Sex on the Inside—And the Outside 

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

By Regina Kunzel

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, 371 pp., $29.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Leila J. Rupp

In 1982, Margot Sims published a delightful satire on sex difference titled On the Necessity of Bestializing the Human Female, in which she reports the shocking discovery that women and men belong to different species—what she calls “true humans” and “beast humans.” She sees no solution to the mismatch between women and men except to turn women into beasts. What I remember most distinctly about her firmly tongue-in-cheek argument is what she says about prison. Considering and rejecting the possibility of segregation as a solution, she writes,

[B]oth men and women adjust readily to prison life. Women . . . talk, read, and do needlework. Men, when they realize there won’t be any women around, rape, beat, and kill one another instead.

This is distinctly not the point of Criminal Intimacy, Regina Kunzel’s amazing history of sexuality in prison, although she takes great pains to attend to the sometimes parallel and sometimes quite different male and female prison cultures.

Kunzel has pored through archives, memoirs, periodicals, government documents, novels, and films, always paying particular attention to the words of the prisoners themselves. That same-sex sexual activity takes place in prison is common knowledge today: prison sex is one of the most obvious examples of what some have called “situational homosexuality.” Kunzel notes that same-sex sex between otherwise heterosexual individuals flies in the face of the late twentieth-century notion that sexual desire and behavior depend on sexual identity. She goes on to rethink the history of modern American sexuality, exploring the shifting meanings attached to prison sex in the context of societal understandings of sexuality outside prison walls—always taking into account gender, class, and race. As she puts it in her quite elegant prose, the “relationship of prison sexual practice to ‘modern’ sexuality emerges as neither marginal nor oppositional but rather as disquieting, sometimes ironically buttressing and always revealing its fissures and fault lines.”

In the earliest US prisons, built in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the idea was to isolate male inmates to force them to reflect on their crimes and their futures and not incidentally, to prevent them from having sex with each other. However, the ideal of perfect isolation gave way, in the face of overcrowding and financial constraints, to systems that allowed greater contact between prisoners. Anxiety over masturbation was replaced by fears about less solitary sex, and both prison officials and reformers pointed to the mixing of old and young, hardened criminals and novices, as the problem. The first report on prison sex, published in 1826, put it this way: “The sin of sodom is the vice of prisoners, and boys are the favorite prostitutes.” Sex in prison was initially understood to be a consequence of “promiscuous mingling” among men of different ages.

For women, not incarcerated in any significant numbers until the early twentieth century, the issue was mingling of races rather than ages. The first report on sex between women in prison, published in 1913, called attention to the tendency of women to form interracial relationships, with masculine black women pairing with feminine white ones. As Estelle Freedman pointed out in her pioneering 1996 article, “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915-1965,” (in Feminist Studies 22), racial difference allowed observers to conclude that the white women were not “really” lesbians; they were just making do with pseudomales. For both women and men, though, even if the sex was seen as situational, it was also understood to be potentially habit-forming. It might not mark an identity, but it could become a preference.

By the early twentieth century, sexologists had succeeded in defining the homosexual as a type of person—as opposed to previous views that homosexuality was a behavior that anyone might manifest under certain circumstances. Thus, homosexuality in prison, which seemed to be acquired, raised troubling questions. The experts first concluded that “true” homosexuals—effeminate men and masculine women—existed side-by-side with “normal” men and women who might be tempted to engage in sex with the perverts. But by the mid-twentieth century, observers increasingly came to define masculine men and feminine women who had same-sex sexual relations as themselves deviant. As Kunzel puts it:

Fears that the sexual perversions long associated with prison life were not just habit-forming but subject-forming challenged notions of sexual identity and fixity at the time of their supposed solidification.

In the 1960s and 1970s, concern about rape in men’s prisons surfaced, and race emerged as the explanation. Black men, incarcerated in disproportionate numbers (largely because they received harsher sentences than whites for drug violations), supposedly raped white prisoners out of racial animosity. The feminist analysis of rape as an act of violence and domination rather than of sex played a part in this interpretation by assuaging fears about sexual instability: if prison sex was an act of domination, there was no reason to worry about purportedly heterosexual men engaging in same-sex sexual acts. Kunzel argues persuasively that the voices trumpeting black male aggression and white male victimization drowned out those talking about the rape of black men and interracial attraction.

A very different story emerged about women’s prisons. Echoing Margot Sims’s spoof, Kunzel notes that

men’s prisons were often depicted as anarchic spaces seething with sexual tension, in which “the sight and smell of naked bodies” and the natural male sex drive combined to make homosexuality inevitable, [while] women’s prisons, as rendered by a range of observers, assumed a distinctly domestic and asexual cast.

As economic and social forces transformed women’s lives and the women’s movement challenged traditional expectations for women, sociologists offered reassurance that the butch-femme pairings and women’s formation of extended families behind prison walls were simply a substitute and holding pattern for heterosexuality. At the same time, lurid popular culture images eroticized women’s prison relationships. According to Kunzel, these divergent representations both trivialized and contained prison lesbianism.

Kunzel’s last chapter, before an epilogue devoted primarily to a consideration of the gender, race, and class dynamics of HIV/AIDS in prison, explores interactions between lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer activists, and prisoners. Early expressions of unity with prisoners gave way to growing tensions and mistrust, as ways of being gay and lesbian on the outside diverged from the gendered man-punk and butch-femme pairings that tended to predominate inside. Kunzel tells the story of psychiatrist Michael Serber’s remarkable program at Atascadero prison in California, which he designed to socialize men convicted of having sex with minors into proper ways to be gay. Gay Student Union members from California Polytechnic University guided inmates through a gay bar scenario; as one inmate reported, “we were taught cruising from eye contact to wrapup, and given the opportunity to practice our dancing skills.”

Throughout Kunzel’s history, tales of brutality coexist with those of intimacy and love. In the earliest account, a Reverend Dwight of the American Bible Society reports in 1826 that older convicts seduce younger ones with gifts and favors, but adds that “Meals and every dainty would be shared together, and they would, in many cases, afterwards, seem to have an undivided existence.” Margaret Otis, reporting on interracial sexual relationships in the early twentieth century, admits that “sometimes the love is very real and seems almost ennobling.” Kunzel cites a collection of letters confiscated from wardens and sent to Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s and 1960s that provides a rare window into emotional expressions between imprisoned men. A man known as “Dorothy” writes to “my sweet man” to say “I am thinking of my sweet darling.” Eddie writes to the inmate he considers his wife, “I love you with all my Heart.” Another man explains that “you fall in love” just as with a woman and “I don’t think you got to be a fruit or anything like that.” Even in the context of the violence in prisons during the 1960s and 1970s, real relationships developed. A white gay prisoner, Terry Dobson, who formed a relationship with a black man, reported that the relationship “really made me feel good,” and that “for once I was happy and I was doing what I wanted to do.”

In the end, Kunzel’s work supports the understanding that the transition from a sexual system that focused on sexual acts to one that focused on identities was uneven, and shows how representations of and anxieties about prison sex played into that story. She succeeds magnificently in tracing the shifting multiple understandings of sex in prison, with all its complex gender, class, and racial dynamics. Given the enormous numbers of people—especially people of color—caught up in the “prison industrial complex” and the exponential growth of the female prison population, this is an important contemporary story. If we thought for a moment that sex in prison was something that happened far away to other people, Kunzel asks us to think again.

Leila J. Rupp is professor of Feminist Studies and associate dean of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is completing a modest little synthetic book, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women.

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