Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality

Lynne Segal on a study of sex behind bars that exposes enduring fault-lines in modern thinking

August 21, 2008

Being a product of "situational" aberrations, same-sex activity in prisons is of little interest to historians of sexuality, the psychiatrist and historian Vernon Rosario believes. He is quite wrong, according to feminist historian Regina Kunzel. In her latest book, Criminal Intimacy, Kunzel argues persuasively that the increasingly open secrets of prison life, although usually officially buried, expose the perennial fault-lines of many of our understandings of modern sexuality. As she illustrates, the hallmark of modern discourses of sexuality is the move from sexual acts, seen as decent or indecent, to sexual identities, seen as normal or perverse, generated from within. Sex behind bars, however, has always provided evidence that fails to mirror this account, leaving its occurrence apparently cut off in some anachronistic space all its own.

Cut off it may be, but the mass incarcerations of the past few decades, alongside the historical material on carceral life, convince Kunzel that there is much to learn about the hidden truths of sex by pondering its manifestations behind bars. Her analysis is buttressed by wide-ranging and rigorous exploration of medical, psychiatric, sociological and other prison literature on incarceration in the United States written over the past 200 years. Prisoners' own accounts of life behind bars, as well as cinematic and fictional portrayals of the dramas of imprisonment, enrich her text.

The scientific study of sexuality and the birth of the modern prison system both date from the 19th century. By its close, sexology had incorporated the idea of distinct sexual types, built on the contrast between the normal, reproductive, heterosexual male or female and the abnormal or perverse sexual tendencies of the homosexual or lesbian. As feminists have noted, this normative polarity of the sexes supported naturalised notions of gender hierarchy. A man is what his sex is, Havelock Ellis declared at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time when whatever one's adult sexual proclivity, it was seen by sexologists as innate (with the emerging field of psychoanalysis providing the only competing perspective). Yet the variety and extent of same-sex activity behind bars between self-identifying heterosexuals exposed many of the instabilities of this taxonomical project from its inception.

Kunzel maps the shifting attempts to explain away the mismatch between prison intimacies and modern understandings of sexuality. Throughout much of the 20th century, sex in prison was attributed to the corrupting presence of homosexuals behind bars tempting the sexually frustrated "normal" prisoner. "Homosexuality creates an atmosphere of rottenness and depravity that becomes part of the air all inmates breathe", was a typical mid-20th-century sentiment, at a time of heightened hysteria around homosexuality.

Fearing that prison might not only contain but also incubate such obnoxious practices, prison authorities tried to identify and segregate the "true" homosexual (for instance, by administering psychological tests to detect tell-tale signs of cross-sexed attributes). Quite apart from the stigma and deprivations faced by those segregated as homosexual (especially in men's prisons), this strategy never succeeded in preventing sex in prisons: the supposedly heterosexual prison "wolf" could always be found with a putatively feminised "punk" or "pussyboy" in male prisons.

In women's institutions, same-sex pairings were even more commonplace. Criminologists always liked to stress the affectionate rather than sexual nature of these bonds, thereby both desexualising them and also ignoring the low, though far from non-existent, evidence of sexual coercion between women. In contrast, popular media representations liked to embellish and sensationalise prison lesbianism. Each approach downplayed the threat lesbianism might pose in the world beyond bars, either by trivialising or else by distorting the evidence of the sexual pleasures of incarcerated women. Yet the notes passed between women prisoners often suggested something rather different: "Never before has every nerve tissue in my body been ever so on fire with desire," is one such sentiment, typifying many missives Kunzel cites.

The closing decades of the 20th century brought an altogether bleaker understanding of sex in prisons, especially between men. Corroborating Joanna Bourke's latest book on rape, Kunzel exposes men's prisons as one of the institutions responsible for spawning and sheltering rapists, including the concealment of repeated gang rapes of prisoners by scores of other inmates. Such secrecy was made possible by the victim's silence resulting from the shame attaching to his abuse. Prison authorities have been accused of condoning such cruelties to intimidate prisoners and prevent the growth of inmate loyalties against jailers: "They felt I would be less arrogant once I had been turned into a cock-sucker," one prisoner reports after police transferred him to a particularly violent prison.

Borrowing from feminist analyses of rape as quintessentially about dominance rather than lust, same-sex activity in prisons was removed from the sexual arena. This new emphasis on power also served to explain another topsy-turvy aspect of prison rape, the extent to which it involved, although never actually reduced to, black-on-white rape.

Kunzel notes the escalation of violence in prisons following the tenfold increase in rates of imprisonment in the US since the 1980s, with draconian new sentences for drug-taking massively increasing the incarceration of black men. However, her book does not attempt to tackle the national specificity of her material, or mention that the sexual violence in so many US prisons is not matched in similar institutions elsewhere - for instance, in British jails. Other studies suggest that it is the higher level of violence and toxic racism in the US generally, combined with the cynical attitude of its prison staff, which explains this contrast.

Nevertheless, Criminal Intimacy successfully conveys the continued sidelining of the complexities of sex in prisons. For even in the face of the constant fear of violence in so many American prisons, Kunzel depicts a world in which sexual love between men, or between women, once it is given the attention it deserves, can still threaten to unsettle dominant conceptions of stable sexual identities. It is this that makes Kunzel's book essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about the multifarious exchanges between sexuality and identity, in any context.

Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality

By Regina Kunzel
University of Chicago Press
ISBN 9870226462264
Published 30 August 2008

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