdict it, in fact the gesture involves the other unspeakable category, pleasure-danger.

In identifying danger-pleasures as dangerous pleasures that require hemming in and enclosure, if not actual confinement to an institution, this gesture not only runs contrary to whatever justification or (largely unexamined) rationale given that underlies all of the socially sanctioned varieties of “pleasure”—why, for instance, heteronormativity could warrant normative status in the first place—but also to the premise of sexual license in general. That is, acknowledging that the expression of sexuality has often, in human cultures, provided a site of at times radical or violent contestation, nonetheless in the individualist milieu that has accreted with the rise of industrial capitalism, any attempted limitation of freedom in its broadest or most generic sense now gets typically viewed askance as an illegitimate imposition. In sexual terms, this appears in the slogan: “if it’s not hurting anyone, how is it any of your business” or “who cares what goes on behind closed doors” and the like. Given that 31 to 57 per cent of women studied report having rape fantasies, with 9 to 17 per cent reporting them as frequent or their favourite variety (Critelli & Bivona, 2008), then a rather tortured analytical apparatus seems required to argue that a rape fantasy harms anyone (c.f., Barker, 2014; Corne, Briere, & Esses, 1992; Kanin, 1982; Malamuth, 1981). Moreover, summarising research on the topic, Critelli and Bivona (2008) examine theories that “explain rape fantasies in terms of masochism, sexual blame avoidance, openness to sexuality, sexual desirability, male rape culture, biological predisposition to surrender, sympathetic physiological activation, and adversary transformation” (1), little of which speaks “positively” to this behavioural fantasy.

As such, this attempt to interdict a fantasy as deviant falls within the unspeakable category of a pleasure-danger itself, since such a gesture represents a blatant exception to and suspension of an otherwise official broad-mindedness about—or perhaps simply a helplessness in the face of the logistical difficulty of policing—what goes on behind closed doors, much less inside of someone’s head. In other words, while this gesture rationalises the fantasy as a “danger” and encloses it within an official field of social pornography, if it discusses the topic at all, it does so on the basis of a position that technically and culturally we disallow, i.e., opposition to certain kinds of harmless pleasures construed as dangerous. Again, though, to be clear: it is not that forces in culture can never contest or condemn varieties of (sexual) pleasure, but that this particular form of pleasure, a fantasy, does not fall under the typical behavioural prohibitions that more frequently act as moral constraints on individuals within culture.

In a culture that officially valorises freedom—especially freedom of thought—to make an exception for the freedom of thought to have rape fantasies, or fantasies about other interdicted danger-pleasures, makes for a striking gesture at the very least. Given the context of Power and sexuality involved, it takes little effort to imagine this gesture of prohibition as bad, deviant, perverted, depraved, and so forth as dovetailing neatly, if not completely, with the act of rape itself. Thus, just as pornography in general induces and presupposes a sexual release, social pornography then similarly induces and presupposes some kind of social discharge about the topic at hand.

To provide a specific, concrete example of the operation of dichotomous binaries, we examine the love/fear binary deployed messily and extensively in psychoanalytic discourse. Here, “love” (as a variety of attraction) represents one form of “pleasure” while “fear” (as variety of repulsion) represents one of the form of “danger”. Along with love and fear, then, the binary invokes love-fear (or a fear of love) and fear-love (or a love of fear) as well. And while the former has more than its fair share of commentators (Nykänen, 2014), we would focus here on the latter, which has an even more extensive literature via the topic of masochism, often referred to explicitly in terms of a love of fear, though never in any positive sense (Besdine, 1969; Nykänen, 2014; Tridon, 1922). Characteristically, this locution fear of love appears in the discourse labelled as a paradox, something confusing; speaking of erotic rape fantasies, Critelli and Bivona (2008) state bluntly, “Erotic rape fantasies are paradoxical: they do not appear to make sense” (1). In this way, we see how social pornography within the dominating discourse can at times at least partially acknowledge the inadequacy of its binary categories; i.e., it may take note of a phenomena like an apparent “love of fear” but not without retaining the socially pornographic designation of that phenomena as a “problem” or “issue.”

The “love” of “fear” seemingly courted by masochism—the claim by its practitioners to find a pleasure in danger—presents to psychiatric discourse as an anomalous and contradictory datum in light of its love/fear binary. Confronted by the dilemma of having to decide if masochism constituted an expression of “love” or “fear,” since such “deviant” behaviour when first studied was at the time unspeakable as mentally healthy, much less socially desirable, psychiatric discourse therefore had little choice—if also no inclination—but to categorise this anomalous datum as inherently neurotic and thus some form of unhealthy “fear,” a part of the death instinct (Benjamin, 2013; Maleson, 1984).[4] In this, we see not only how experiential reports by sexually non-conformist Others were normalised but also how even self-descriptions of their experiences become dismissed, labelled, or diagnosed as deviant: as a self-destructive impulse (Nykänen, 2014), a perversion of surrender (Ghent, 1990), or “a perversion that originates in early traumatic events involving a mixture of prohibition, seduction, and reassurance” (Loewenstein, 1957, p. 1), and so forth. The very construction—in this case of masochism—as a “problem” or “issue” entails that even when the dominating discourse half-acknowledges the inadequacy of its binaries—in this case the “paradoxical” or “insensible” phenomenon of a “love of fear”—it still shunts the framing of this problem to the “fear” side of the binary, not the “love” side.

To gain access to a less “confused” or “paradoxical” official framing of any such fear-love—sticking still with this binary for the time being—then we might simply consult the self-reports of people who identify their experience of the intersection of pleasure and danger in positive terms in order to get a better description of the head-space that their desires and experience occupy. However, even then we will only most often find the most socially validated forms of these reports—those truths of the period that correspond “to the sets of information … legitimized by institutions” (Leps, 1992, p. 3)— in social pornography.[5]

For instance, Baumeister (2014), while re-approaching the topic of masochism through a lens of selfhood, nevertheless still describes it as a contradiction, as a denial of self and “paradoxical behaviour pattern” (x) within a framework that privileges selfhood ; “masochism thus emerged as an escapist response to the problematic nature of selfhood” (v, emphasis added). Whatever the intentional or unintentional resonance Baumeister means here in the pejorative term ‘escapist’ that makes selfhood ‘problematic’ for the masochist, one may already imagine masochists objecting to the description.[6]

In his declaration of method and summary of findings, we may see also that partial acknowledgment of categorical inadequacy that social pornography sometimes exhibits in his finding of a second element that can accompany masochism’s denial of self: namely, that masochism not only can “take the self apart but also, to some extent, puts together a new set of meanings in place of the deconstructed one” (x, emphasis added). It may seem an overstatement at this point to call the admission in “to some extent” grudging, but similar forms of hedging appear elsewhere. While summarising the possible audience for his book, Baumeister ends with, “Finally, this book may offer some reassurance and self-insight to actual masochists. Past psychological works have generally taken a dismal or alarmist view of the masochist, probably unfairly” (x, emphasis added). What reassurance a masochist should take from a researcher who signals his unwillingness or inability to dismiss fully all previous dismal and alarmist views of masochism remains unclear. This hedging appears methodologically as well:

Given my background in empirical research, I felt it necessary not only to propose theories but to examine all possible sources of evidence about them. This book integrates past research evidence, current findings, cross-cultural and historical comparisons, and some original data on the masochistic imagination as evidenced in anonymous scripts of fantasies and favorite experiences written by a large sample of masochists (and some of their partners) (x, emphasis added).

Discourse analysis in general suggests that we may take seriously how someone says something as much as what they say (Bakhtin, 1981; Williams, 2014; Wodak & Fairclough, 2004), so we would pause briefly to consider the curiously laboured phrase “and some original data on the masochistic imagination as evidenced in anonymous scripts of fantasies and favorite experiences written by a large sample of masochists (and some of their partners)” as pointing to the kind of hesitation sometimes present when social pornography attempts to negotiate its categorical inadequacies.

For one, we note the curious juxtaposition of only “some original data” from amongst “a large sample”; a some/many contrast that seems echoed in contrast of the de-personalized anonymity of the fantasy-producers who nevertheless (at least in some cases) are humanly non-anonymous enough to have partners. The anonymity of the fantasies itself—besides a standard requirement in this kind of research—nevertheless seems perverse in a study that makes selfhood central. And in fact, rather than people having fantasies, Baumeister refers instead to “the masochistic imagination.” If he undertook any interviews with actual masochists, he neglects to mention those here. Instead, the inclusion of “some original data on the masochistic imagination” by actual masochists—albeit in the mediated form of written fantasies—occurs within a larger methodological context that includes past research, current findings, and even some rather gratuitous “cross-cultural and historical comparisons,” so that the presence or footprint of actual masochists appears only in a heavily mediate form. The degree of this mediation goes so far that at times we “see” masochists only through the lens of another, i.e., their partners.

As such, one all but overlooks that Baumeister methodologically offers “original data on the masochistic imagination” through fantasies, rather than direct self-reports about the experience of masochism. If we have dwelt in some detail on this example, it nonetheless well characterises a similar kind of pattern of ironies or avoidances that also emerge when researchers attempt to study the problematic category of “criminal” within prisons as well, with or without the added element of sexual assault. Specifically, the study by Fleisher and Krienert (2006), at the time the most extensive study of sexual assault in prison, explicitly did not solicit any reports from inmates about their experiences of sexual assault, but focused only on inmate perceptions of the issue; while the data collected here did not arise in the sort of mediated form found in Baumeister’s study, we indulge no inaccuracy to say that Fleisher and Krienert supply only some original data on the criminal imagination of prison rape, rather than an direct self-reports of the experience of it.

All of the foregoing considers the pleasure/danger binary principally from the position of authorized Power. In other words, it demonstrates how dichotomous binaries like pleasure/danger allow cultural commentators to obscure, shunt aside, or otherwise account for unwanted or anomalous cultural data, and in particular to miscategorise or shoehorn such anomalous data—like rape fantasies—into one or the other category of the two openly acknowledged ones in a binary. Consequently, whatever validity for masochism or rape fantasies that someone asserts, a (psychological or cultural) commentator remains at liberty to dismiss it not as a “pleasure” but a “danger” (whether for the one having the fantasy/experience, or for society generally, or both). From this label of “danger,” further articulations of such desires as mentally unhealthy, deviant, criminal, and so forth may then proceed apace. Thus, not only lived experience of the masochist but even the fantasy life of the rape-fantasist within a context of pleasure-danger gets converted by social pornography into an unqualified “danger” (conceived sympathetically or not). By this, we see then how the general non-acknowledgment of unspoken categories in any binary permits and thus analogises precisely with those gestures of Power that manifest socially as marginalization, otherization, orientalising, demonization, displacement, and the like.

However, we may also examine how such binaries function from a practitioner’s point of view. By this, we do not suggest or insist that anyone must assent to the binary; in principal, at least, one remains at liberty to assent to and take up a binary or not. Situationally, however, this remains contentious. Because we arise in a patriarchally organised milieu, where any difference from the straight-white-male norm unintentionally lays a groundwork for deviance if someone enthusiastically, perversely as it seems, takes up any negative valence of non-straight, non-white, or non-male from the dominating discourse. This “taking up,” however, does not always happen willingly or deliberately. Thus, the delightful abjection one might experience in masochism, rape fantasies, or BDSM may remain awful, degrading, or anything but delightful when not willed or chosen.

Whatever a specific individual’s experience, outside the locus of social pornography’s official framing and control, the unspeakable category of a love of fear (as one of the pleasures of danger) can point positively to those erotopias (i.e., those idealized sexual spaces) that court danger for the sake of arousal: i.e., the eros of risky sexual behaviour of all sorts, of sex in public, exhibitionism, taboo-breaking in general, and activities that risk or involve physical or psychological harm. While we may feel quick to decry as public dangers any actual acting out of these desires, their erotic authenticity within the realm of sexual fantasy remains closed to critique, no matter how much such a fantasy disturbs us or not.

Similarly, the other unspoken category, a fear of love—in official discourse often taken in an off-hand way as unwillingness on someone’s part to accept intimacy (Knox, 2007; Rokach, 1989)—in its more radical guise points to a rejection, and therefore a critique, of the forms of love, sexual expression, and identity available or acknowledged as valid by a given culture. This kind of critique might centre on number (i.e., polyamory or promiscuity), on who or what constitutes a valid subject or object of sexual desire (i.e., so-called paraphilias of all sorts), on who or what constitutes a valid centre for sexual identity (i.e., various sexualities both now recognized or condemned), and above all on who or what constitutes an authority for framing the discourse on these matters in the first place.

To pick a garish and perhaps too difficult example: when conservatives attacked the notion of marriage equality by claiming that if same-sex people could marry, then others would next want to marry their dogs. Since a consequence of dichotomous binaries involves reframing the negative or interdicted half of a given binary in the form of social pornography—as mass-culturally disseminated public conversation generally for the sake of anti-pornography (Wicke, 1991)—then this conservative framing of sexual desire along the lines of a human/animal binary made visible a social pornography for at least the idea bestiality, i.e., a desire for sexual congress with animals.

In contrast to the overt and intentional labelling of bestiality as deviant and something eminently worthy of public mockery, we may instead read out the unspoken category of human desire for animals in the human/animal binary as a critique of anthropocentric assumptions about what constitutes a valid subject or centre for one’s sexual desires or identity in the first place. While assertions of a pathologising diagnosis of a fear of love at the root of bestiality exist—Jenkins and Thomas (2004) resort to hyperbole to describe it as an “act of extreme deviance” (1, emphasis added)—we may just as well understand any such fear of love as a radical critique of current social sexual norms that deny any validity to an attraction for non-human sexual contact; the currently emergent distinction between the term bestiality as an extreme deviance or unequivocal grounds for criminal prosecution (Beirne, 1997) and the term zoophilia, then, acknowledges albeit still within a socially pornographic context the zoophile’s claim that “an emotional bond to the animal plays a key role besides the sexual aspect” (Beetz & Podberscek, 2005, p. 1).

Once again, however unnerved or revolted we might feel that anyone would actually and socially practice any such sexual non-conformism or identity within the precincts of our culture, the erotic authenticity of those fantasies as fantasies must remain closed to critique. We may see, then, that any desire to interdict or marginalize as a sign of deviance certain forms of non-conformist sexual fantasies thus permits cultural or psychological commentators to misconstrue or misread the potentially radical critique raised by a fear of love, as something occurring the public discourse (viewed as a danger of a pleasure) that requires repression, marginalization, or reframing as social pornography by the dominating discourse. Social pornography then not only targets non-conformists to “study” them but also serves to channel and neutralise critiques that the unspeakable categories propose.

The history of the sex wars seems marked at times precisely by gestures of this type , where naming the “dangers” of certain “pleasures” served not only to declare as pathological various sexual non-conformists who questioned the then-prevailing socio-sexual norms but also to bracket out who and what kind of sexual contact could or should be treated as speakable or unspeakable, especially in light of patriarchal norms. This resembles, perhaps perfectly, the normalising and disciplinary mechanism that Leps (1992), by way of Foucault (1977), identifies in the advent of the discourse of popular press and literature from the eighteenth century onward—or more broadly still, the straight-white-bourgeois-male public sphere at its most general (Eagleton, 1984). In a word, we may identify knotted intersection of gender, race, sexuality, and class simply as “polite” society.

None of the above presupposes an aetiology or mechanism to explain the origins of sexual desire. We regard as non sequitur for the purposes of this paper, for example, whether cultural taboos drive or inhibit a fixing of sexual desire. Our discussion of the pleasure/danger binary, rather, aims more to illuminate the dynamics of discourse that have and still surround the intersection of pleasure and danger. Specifically, we would point to a tension and hesitation in all social pornography—especially more in its patronising than condemnatory modes. For our culture’s collective prison rape fantasies in particular, while the dominant discourse will at times generate cultural academic products depicting prison rape, ostensibly in order to oppose or condemn it (Wicke, 1991), these gestures issue from context of discourse that can only acknowledge that depiction as either a “pleasure” or “danger”.

Just as the discourse of the sex wars often seemed to turn on the question whether one should experience, much less could enjoy, rape fantasies or other interdicted desires, while in the same breath trying to explain or explain away as undesirable how they might come about in the first place, so too in the case of collective prison rape fantasies might we become similarly mired in examining whether such fantasies constitute a social “pleasure” or a “danger” in themselves, while in the same breath trying to explain or explain away as undesirable how they originate. Rejecting any (hegemonic) framing of (collective) rape fantasies as merely (socially) neurotic, we proceed instead by listening to the voice of the unspeakable category of the pleasure in danger to disclose any socio-erotic necessity for this collective fantasy as it informs the functioning of patriarchy.

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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] Or, as we will demonstrate further, openly unmediated public pornography. However, a consequence of this circumstance in general entails that authorized bodies have privileged access to such interdicted material. Robertson (2002) opens his law review of the topic with nearly a page of unmitigated homosexual prison rape pornography. Safe (i.e., non-illegal) access to child pornography becomes available to researchers and other variously authorized bodies—though sometimes these, whether a police officer (Rizzi, 2014), a District Attorney (“Ex-Prosecutor Indicted On Pornography Charges,” 1997), or a prosecutor’s son (Pack, 2014), get caught as interdicted consumers themselves—while formal work on the topic may serve as potential erotica for those reading about such research (Carr, 2003; Ost, 2009; Taylor & Quayle, 2003), simply the discussion of the matter having an erotic or titillating aspect. Our point of emphasis here does not involve any outrage or surprise that empowered individuals would abuse that power for sexually interdicted purposes but simply to note that social spaces exist where legal, but qualified, access to interdicted material exists; such spaces denote and delimit zones of social pornography, as Wicke (1991) identifies it.

[3] We use the term non-conformism here and elsewhere to point to those practices by individuals that fall outside of any ostensible consensus about cultural behaviour. We specifically do not mean to suggest by this that all non-conformists wilfully, deliberately, or perversely flout cultural norms, though some of course do. In other words, this use of non-conformism takes the framework of a dominating culture that insists on seeing some given behaviour as impermissible. We take this view, which in one sense gives too much authority to Power, because a great deal of human liberatory work has proceeded by engaging a dominating discourse that perceived people as non-conformists in order to change that discourse (e.g., an emphasis on the humanity of women, people of colour, homosexuals, &c).

[4] If this seems too much to oversimplify the volumes of psychoanalytic discourse that attended this question, the persistence of the psychiatric label “masochism” in its discourse already points to a basic non-recognition of the validity of claims to a pleasure of danger in the first place.

[5] In an age of the Internet, we have far more extensive access to self-reports and fantasies, but these documents lack the imprimatur—more precisely, are generally refused the imprimatur—of official knowledge for not passing through the validating institutions that (Leps, 1992) points to.

[6] One may also imagine masochists who agreed with or who even offered the locution ‘escapist’ or ‘escape from selfhood’ initially. Just as in prison rape studies, where researchers could find inmates who would affirm implausibly high incidence numbers for sexual assault, one may always find human beings willing for different reasons—including sometimes telling the truth—to confirm a researcher’s premises. And while research into human experience itself remains fraught with doubt at every turn, the negative construction of masochism as a denial of self (considered paradoxically or not) has ample contradiction in the wide wealth of self-generated fantasies an narratives about masochism we now have available. If Baumeister narrowed his claim—to describe only a particular type of masochist—this threat to validity might evaporate.

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.

OUTLINE & TERMINOLOGY:

  1. A decision signals the onset of activities to support a choice, as a given course of action to solve a problem.
  2. This choice embodies a person’s or a group of people’s commitment to act in one particular way to solve the problem as distinct from a range of possible alternative other courses of action.
  3. This range of alternatives encompasses the warranted arguments[1] for that choice as a solution to a problem.
  4. A problem frames the current state of affairs such that finding a solution becomes desired, possible, and perhaps also necessary.
  5. The current state of affairs reflects the consequences of previous decisions.

NON-CHOICE, PSEUDO-CHOICE, & CHOICE

Non-Choice: We understand that we have no choice where only one alternative exists. If I hold out one hand and tell you: choose, you might obey or you might invent another alternative for yourself on the spot and tell me no. But a “choice” of one offers only an illusion or parody of choice and points, rather, to some manipulative or coercive Power enforcing the situation, even if that is sometimes only the cop in one’s head.

Pseudo-Choice: In a less manipulative or coercive setting or a situation where we more “freely” make determinations for ourselves, when we consider a single alternative we frequently do so with the understanding also that we might not go with that one alternative at all. This gives an appearance of an either/or (two) alternatives as well: either I want the one alternative available and I select it, or I do not. This circumstance differs from non-choice only in the fact that no concrete Power specifically extorts one’s complicity in a “choice”; this does not mean that spectral or imagined Powers do not impinge on one’s consciousness with respect to choosing (or not choosing) more or less freely.

Choice: a circumstance of authentic choice requires at least two distinct alternatives, no matter how trivial, e.g., whether one will have spaghetti or pizza for dinner. In general, we rarely find ourselves helplessly constrained to only two alternatives, [2] but in the event that social forces, our limited imaginations, or the Powers of the status quo can enforce that we must choose between only the two alternatives offered, then we still have the following four orientations toward choice:

  1. I may choose one alternative voluntarily (without protest) because I want it.[3]
  2. I may choose one alternative involuntarily (under protest) because I see the other as insufficient or untenable.[4]
  3. I may choose one alternative voluntarily (without protest) to avoid having to choose the other.[5]
  4. I may choose one alternative involuntarily (under protest) because while I find it untenable, I find it less untenable than the other.[6]

The four orientations of choice characterise wanting at the four distinct steps involved in designing solutions.[7]

FURTHER COMMENTS:

When I frame the prevailing state of affairs in the world so that finding a solution becomes desired, possible, and perhaps also necessary, I do so by choosing one alternative voluntarily (to see the current state of affairs as a problem) in order to avoid having to choose the other alternative (of allowing the current state of affairs to continue). Thus, I willingly take a problem upon myself.

Then, when I characterise a range of alternatives that encompass the warranted arguments for identifying a solution to the problem I have willingly taken upon myself, I do so by choosing an alternative involuntarily (not only to recognise the necessity of doing the hard work to discover such a range of alternatives but also to have to live now in an awareness of a problem I did not previously have) because the alternative (to remain ignorant and complacent) is no longer tenable. I would sooner not shoulder the demands of this work or live in the knowledge it brings, but the alternative (not to do so) no longer seems palatable or tenable.

When from this range of alternatives I embody my commitment to act in a choice to support one of the many possible alternative courses of action to solve the problem, I do so by choosing that alternative voluntarily (without protest) because I want it. Thus I commit myself to implementing a solution to the problem.

And once the onset of activities to support that course of action have begun, I do so by choosing that alternative involuntarily (because the decision to act is now in the past even while remaining binding on everyone who works to implement our decided upon course of action) because the other alternative (to change our course of action) seems less tenable. We stay the course (over and above our wanting and doing) because changing course at this point is an even less tenable idea.

Of course, at any moment, we might re-visit our course of action and change it, but this would require consultation toward enacting a new decision.

In merging the four kinds of choosing and four steps of designing solutions, the last step may seem the most bizarre. Insofar as the fourth orientation to choice may be characterised at times as choosing the lesser of two evils, how can “staying the course” seem this lesser if all agree it was the best course in the first place?

Partly this is a problem of an example upstaging the idea, but it points also to a critique of typical decision implementation, which congratulates itself in advance for its wisdom and foresight and then finds someone to blame when the plan runs aground. By contrast, to keep in mind in advance that any plan is a lesser of two evils spares us the planner’s arrogance and also makes us potentially more ready to be alert for needed changes.

On the deeper level, the emphasis falls on the involuntary part. For example, when one agrees to a group venture, individual volition gets attached more or exclusively to the goal (of the group) an less if at all to any “narrow” or “personal” goal. This does not mean, of course, that no benefit accrues to individuals for group activity—money, fame, prestige, a portion of the hunt, &c will be allotted accordingly. But imagine a circumstance where one hunter in a group is asked to stand in a certain spot and frighten game away from himself and in a certain direction. As an individual action, this amounts to the most ineffective hunting technique ever—it fails completely to serve any “personal” goal toward a successful (individual) hunt. But this same behaviour proves crucial for the success of the group hunt. Thus, to the extent that such behaviour is group-beneficial and not personally beneficial, then the performance of the act involves a non-voluntary element, since it is not for the self. One may say in this case that is “the group” (not the individual) who acts. This inheres for all instances of cooperative action (by hunter-gatherers or office workers).

Endnotes

[1] By warranted arguments, I mean the culturally recognised justifications for action. The school student who wants to do drugs at his friend’s house frames his request to his parents to go to his friend’s house in terms of doing homework, because doing homework is a warrantable justification for visiting friends on a school night. All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have some skill in representing our wants in terms of warrantable arguments, even if that means disingenuously advancing alternative rationales besides “I want to” (just as the high school student did). A problem of culture arises from the fact that certain warrants do not exist. And, in fact, very often we suspect (sometime rightly) that “I want to” will not be recognised as a warrantable argument for whatever it is we lobby for, socially or personally. A part of social activism, then, requires the invention of new warrants and a debunking of old ones, such as those that warrant State executions, corporate personhood mass incarceration, and the like.

[2] NOTE: Again, rarely do we face a choice only of two alternatives. Between choosing spaghetti or pizza, I might well protest and demand further choices, &c. To find ourselves seemingly limited to such an either/or circumstance, then, points to some structure of power that artificially limits our range of alternatives choosable. This lurking shadow of Power notwithstanding, when it comes to the moment to decide, we do face an either/or: either to go forward with the course of action as framed or not to. Of course, nothing necessarily constrains our ability to immediately revisit the decision upon choosing. Suppose our wagon train comes to a fork in the road. If we elect to go left, nothing prevents us from immediately reconsidering that decision: we might (1) go back and take the right fork, (2) cut across the intervening space between the left and right forks to take the right fork, (3) decide to stay on the left fork after all, (4) blaze a new trail entirely, (5) return back the way we came an go home, or (6) if we live in a magical universe, levitate our wagon train an continue. Of course, some choices made might preclude such re-visitation; if we elect to drive off a cliff, we will not have recourse to go back and take another alternative. Moreover, the ability to reconsider decisions might be artificially inhibited or suppressed by those interested in seeing no change in the decision.

[3] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I want pizza and I choose to get some.)

[4] (Between spaghetti or pizza, while I’d rather choose pizza I choose spaghetti because the pizza is mouldy. A more affective example: the person who chooses suicide because life has become an untenable prospect.)

[5] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I choose pizza because I’ll be caught dead before I’d ever pick spaghetti. A more familiar example: those people who are Republicans because they’d be caught dead first before being a Democrat, or vice versa; or those who are Protestants so as not to be Catholics, and vice versa.)

[6] (Between spaghetti or pizza, I choose pizza because it’s the less awful choice between the two. In a more familiar vein, this is choosing the lesser of two evils.)

[7] Two caveats. (1) Self-evidently, one may still at any moment deny the constraining either/or of the examples above and insist on refusing to accept the two alternatives as presented. Yes. Yet at the same time, one encounters people every day who seem trapped—sometimes happily so—in these kinds of opposed dyads. Moreover, even this “opting out” will often resemble one of the four options above. The person who says, “I’m not play your game with those two alternatives” who nevertheless offers no alternative stance resembles the third type above (like the person who is less a Democrat and more pointedly not a Republican). And (2), while I insist that “a circumstance of authentic choice requires at least two distinct alternatives,” very often how we construct these alternatives seems still a lot like one alternative rather than two. But this, in part, occurs because simply to propose a distinction brings with it not just two but four categories. Consider the distinction attraction; this implies also not attraction (or repulsion). If we substitute the more common psychological terms for these, to position the distinction love seems to automatically bring with it fear. But along with this dyadic pair, we also have the categories love of fear and fear of love, neither of which may adequate be accounted for by either love or fear themselves. More might be written here, but let it suffice to say that the strength and necessity of the contrast in any of the choices noted above plays an important role—e.g., compare the strength of contrast and non-necessity of pizza or spaghetti to the contrast and seeming inevitability of Republican or Democrat (or Catholic or Protestant).

WHEREAS:

  1. [1] A fascist system maintains itself at the expense of its members. [2] And the system of mass incarceration values security and control to the detriment of all else, regardless of cost. [3] The system of mass incarceration is, therefore, a fascist system.
  2. [1] The human social need for safety is met by the necessity of mass incarceration. [2] Yet, the US Supreme court affirmed that mass incarceration does more harm to public safety than crime itself. [3] The system of necessities by which we currently meet our needs do so at our expense.
  3. [1] Our system of human justice meets our social need for safety by valuing the necessity of security and control to the detriment of all else, regardless of cost. [2] This necessity maintains itself the expense of the plants, animals, living systems, and ecologies we take as resources. [3] The system of anthropocentric justice is, therefore, a fascist system.
  4. [1] All systems with one bottom line are fascist systems. [2] To add care, even to a fascist system, transforms it. [3] By “care” I mean: to decide to temporarily enter into the structure of another living system.

THEREFORE:

When we add care to a human system of justice that values, at the expense of its members, a necessity of security and control above all else in order to meet the human social need for safety, then

  1. We would decide to inhabit temporarily the structure of the forest we would destroy, in order to meet our human need for safety with the necessity of shelter and warmth;
  2. We would decide to inhabit temporarily the structure of the animals we would kill to eat, in order to meet the human need for safety with the necessity of food;
  3. We would decide to inhabit temporarily the structure of the human being we would incarcerate, in order to meet the human need for safety with the necessity of confinement.

Out of empathy and our own desire not to be destroyed, we would face in the court of justice the life that we would cut down—for lumber, for food, for peace of mind; the life that we feel we must cut down as a necessity in order to meet a given instance of the human social need for safety.

When we care, then out of an acknowledgment of fairness and recognition for an Other that we desire to cut down—for lumber, for food, for peace of mind—we would at least pause to ask if we might take that life in order to meet, as we see it, a given instance of the human social need for safety.

And this moment of greater justice presupposes the wrong of what we ask, however much our need for human safety seems to demand this necessity. And it presupposes that the Other we address might answer, “No.” And if we do not proceed then, over the objection of this Other–this forest, this creature, this person we think we need to incarcerate–to cut down the life, then our meditations for how otherwise an better to meet our human social need for safety will mark a moment of higher and more far-reaching justice, for all living beings an ecologies.

NOTE: this play requires one actor and three members of an ANTI-CHORUS. The ANTI-CHORUS voices all words or noises other than the one line specifically assigned to CARE.

LIGHTS UP

Act 1 – Aspirations (Health-Care)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 1! Aspirations! Health-Care!

ANTI-CHORUS: Oh look, here comes Care.

ANTI-CHORUS: Who?

ANTI-CHORUS: Care. I said Care.

CARE, holding armfuls of stuffed animals (puppets) to the point of being nearly completely obscured, each stuffed animal with the word “CARE” on a card pinned to them. CARE also has the word “CARE” written on a card dangling from an earring, one pinned to the seat of its pants, and another pinned over its heart,

A joyful, riotous noise of “I care” and “I want to care” and “I want a career” and “I want money and status and fame” and “I want to care for others” jostles forth from the crowd as CARE advances.

Two members of the ANTI-CHORUS, one with a hoop, confronts CARE, blocking the way.

ANTI-CHORUS: Hush! Order! We can’t have this chaos.

The noise vanishes. The hoop is presented.

ANTI-CHORUS: Hey, Care. This way! (singing, from Pink Floyd) “We need to give you education.”

CARE crawls on hands and knees through the hoop toward an ANTI-CHORUS member dangling a diploma with a carrot on it.

A couple of stuffed animals fall to the floor by the wayside. The fallen, jostled by members of the ANTI-CHORUS, still pathetically cry out, “I care” and “I want a career”.

Act 2 – Standardization (Education)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 2. Standardization! Education!

CARE stands again. The ANTI-CHORUS member with the diploma holds it high up.

ANTI-CHORUS: (singing, from Frozen) “So you want to be a doctor?”

CARE nods.

ANTI-CHORUS: Well, if you want a care-ear, then listen.

CARE turns the dangling ear-care sign toward The ANTI-CHORUS member, who pulls a knife from the sheath of the diploma–ideally a wakazashi blade, but we’ll take what we can get, right?–and holds it out to CARE.

ANTI-CHORUS: Make the grade. Make the cut.

ANTI-CHORUS: Isn’t that the kind of knife samurai use to disembowel themselves?

ANTI-CHORUS: Hush, you. Just hush.

To accept the blade, CARE must drop all of the stuffed animals; if only for the first time, we see the “CARE” card over its heart.

Again, riotous noise, this time less joyful, of “ayurvedic medicine” and “four hour intake interviews” and “house calls” and “Cuba’s medical school” and “care at the core of education” [and false statements from the education group] jostles forth from the stuffed animals as CARE takes the knife, and turns its back to the audience, showing the “CARE” sign on its rump.

CARE seems to hold the knife to its bowel, then stabs, doubling over in agony. The knife clatters to the ground–an ANTI-CHORUS member sweeps it up; the “CARE” card from over its heart flutters to the ground.

As CARE straightens up again, one ANTI-CHORUS member slips the knife back into the sheath of the diploma/carrot, another slaps a big sticker with “CRIPPLING DEBT” over the spot where the “CARE” heart had been. [slap on more stickers and slogans here too, if you can.]

The hoop is presented, higher this time. The ANTI-CHORUS hums “Pomp and Circumstances” badly. CARE sweeps up three of the stuffed animals in one arm, takes the diploma/carrot with the knife in it in the other, and crawls through the hoop.

A phone rings.

ANTI-CHORUS: (singing, Pink Floyd) “never had the nerve to make the final cut”

Act 3 – Performance. (Art)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 3. Performance! Distribution! The ART of medicine.

ANTI-CHORUS: (singing, from Frozen) “So you want to be a doctor?” (not singing) Better learn to act like one.

The ANTI-CHORUS shoves CARE into a doctor’s white coat; CARE has to drop the stuffed animals to do this, and puts the diploma/carrot in a pocket.

Less riotous noise this time, still less joyful. [use Mark Fletcher’s false statements for interns, and art design group false statements].

The ANTI-CHORUS shoves a stuffed animal in CARE’S hand. CARE attempts to do an examination, but The ANTI-CHORUS keeps interrupting and turning CARE around and around, until its sick with dizziness.

ANTI-CHORUS: Do your thing, Super-hero.

ANTI-CHORUS: Show us your care.

ANTI-CHORUS: Make it an Oscar, Tony.

ANTI-CHORUS: Or a Tony, Oscar.

ANTI-CHORUS: Short and sweet though. 7.5 minutes.

ANTI-CHORUS: Make our hearts bleed.

ANTI-CHORUS: (terrified, stopping the other) No! That’d be malpractice. (to CARE) Just make us weep!

ANTI-CHORUS: And cover your ass while you do.

The ANTI-CHORUS squirts glycerine tears over CARE’S face and their own. Another snatches off the CARE card from CARE’S rump.

ANTI-CHORUS: What pathos! Such sincerity!

ANTI-CHORUS: Good game.

Doubled over, panting, dizzy, confused, CARE stands with its back to the audience. The ANTI-CHORUS slaps stickers on CARE’S ass: “Grade A certified” [a bumper sticker here would be cool too]

The ANTI-CHORUS lines up, arms locked, as CARE straightens up, staggering back and forth, dizzy.

ANTI-CHORUS: (waving a key) You can bypass the funding, preparations, actual performance, and packaging, but if you want to get your care to the people, you still have to get through us. We’re the gateway. (tauntingly) Red rover, red rover, send CARE right over.

Staggering, CARE lunges into the ANTI-CHORUS’ locked arm, only to be repelled. One, two, three times CARE tries, and the third time, the ANTI-CHORUS deliberately unlocks their arms.

CARE stumbles and falls into the space behind them, accidentally throwing aside the one stuffed animal it had still held in its hand.

Act 4. Incarceration. (Justice)

ANTI-CHORUS: Act 4! Incarceration. Justice! Security and control!

ANTI-CHORUS: Just. Us.

The ANTI-CHORUS solicitously help CARE get to its feet, while removing the white coat and the CARE earring.

ANTI-CHORUS: That’s the beauty of health-care education. You can always find work wherever you want. Like here. In prison. (to CARE) Didn’t see the hoop in that last act, did you?

ANTI-CHORUS: That’s the beauty of it, yeah?

ANTI-CHORUS: Don’t even know where to look.

Without the care-ear, CARE is deaf, still confused by the spinning. Solicitously, The ANTI-CHORUS help CARE back into the white coat, but reversed, a straitjacket. They tie CARE’S hands behind its back, put on a cape, and gently set it on the ground, along with the carrot, diploma, and unsheathed knife. CARE struggles but can’t do anything.

ANTI-CHORUS: Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.

ANTI-CHORUS: Normalization!

ANTI-CHORUS: First rule of medicine: do no harm, right?

ANTI-CHORUS: (referring to CARE, laughing like a familiar of torture chambers) Can’t do any harm like that now, eh?

CARE looks forlorn, confused, disoriented.

CARE: How’d I get here? This wasn’t–how’d this happen?

Shocked to hear CARE’S voice, the ANTI-CHORUS slaps duct tape over CARE’S mouth. On the duct tape are the words, “We Care.” CARE’S eyes go wide with horror, struggling.

ANTI-CHORUS: Lets go get a drink.

The ANTI-CHORUS exits, abandoning CARE, who struggles, voicelessly protesting.

BLACKOUT

SOMEONE gathers up all of the discarded stuffed animals, looking at the word “CARE” on each as if reading each one’s card:

SOMEONE: “What if care were honoured at the core of all systems?” [false statement for education] [false statement for art] [false statement for justice] [false statement for health-care].

LIGHTS UP

AT RISE: the ANTI-DOULA sits at a table with the DOULA, who stirs a pot of food. The CHORUS circles around throughout.

CHORUS: (like a cell phone) breep-breep-breep!

The ANTI-DOULA looks at his cell phone in disgust, then gets up to leave.

From here on out, gestures by the CHORUS are exaggeratedly pantomimed (silent).

DOULA: You’re going?

ANTI-DOULA: Mom needs me to take CARE of her.

CHORUS: (surrounding the ANTI-DOULA in a hug) Awwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Now?

ANTI-DOULA: I don’t CARE to discuss this right now.

CHORUS: (arms extended, in a “keep it away from”/”none of my business” me gesture) Nawwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Should I wait dinner for us then?

ANTI-DOULA: I don’t CARE what you–

CHORUS: (arms up, like being arrested, in the “vast shrug of apathy” gesture) Bawwwwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Hey! Just cuz you’re pissed, don’t take it out–

ANTI-DOULA: (crossing back to the DOULA) No, you’re right. I’m sorry.

They kiss, pause, then both look at the audience.

CHORUS: (tongues hanging out, exaggeratedly grossed out, but fascinated at the same time) Gawwwwwwwwwwwww!

ANTI-DOULA (CON’T)

Do you suppose they CARE that we’re–

DOULA: You mean about–

ANTI-DOULA: Or about my mother’s chronic scleroderma?

CHORUS: (making a false showing of obligatory sentiment) Mawwwwwwwwwwwwww!

DOULA: That’s redundant. Scleroderma’s always chronic.

ANTI-DOULA: Who cares?

CHORUS: (arms up, like being arrested, in the “vast shrug of apathy” gesture) Bawwwwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Sorry. I just meant–

The DOULA and ANTI-DOULA look back to one another, just a quick kiss this time.

DOULA (CON’T)

(sighing) Take CARE.

CHORUS: (mocking the sentimentality of the statement) Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!

ANTI-DOULA: (grumbling, leaving) More like “GIVE care”.

CHORUS: (made jolly by the pun or wit) Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!

DOULA: (calling after, like a “yoo-hoo”) Decide to temporarily enter into her structure.

CHORUS: (at a total loss) Whaaaaaaaa?

ANTI-DOULA: What?

DOULA: Decide to temporarily enter into her structure.

ANTI-DOULA: What?

DOULA: That’s what care is: to decide to temporarily enter into the structure of another living system.

ANTI-DOULA: (still puzzled, exiting) You don’t say.

DOULA: Drive carefully.

The DOULA looks to the CHORUS for a reaction, but they’re still helplessly confused. They shrug.

LIGHTS DOWN

A COURTROOM, with a DOCTOR (prosecutor), JUDGE (hospital administrator), BAILIFF (orderly), and CRIMINAL (patient).

AT RISE: the DOCTOR gestures in a hostile way toward the PATIENT, in the middle of a tirade.

DOCTOR: Is this not a 35 year old obese woman presenting with the symptoms not only of elevated hormone levels and increased enzymatic liver complexes but also considerable metastatic tissue–

MIDWIFE: (jumping up) Objection! The doctor is–

JUDGE: Sustained. (to the DOCTOR) Ask the question differently, Prosecutor.

DOCTOR: (to the PATIENT) Do you deny that you acquired cancer?

PATIENT: …

DOCTOR: Well?

MIDWIFE: Objection! The patient is clearly not well.

JUDGE: Overruled. The question was rhetorical, Midwife. (to the DOCTOR) Continue.

DOCTOR: (to the PATIENT) Well? Have you or have you not acquired cancer?

PATIENT: …

DOCTOR: (triumphantly) Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this Court will note that the patient is plainly–

MIDWIFE: Objection! He’s–

DOCTOR: (smugly, to the JUDGE) I have no more questions, your honour. (to the MIDWIFE) Your witness.

Kindly, the MIDWIFE gets close to the PATIENT.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT, kindly) What do you think of this process?

DOCTOR: Objection. Calls for speculation.

MIDWIFE: Your honour, this line of questioning is necessary to establish the patient’s state of mind at the time when–

JUDGE: I’ll allow it. But proceed carefully, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: My esteemed colleague, Doctor Manhattan here, has accused you of obtaining a life-threatening disease by unlawful means. We are here to examine your guilt in that–

DOCTOR: Objection! Is the defence questioning the patient or grandstanding?

JUDGE: Do you have a question in there somewhere, Midwife?

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) What do you think of this process?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: Well?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: (to the JUDGE) Permission to treat the witness as hostile.

DOCTOR: Objection. It’s his witness.

JUDGE: I don’t need you to tell me how to interpret the law, Doctor. (to the MIDWIFE) Proceed as you wish, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT, who remains silent after each question) Isn’t it true that many people live in the area where you acquired cancer? … And that many, most in fact, did not become afflicted as you have? … (palpates the PATIENT)

DOCTOR: Objection. He’s manipulating the witness.

MIDWIFE: Palpating, your honour, palpating. A perfectly normal legal procedure.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) Overruled.

DOCTOR: But he’s untrained, unqualified, I mean.

JUDGE: (sharply) I’m allowing it. (to the MIDWIFE) But get on with it, Midwife. This Court generously suffers your presence. Don’t waste our time.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) How can you claim to be innocent before this court, when you became sick but others didn’t? … Whose fault is that? … Well? … Who bears the guilt for that? … You’re a sick person. And my esteemed colleague over there makes a living off people like you.

DOCTOR: Objection! Slander.

MIDWIFE: The best defence against slander is the truth.

JUDGE: That’s true. (to the DOCTOR) Overruled.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) It’s criminal that you impose on society this way. What do you have to say for yourself?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: (sarcastically) Oh, so it’s society that made you sick, eh?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: We should put the doctor on trial? (indicating the JUDGE) And the hospitals and administrators? You had no say in this disaster whatsoever?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I apologize in advance for courtroom dramatics, but if I might ask the patient to stand.

JUDGE: Where are you going with this?

MIDWIFE: It bears on the case, your honour.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) You have no objections? (the DOCTOR shakes his head) My hands are tied then. I have no choice then but to allow it. (to the PATIENT) The orderly will order the patient stand.

The PATIENT does. She’s obviously pregnant.

MIDWIFE: I ask the Court to note. It’s not cancer. She’s pregnant.

DOCTOR: (jumping up) What the blazes? This is–

JUDGE: Order! Order! I prescribe order!

MIDWIFE: There’s been a misdiagnosis.

DOCTOR: This should have come out in discovery.

MIDWIFE: More like, before then.

JUDGE: You’ve been having us on this whole time, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: And I apologise, your honour. But my office has an only limited capacity to act in these matters. All the same, we move for summary dismissal of all charges. This woman is no criminal.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) Cross?

DOCTOR: Yes, very.

JUDGE: Cross-examine. Do you wish to?

DOCTOR: Rather, I’d like the court to note that my diagnosis—

MIDWIFE: Objection!

JUDGE: Sustained. (banging his gavel) This case is dismissed.

BLACK OUT.

SONG LYRICS:

People I know usually
use the word system casually
to describe something pre-existing
as a mess
without resisting it
or the fitness
of its itness.

What is a system?
What are we really looking for?
And how do we undo the true
and all the systems
that have gone before?

Art treats an audience; medicine treats a patient. Justice disciplines criminals; education disciplines students. Art and medicine treat its subjects as involuntarily afflicted—both whole-heartedly hope to be treated. Justice and education treat its subjects as obdurately ignorant—both at most only half-heartedly want what’s offered or forced.

IN THE CURRENT SYSTEMS’ SPEAKS (intended consequences) [PROPOSED LANGUAGE]:
Art & medicine treat; education & justice discipline.
Art & education elevate; medicine & justice restore.
Art & justice temper; medicine & education empower.

IN THE CURRENT SYSTEMS’ SHADOWS (unintended consequences) [PROPOSED LANGUAGE]:
Art & medicine trick; justice & education degrade.
Art & education indoctrinate; medicine & justice collude.
Art & justice disinform; medicine & education intoxicate.

WHAT WOULD BE THE:
The art of medicine, education, & justice          The audience of medicine, education, & justice
The medicine of art, education, & justice          The patient of art, education, & justice.
The education of art, medicine, & justice          The student of art, medicine, & justice.
The justice of art, education, & medicine          The criminal of art, education, & medicine

WASTE

A system requires inputs (resources) and generates outputs both desired (products) and undesired (waste). A system that maximises desired outputs to the detriment of all else necessarily generates maximum indifference to its waste, if not a maximum of waste itself. In the domain of industrial production and human resource consumption, for example, in the last fifty years we have destroyed 50% of the biodiversity on the planet, dramatically increased the consequences and growing threats of global climate change, and decimated or degraded innumerable ecologies (including our own) all over the world. In the pursuit of product and lifestyle, we have maximized or at least greatly increased pollution.

At times, a euphemism in economic circles for this waste is surplus, an excess. And such surplus sometimes serves as a new input to a new system. In Japan, for instance, they’ve made meat from recycled human faeces.

  • In the system of mass incarceration, for instance, a surplus of human beings generated by the previous systems of slavery, Jim Crow, gentrification, deindustrialization, and globalization gets used as material for warehousing; like nuclear waste, systems profit by simply containing this human surplus.
  • In the system of the culture industry, literal garbage and discarded objects from the previous systems of culture get used as material for new works; like recycling, systems profit from this cultural re-use but critics say it wastes more energy and effort than it saves.
  • In the system of compulsory education, although a mind is a terrible thing to waste, the technically infinite human potential of the next generation of human beings brought about by the previous systems of social reproduction gets lost in the transmission of that education; like the distribution of power in an electrical grid from the source to its consumer, only a fraction of the energy expended on education (as little as 20 per cent) occurs in schools.
  • In the system of corporatized health care delivery, [medical waste, human waste, wasted time]

TIME

With respect to time, education and justice treat it as lavishly abundant, and supply long sentences to be endured by criminals and students alike.[1] Art and medicine, by contrast, especially in their industrialized forms, treat time as a very limited resource—so limited, in fact, that any strict routine, however desired, cannot be articulated or maintained. Thus, the old days of the house call as well as the hyper-social and protracted time of art (in the museum stroll, in a night at the opera, in the extended interaction of a Baroque dance suite) stands in stark contrast. The time of art and medicine once were abundantly lavish as well, so that their reduction seems significant, and the imperative of their restoration, therefore, obvious.

With respect to space, all four systems are highly disciplined. Beginning with the confinement of Dionysus’ riotous rituals to within a building in Athens, the theatre (or museum), the school, the hospital (or the clinic), and the prison have long-since established their own specialised zones. While the scope of each space seems always lavish overall, the interior discipline of the space has since maximised capacity: closely cramped theatre seats, double occupancy prison cells and hospital rooms, tiny clinic rooms, overcrowded schoolrooms.[2] Once again, the original outdoorsiness of these spaces, an especially how they permitted a porousness of interaction with those around a participant, makes all the more obvious the sharp isolation of the theatre seat, the prison cell, the clinic room. We learn this isolation—this detachment from others—in the school room, require the privacy of it in the clinic, demand it from others (as silence) in theatres, and may discern its (neurotic) emphasis on security and safety from the value implied by the cell within prisons. More than money, which merely enables our isolation from others, school indoctrinates us to positively crave that atomisation. In general, though, a greater volume of space seems formally dedicated to prisons and schools than to theatres or hospitals, but this might well be a misperception.[3]

Endnotes

[1] This lavish expanse of time does not mean that time itself is not disciplined. In both schools and prisons, time breaks own into very routinized sequences.

[2] Apropos of overcrowding, the US Supreme Court declared overcrowding in prison fundamentally contrary to human dignity.

[3] There are approximately 5,723 hospitals (9.2 million beds; 36.1 million admissions; $829.6 billion in revenue), 5,928 movie theaters (9.9 million seats; 1,340.0 million admissions; $10.9 billion in revenue), 4,575 prison facilities (*), and 132,183 schools (**; $607 billion in revenue). *When it comes to prison “seats” counting becomes difficult. The total number of inmates = ~2.2 million, but their housing consists of one-man cells (usually with the occupancy illegally doubled, sometimes tripled) or bunk-beds set up in in gyms. So whatever the number of humans, prison administrations have provided at best only half as many “seats” as needed. **Similarly for students, where the number of seats provided does not necessarily meet the approximately 54.8 million students.