Sex among American Male Prisoners and its Implications for Concepts of Sexual Orientation
Stephen Donaldson February 4, 1993
Since October, 1824, I have visited most of the prisons on two routes, between Massachusetts and Georgia, and a large number of Prisons besides, in the New England States and New York and I have found melancholy testimony to establish one general fact
--that boys are prostituted to the lust of old convicts.
The sin of Sodom is the vice of prisoners, and boys are the favorite prostitutes.
When a boy was sent to Prison, who was of a fair countenance, there many times seemed to be quite a strife between old grey headed villains, to secure his attention. Numerous presents were given for this purpose; and if it could be obtained, no art was left untried, to get the boy into the same room and into the same bed. A strong attachment would immediately seem to follow. Meals and every dainty would be shared together, and they would, in many cases, afterwards, seem to have an undivided existence.
They would suffer the most severe punishment, rather than criminate their mate in anything. Nature and humanity cry aloud for redemption from this dreadful degradation.
-Rev. Louis Dwight, broadside of April 25, 1826
Writers of fantasy going back to Lucian in the 2nd Century have occasionally described societies composed of only one gender, in which all erotic endeavor is necessarily directed towards the same sex. In such an environment, homoeroticism is not only normal but normative. Tonight I am going to describe such a world to you.
It is, however, no fantasy.
The society of prisoners in the United States, which has the world's highest and steadily increasing incarceration rate, could conceivably be described as the world's largest gay ghetto. It is also of interest as a society in which sexual acts and longterm sexual pairing between men who are generally considered to be heterosexual are not only common, but are validated by the norms of prisoner society.
This society is a closed, interconnected and rapidly growing gulag or archipelago of a little over a thousand prisons holding about 800,000 sentenced adults; about 3,500 jails (that is, city and county detention facilities for those too poor to make bail or serving short misdemeanor sentences) holding nearly 450,000 adults at any one time (and experiencing about 9 million admissions a year); and 2,900 juvenile facilities holding over 80,000 juveniles. About 95% of the inhabitants of prisons, 91% of the inhabitants of jails, and 80% of the juveniles are male, all of them confined in sex-segregated housing. These institutions, holding well over 1.2 million males as I speak, continually transfer prisoners back and forth and are thus socially interconnected.
The demography of American prisoners shows marked differences from the general population, and these differences are crucial to any understanding of prisoner sexuality. The median age in the prisons is 28, with nearly three-quarters under the age of 35 and hence in the most sexually active and physically aggressive time of life. Median number of years of school is 10, with about two-thirds not having completed high school. Prisoners are generally members of the underclass and working class. Nationally, non-Hispanic blacks constitute 46% and are the dominant group in most states, non-Hispanic whites are a fractured minority at 38%, and Hispanics are 13%. The demographic data for jails are comparable, but with a significantly lower median age of 25.
Considering the numerical significance of the prisoner population, not only at any one time but in terms of the enormous cumulative number of American males who have experienced the subculture of confinement, it is remarkable that the sexuality of prisoners has barely been examined by academically-affiliated scholars. Remarkable, but understandable: the walls exist as much to keep civilians out as to keep the prisoners in, and academics are generally more interested in studying middle-class people like themselves.
There are also significant additional barriers to research on prisoner sexuality. Outlaws, to begin with, are accustomed to secrecy and resistant to prying. Without exception, all sexual activity on the part of prisoners is prohibited by disciplinary codes in each institution, and these codes, unlike state and federal sodomy laws, are frequently enforced with punitive sanctions, including solitary confinement, loss of "good time," and denial of parole. Thus prisoners have every reason to deny such behavior to outsiders they do not trust, and since outsiders are given direct access to prisoners only when approved by the authorities, they are generally presumed, often correctly, by the prisoners to be hostile. Try to imagine that in the midst of a tax dispute you are called down to an IRS office for an interview by a bureaucrat who asks you if you have ever cheated on your taxes, how often, and when. If you had, would you give an honest answer under such circumstances?
Researchers on their part have often sought to apply their own middle-class concepts and language to same-sex activities rather than take a fresh look at the phenomena. A good example of this is the oft-cited but highly misleading study by Peter Nacci and Thomas Kane of homosexuality in federal prisons.
The federal employee doing interviews asked prisoners:
Have you had a homosexual experience in prison as an adult?
The middle-class researchers think this refers to any same-sex involvement, but the lower-class prisoner thinks he is being asked about passive behavior, since he does not consider penetration of another male to be a homosexual act; he may be fucking his cellmate every night but will truthfully, as far as he is concerned, answer no. And many of the researchers and interviewers have been employees of the authorities whose main purpose appears to be to justify existing policies of blanket sexual prohibition rather than to understand actual behavior.
Determined investigators can, however, overcome these obstacles and do useful research, especially if they are able to enlist partners on the inside who are themselves prisoners. Thus University of California sociologist Wayne Wooden was able to team up with prisoner Jay Parker to produce the only comprehensive survey of sexual behavior in a prison, published in 1982 as Men Behind Bars: Sexual Exploitation in Prison. Comparable studies have yet to be done on jails and juvenile institutions.
Another possibility is to have an academically-trained researcher be a prisoner himself. An investigator can be placed incognito in a prisoner population by a warden and retrieved a short time later. Other writers have been locked up after being charged with an actual crime. In my case, I have experienced pre-trial detention in local jails in four separate jurisdictions without being convicted of a crime, and in addition have served four years as a sentenced prisoner in a total of five federal prisons; my most recent incarceration was for eight months in 1990 for the administrative parole violation of leaving the country. I therefore bring considerable personal experience and observation to this presentation.
In addition, I have been involved with penological questions since 1973 as an activist and peer counselor on prisoner rape issues; since 1988 this has been as president of a small national organization founded in 1979 and now called Stop Prisoner Rape. I am currently working on the third phase of a prisoner rape education project funded by the Aron Diamond Foundation. Although rape is a crucial factor in prison sexuality, and dominates what literature exists on sex in confinement, I will not have time to examine it in detail in this lecture. I will attempt, instead, to provide a phenomenological perspective on patterns of prisoner sexuality and then take up some conceptual questions. [8-9 mins]
Confinement was not always the preferred mode of dealing with crime; until the 19th century execution, banishment, or corporal punishment were more common. Jails were frequently sexually integrated, and prisoners were allowed to have sexual visits from members of the opposite sex. The earliest document on same-sex activities in confinement in America is the broadside from Louis Dwight, reprinted in Katz, which I quoted at the beginning. Dwight's report, allowing for terminological change, could have been written yesterday.
The first American penitentiaries were set up as solitary confinement facilities, but this caused so many prisoners to go insane that the practice had to be abandoned. Reports from the rest of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century indicate that the system of prison sexuality has changed remarkably little over the decades and centuries.
How widespread is sex among prisoners?
For reasons already cited, it is difficult to document the incidence and frequency. Wooden and Parker received 200 responses to a random survey of Vacaville, a low-medium-security California prison (which, it should be noted, was specially designated to receive homosexuals and therefore had a somewhat higher than usual proportion of them). They also emphasized that their study underreported instances of sexual coercion. It must be kept in mind that these figures apply only to incidents affecting the prisoners while in that particular prison (thus omitting, for example, previous rapes in jails which induced their victims to voluntarily pair off for protection once in the prison). Wooden and Parker reported that:
--65% of all prisoners had engaged in sexual activity in that prison;
==19% were currently hooked up or paired off as part of an ongoing sexual couple;
--14% had been sexually assaulted.
Of self-described heterosexuals, 55% reported sexual activity.
The heterosexual activity figures were broken down into:
--38% of whites,
--81% of blacks, and
--55% of Hispanics.
The median age of Wooden-Parker's respondents was 29.
Since observers unanimously agree with Wooden and Parker's statement that prison sex...remains by and large a young man's game, we must assume that participation rates among prisoners under 30 would be much higher than for the total sample. All of this accords with my own experience.
Of the self-described heterosexuals,
--12.8% reported they had experienced penetrative oral sex and
--8.3% penetrative anal sex more than ten times since coming to that prison;
--10% were currently hooked up.
Married heterosexuals who received conjugal visits were more, not less, likely to participate in sex with other prisoners. Nine per cent of the hetersexuals had been raped;
--7.8% of them had been anally and
--5.7% orally penetrated, but white heterosexuals were 2 to 3 times as likely to have been penetrated than black heterosexuals.
All of the self-described bisexuals and homosexuals reported sexual activity in that prison. Of the self-described homosexuals, 63% had been pressured for sex while there (breaking down into 82% of white homosexuals,
--71% of Hispanic homosexuals, and
--49% of black homosexuals), and
--41% had been violently raped while there. 88% were currently hooked up.
The homosexuals indicated that 71% had been charged with sexual activity under the prison disciplinary code, and 35% were involved in prostitution.
An eye-opener for some gay consumers of pornography featuring jailhouse sex may be the report by 77% of the homosexuals that they had better sex on the Street and by 78% that they were looked down upon and treated with disrespect by other inmates.
Other writers on the subject have produced a wide range of estimates as to the percentage of prisoners engaging in sexual activity, but most commonly these estimates run in the 30-45% range; Herbert Thomas represents the maximum estimate at 80-90% after three years in a maximum-security prison.
I should note that a major limiting factor on participation rates everywhere is the unavailability of passive partners, and that most prisoners who do not participate in sexual acts for that reason still participate in the sexual system by making verbal remarks and attempting to induce others into a passive role. This sort of homoerotic flirtation is so widespread as to be the norm for prisoners in their 20s, who form the bulk of the population.
By all accounts sexual activity is more common in juvenile institutions, big-city jails, and maximum-security prisons (where men are serving longer sentences) than in a low-medium-security prison such as the one studied by Wooden and Parker.
The figures cited may be a bit much to digest all at once, which is why I have included them in a handout, but it should be clear that sex among male prisoners is common, that race is a major factor, and that large numbers of heterosexuals are forced into a sexually passive role.
The number of heterosexuals engaged in frequent penetrative sex roughly matches, and in fact is limited by, the number of passive homosexuals and involuntarily passive heterosexuals.
A considerable amount of literature has been written in scholarly style, though without much rigor or objectivity, concerning sexual behavior in prisons; very little, in contrast, has been written about jails or reformatories.
Much of this literature is fraught with controversy, and the views of penologists, often concerned more with institutional control and abstract theorizing on the problem of homosexuality than with actual behavioral patterns, tend to differ both normatively and descriptively from prisoner accounts. Penologists reflect the concerns of their employers, who usually seek to minimize aspects of life in their institutions which would arouse public indignation, and who are usually hostile to all forms of sexual contact among prisoners.
The statements by Nacci and Kane that from a managerial standpoint, the long-standing lover relationship is especially dangerous and that an infusion of morality-defined by them as a sense of immorality and sinfulness regarding homosexuality is required and the conclusion of a penological paper of the late 1980s that greater efforts to deter consensual homosexual activity are needed, are not untypical. Armchair theorizing, remote from the actual behavior which is supposed to be its subject, is endemic to the formal literature.
Accounts written by prisoners or exprisoners have usually taken the form of autobiography or fiction, and these also tend to draw veils over areas which might reflect unfavorably on the writer in presenting himself to the general public, such as rape and homosexuality. Heterosexual former prisoners also tend to remain silent concerning their sexual experiences in confinement when conversing with people who have not shared that environment, former punks being most loathe to disclose anything about their humiliating sexual role. Robert N. Boyd wrote from a gay perspective on the California prison system in Sex Behind Bars (1984). The only systematic account from a punk's perspective can be found in Donald Tucker's, A Punk's Song, in Anthony Scacco's 1982 anthology, Male Rape; I recommend it.
A third-person novel which has dealt candidly with prison sex, based on the author's experience in the California system, is On the Yard (1967) by Malcolm Braly; a play by Canadian exprisoner John Herbert, Fortune and Men's Eyes (1967), made into a movie in 1971, revolves around sexuality in a Canadian reformatory.
There are, I note in passing, numerous gay pornographic books and videos featuring an incarceration setting, but it is obvious that very few of them were written by former prisoners and they are generally wildly inaccurate in depicting sexual reciprocity.
The prisoner subculture fuses sexual and social roles and assigns all prisoners accordingly. Feminist analysis would note this as a patriarchal trait, and I would add that in my experience confinement institutions are the most sexist (as well as racist) environment in the country, bar none. As R. W. Dumond noted last year, prison slang defines sexual habits and inmate status simultaneously. This classification system draws a rigid distinction between active and passive roles. The majority, which in this case is on top in all senses, consists of the so-called men, and they are defined by a successful and continuing refusal to be sexually penetrated.
A single instance of being penetrated, whether voluntary or not, is universally held to constitute an irreversible loss of manhood. The Men rule the roost and establish the values and behavioral norms for the entire prisoner population; convict leaders, gang members, and the organizers of such activities as the smuggling of contraband, protection rackets, and prostitution rings must be and remain Men.
It is important to realize that whether a Man is sexually involved or not, his status is sexually defined.
A Man who is sexually active (in both senses) is called a jocker. (A note here: although the term man is universal in prisoner slang, other terms vary considerably from one region to another and in some cases with time. Since I do not have time tonight to go into linguistic usage, I will pick the most commonly understood prisoner term and use it here to the exclusion of all others. The term jocker was well established at San Quentin in 1925.)
If a jocker is paired off, he is a Daddy. If he engages in sexual coercion, he is a booty bandit. Men almost always identify as heterosexual (in a few cases bisexual) and the overwhelming majority of them act heterosexually before and after confinement.
The following description is a generalization, and it should be kept in mind that exceptions to these patterns do exist, but variances from one institution to another tend to be quantitative, meaning higher or lower levels of coercive pressure, sexual involvement, couple formation, gang influence, and official disapproval rather than taking other paradigms or patterns of sexuality.
The sexual penetration of another male prisoner by a Man is sanctioned by the subculture, is considered a male rather than a homosexual activity, and is considered to validate the penetrator's masculinity. Manhood, however, is a tenuous condition as it is always subject to being lost to another, more powerful or aggressive Man; hence a Man is expected to fight for his manhood. Before the AIDS crisis, Men (especially blacks and Hispanics) under middle age traditionally were expected to be jockers; if they showed no inclination to demonstrate their manhood through sexual conquest their status as men would be questioned, which would make them targets for demotion.
Certain groups, such as Mafiosi and the devoutly religious, could escape such suspicion. Since AIDS awareness has become widespread, Men who are not inclined to be jockers have acquired another excuse.
Below the class of men in every way is the very small class of queens. These are effeminate homosexuals.
In jails, many of them are street transvestites charged with prostitution. They seek and are assigned the role of females and referred to exclusively with feminine pronouns and terms. They have pussies, not "assholes," and wear blouses, not shirts. They are always sexually passive, and in prisons are unlikely to make up more than 1 or 2% of the population.
They are highly desirable as sexual partners because of their willingness to adopt feminine traits, and are highly visible, but the queens remain submissive to the men and in accordance with the prevalent sexism may not hold positions of overt power in the prisoner social structure. They are often scapegoated, involved in prostitution, and are frequently viewed with contempt by the Men and by the staff, assigned to the most undesirable jobs, kept under closest surveillance by guards, and harassed by homophobic keepers and kept alike.
In some institutions, including Rikers Island, queens are segregated from the general population and placed in special units, often called queens' tanks. There they are often denied privileges given to the general population such as attendance at the recreation hall, exercise and fresh air on the yard, library visits, chapel attendance, hot food, etc.
Jails may put them in full-time lockdown, the equivalent of solitary confinement.
At the very bottom of the structure is the class of punks, to which I was assigned. These are prisoners who, to use Wooden and Parker's defintion, have been forced into a sexually submissive role, usually through rape or convincing threat of it.
Most frequent in urban jails and in reformatories but still common in prisons, gang rape (and the common threat of it) is the principle device used to convert Men into punks, and thus rape has an important sociological aspect. The vast majority of punks are heterosexual by preference and history, though some are gays or bisexuals who rejected the queen role but were forced into a passive role anyway. They are for all practical purposes slaves and can be sold, traded, and rented or loaned out at the whim of their Daddy. The most extreme forms of such slavery, which can also apply to queens, are found in the maximumsecurity institutions and some jails.
Punks tend to be among the youngest prisoners, small in size, inexperienced in personal combat, first-timers, are more likely to have been arrested for nonviolent or victimless offenses, to be middle class, and to be white. Given the unrelenting demand on the part of the jockers for sexual catchers and the small number of queens available, the proportion of punks tends to rise with the security level of the institution: the longer the prison term, the more risks will be taken by a booty bandit to convert a Man into a punk.
Big city jails and juvenile institutions are also considered to have relatively high populations of punks. The total population of queens and punks is rarely high enough to meet the demand for sexually passive prisoners, however, and this imbalance of supply and demand is a key to understanding the social dynamics of relentless competition among the men, who in rough joints are in danger of losing their manhood at any time.
Although both groups suffer at the hands of both the Men and the keepers, relations between queens and punks are often tense, as the queens tend to look down on the punks as weak while trying to recruit them into their own ranks, a process which the punks resent, though some may succumb to it over the years. Punks desperately try to hang on to vestiges of their original male identity and thus resist the feminizing process promoted both by the Men and by the queens; upon release they usually revert to heterosexual patterns, though often with the disruptions associated with severe male rape trauma syndrome. Longtime punks undergo an adaptation process which may leave them functionally bisexual after release; some come out or surrender to the feminizing pressure and become queens. An umbrella term encompassing both queens and punks is catcher.
A macho gay male who comes into this system with considerable fighting ability may attempt to pass as a heterosexual jocker, since the only evidence of heterosexuality required is a pin-up on the cell wall. If it becomes known that he is gay, however, he will immediately be consigned to the queen role, and if he resists that may fall into the punk category. There is no niche in the prisoner structure for a sexually reciprocal or masculine-identified gay man such as we see in our androphilic communities. In a rural jail or minimum-security prison he may succeed in fending off such pressures, but in any other confinement environment the entire institution would be against him and he would have to survive repeated combat.
In ongoing sexual relationships, a Man is paired or hooked up with a catcher; no other possibilities, such as a reciprocal gay pair, are tolerated. But This one relationship is not only tolerated but sanctioned by the prisoner subculture, and virtually all catchers are required to pair off for their own protection.
Vulnerable prisoners commonly learn this fact of life in jails or juvenile institutions before they first arrive at prisons and seek to hook up as soon as possible after arrival in order to preempt further gang-rapes.
This fact is vital to interpretations of incidence studies of rape in prisons. These relationships are taken very seriously, as they involve an obligation on the part of the Daddy to defend his partner, at the cost of his life if necessary, and on the part of the catcher to obey his Man. Catchers are required to engage in wifely chores such as doing laundry, making the bunk, keeping the cell clean, and making and serving coffee. Due to the shortage of catchers, only a small minority of jockers succeed in entering into such a relationship, and the competition for available catchers is intense, sometimes violent.
The impetus manifested by the jockers to form pairs is remarkable in light of the many disadvantages in doing so, for the Daddy not only risks having to engage in lethal combat on behalf of someone else and hence suffer for his catcher's blunders, seductiveness, or good looks, but he also greatly increases his vulnerability to administrative discipline by raising his profile and increasing the predictability of his prohibited sexual activities. The fact that so many jockers seek to form pairs rather than find sexual release through rape, prostitution, masturbation, etc. is strong testimony for the thesis that such relationships meet basic human needs which are related to, but not identical to, the sexual one, such as a need for affection or bonding.
Prisoners serving long terms are often looking for a companion to do time with; such jockers tend to rely less on aggression and more on persuasion in their search for someone to settle down with, but they are often not above arranging for a confederate to supply the coercion needed to turn out a punk for this purpose.
Sometimes the Daddy role is actually a collective, so that a catcher may belong to a group of jockers or to a whole gang. Ownership of a catcher tends to give high status to the Daddy and is often a source of revenue since the jocker, who is often without substantial income, can then establish himself in the prostitution business. These relationships are usually but not always exploitive and they often result from aggression on the part of a booty bandit, though the Daddy is often a third party.
The catcher may or may not have consented before the jocker puts a claim on him, though often he is able to choose from among jocker suitors if he acts quickly.
Freelance or unpaired catchers are uncommon, since they are usually unable to protect themselves and are considered to be fair game for any booty bandit. Usually, a rape or two is sufficient to persuade an unattached catcher to pair off as soon as possible. A catcher who manages to break free from an unwanted pairing is called a renegade, and he is usually quickly claimed by another jocker.
Pair relationships are based on an adaptation of the heterosexual model which the prisoners bring with them from the Street; the use of this model also validates the jail relationship while confirming the sense of masculinity of the jocker and undermining that of the catcher. The Men tend to treat their catchers much as they habitually did their female companions, so a wide range of relationships ranging from ruthless exploitation to romantic love are encountered.
Emotional involvement by the Daddy with his catcher is less common than with his women on the Street, but it is far from rare; longterm prisoners may even get married in an imitation ceremony to which the whole cell-block may be invited and which may take place in the chapel.
A little noted emotional significance of the relationship for most Daddies, however, is that it becomes an island of relaxation away from the constant competitive jungle, with its continual dangers and fears of exposing anything which might be considered a weakness, which mark social relations among the Men. Confident in his male role, the Daddy can allow himself to drop the hard mask which he wears outside the relationship and express with his catcher the otherwise suppressed aspects of his humanity, such as caring, tenderness, anxiety, and loneliness. The total dependence of a punk on his Daddy for protection and social interaction induces psychological dependence which also can facilitate emotional involvement. Thus long-term prisons exhibit the remarkable phenomenon of two men, both heterosexual by preference and identity, involved in sexually expressed love affairs with each other.
Incidentally, this aspect of sexuality led Peter Buffum to one of the all-time howlers in the literature, when he suggested that the line officer might serve to reduce prison homosexuality by providing one outlet for inmate affectual needs.
When prisoners love guards, there will be parties for the KKK in Harlem and Pat Robertson will write a column for The Advocate.
That's almost as good as the woman who read about quasi-familial relationships in women's prisons and looked to see if there were similar nonsexual relationships in men's prisons. In an article published in The Prison Journal in 1989 she found them, too, and cited as evidence for father-son relationships equivalent to the "mother-daughter" dyads in the women's prisons the male prisoner slang terms Daddy and sweet kid (a common synonym for punk).
Sexual reciprocation in these relationships is rare, and when it does occur, is kept very secret. Some Daddies will go so far as to masturbate their punks, but even that is uncommon.
Another noteworthy variance from the heterosexual model is that the Daddies tend to be considerably more casual about allowing sexual access to their catchers than they would with regard to their women on the Street. The catchers are frequently loaned to other jockers out of friendship or to repay favors or establish leadership in a clique or gang, and are commonly prostituted. Unlike women, the catchers won't get pregnant by another man. It is very important, however, for a Daddy to retain control over such access to his catcher.
The punks, who retain a desire for an insertive role which they cannot find in sex with jockers, sometimes reciprocate with one another in a mutual exchange of favors, giving each a chance to temporarily play the male role which is otherwise denied them. These situations account for most of the cases in which a survey shows both active and passive behavior by the same person.
The queens ridicule such exchanges as bumping pussy, revealing an incidental disdain for lesbianism.
Only a small minority of the jockers succeed in obtaining possession of a partner; these tend to be the highestranking Men in the prisoner power structure, so possession of a catcher is a status symbol. The remainder make use of prostitution if they have resources, join in gangrapes, borrow catchers from friends who control them, use a catcher belonging to their gang, or do without.
Many of the reasons for such involvement go beyond the necessity of relieving the sex/intimacy drive, though I will add before leaving the subject that those armchair theorists who claim that sexual deprivation is not one of many factors in prisoner rape, as distinguished from rape in the community, are mistaken. One major reason for jockers' involvement is that aggressive sexual activity is considered to validate masculine status and hence tends to protect the Man from attempts to deprive him of that status.
There is considerable peer pressure in many institutions to engage in "masculine" sexual activity because it also validates such activity on the part of other jockers, who remain aware that the American establishment and many staff members consider their behavior homosexual and are therefore defensive about it even if they themselves reject that notion.
Other motivations are not as directly sexual: deprived of power over his own life by the regime of incarceration, a jocker often seeks to stake out a small arena of power by exerting control over another prisoner. The existence of such an island of power helps the jocker retain a sense of his own masculinity, the one remaining social asset which he feels the administration cannot take from him because of his identification of power and control with masculinity. For an adolescent prisoner, this motivation is often even stronger, as he has few other means of acquiring manhood. Furthermore, involvement in prohibited sexual activity is an act of rebellion against the total institution, hence a demonstration that the institution's control over that person is less than complete and that he retains some measure of autonomy. Finally, sexual activity serves to demarcate other power issues: a gang or ethnic group wishing to assert its dominance over another may do so by seizing one of its rival's members and turning him into a punk for their own use.
This is most commonly done by blacks against whites, and forms a symbolic attack on the manhood of all whites, who are said to be unable to keep their bitches; it is thus the source of much of the racial conflict and tension in confinement.
Researchers have yet to examine the effects of the AIDS crisis on prison sexuality.
By my own before-and-after observation of federal prisons, homophobia has risen, especially among whites, the status of queens has fallen, virgin heterosexuals are more highly prized, fewer jockers are hooking up, and much of the sexual behavior has become more covert. Daddies are getting more possessive about their catchers, particularly when it comes to anal sex, and prostitution is down.
One would expect rape to increase under these circumstances. Increasing numbers of institutions are circumventing their bans on condoms, but in all but a few systems they remain contraband and most administrators refuse to allow them on the grounds that this would be condoning homosexuality, something they apparently consider worse than the death of prisoners.
Sexual activity in confinement may take place nearly anywhere; the expectation of privacy which prevails in other circumstances gives way to necessity. Furthermore, it is often to a jocker's advantage to be seen engaging in masculine sexual activity by other prisoners, enhancing his reputation as a Man.
For these reasons, sex is often a group activity with participants taking turns standing lookout for guards or shooing away uninvolved prisoners from the area being used.
While disciplinary codes in American confinement institutions are unanimous in outlawing all sexual activity, the major effect of these codes is to ensure that sex takes place outside the view of the guards; a secondary one is often to discourage protective relationships as an alternative to rape. Furthermore they inhibit catchers from enlisting the aid of administrators in avoiding rape situations, given the fact that such avoidance usually requires pairing off with a protector.
The furtive nature of consensual activities and pairings necessitated by the disciplinary codes also works to dehumanize them and favor the quick mechanical relief as distinguished from an affectionate relationship.
The severe sanctions provided by the informal prisoner code against informers protects even rapists from being reported to the administration by their victims, who fear retaliation from the perpetrators or their allies. Officials usually have a general idea of what is going on, based on reports from informers, but these reports cannot be made openly enough to provide a basis for disciplinary action.
One promising strategy against sexual assault which, so far, has yet to be tried, would be to legalize non-assaultive sexuality and encourage the formation of stable, mutually supportive pairbonds in that context, while reserving the full weight of administrative attention and punishment for instances of coercion. With administrators continuing to regard both rape and consensual sexuality as problems to be equally ignored or, when acknowledged, eliminated, such suggestions have produced only the standard reply that we can't condone homosexuality.
The openness of jailhouse sexuality, in spite of disciplinary codes, is one of its more remarkable features. The institution of hooking up which is the heart of the system, and which specifies that any catcher who is hooked up may be disrespected only at the risk of violent retaliation from his Daddy, is utterly dependent on general awareness of the details of such pairings among the entire prisoner population.
Virtually the first result of a successful claim being laid on a catcher is its announcement to the prisoners at large; sex is the number one topic of conversation, and the news that a new punk has been turned out spreads like wildfire throughout an institution. Often such hooking up announcements are visual, taking the form of a jocker continually eating and walking around the yard or block with a catcher until everyone has seen them together consistently and often enough to conclude that a pair has been formed.
Under such circumstances, guards and administrators with their eyes open can hardly fail to be aware of pairings. Often, in fact, housing moves are made to facilitate keeping the pair together; practical experience has shown that this tends to minimize fights and therefore keeps the general peace, which is the first priority of officials. Thus when a jocker in a double cell acquires a catcher, he persuades his current cellmate to request a move out, the new catcher requests a move in, the catcher's current cellmate is prompted to request that he be moved out, and the administration approves it to keep the peace among all concerned. Other, more homophobic, administrators seek to keep a pair as far apart as possible. A particularly dangerous situation is one in which a catcher is bunked with a jocker other than the one he is hooked up with. For this reason catchers are sometimes celled together.
There is, as may be expected, a wide range of administrative attitudes towards both violent and consensual homosexuality in their institutions. Consensual activities are accepted as inevitable by some, hunted out and seriously punished when discovered by others, while most tend to look the other way so long as the behavior does not become disruptive or too open. There are, unfortunately, all too many reports of administrators indifferent to or even promoting coercive sexuality, even using it to recruit informers.
The uniformed guards, who are more likely to be from the same class as the prisoenrs, often have a different set of attitudes from the civilian staff. Some of them consider all participants in sexual activity to be homosexuals; some display considerable homophobia and engage in private witchhunts, trying to catch someone in the act. Others, especially those with long experience as guards, may encourage a jocker whom they consider disruptive to get hooked up with a catcher on the theory that paired off Men are less likely to cause trouble. Guards are also involved in setting up some rapes and sexual encounters, in exchange for payoffs or for such diverse reasons as to destroy the leadership potential of an articulate prisoner. [41 min]
As long as the sex-segregated prison remains society's answer to crime, the issues of rape and of consensual homosexual behavior behind bars are likely to persist. So, also, will the conclusion that most sexually active heterosexuals, if deprived of access to the opposite sex and not discouraged by their peers from doing so, will eventually turn to another person of the same sex, and may even become emotionally attached to that person.
The implications of that conclusion, supported as it is by a considerable body of experience, for current concepts of sexual orientation and potential, have yet to be explored. For the remainder of my time I hope to stir up a bit of a hornet's nest by exposing the inadequacies of these concepts, and by criticizing academic writers for a serious failure to deal with reality.
The ideas regarding male sexual orientation now fashionable among academics have an interesting intellectual history, which I shall very briefly review. For almost all of European history, starting with the ancient Cretans, popular opinion drew a sharp distinction between active and passive male same-sex behavior. Most of the world, it should be noted, continues to this day to consider this distinction of utmost importance. Penetrating a boy or an effeminate adult was and is considered more or less normal male behavior, and only the penetrated adult male was and is considered odd, abnormal, a bad candidate for marriage and fatherhood, or stigmatized. To this day our common English slang has yet to develop distinctive terms for penetrative same-sex activity or for same-sex penetrators.
In great contrast, the religious tradition, derived from the Zoroastrians of Persia, codified in Leviticus and other Hebrew texts, and passed on to Christianity through Paul, equated both active and passive: "both of them shall die." This religious concept was incorporated into criminal law when Christian prohibitions were secularized in the 16th Century. Thus when the German movement to repeal Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, which applied to both partners, was born in the 19th Century, its founders also needed terminology that applied to both partners. Kertbeny supplied the term: homosexual, which sounded very scientific despite its religious conceptual roots, in 1868 as part of an argument against the Prussian law. This word, and its associated concept of equivalence of roles, was taken up by psychiatrists and intellectuals towards the end of the 19th century and popularized in Germany by press coverage of the Eulenburg scandal in the first decade of the 20th century. It gradually spread to English intellectuals, eventually coming to dominate northern Europe.
The term homosexual remained nearly unknown in America until the 1920s and 30s, when psychoanalysis became influential among American intellectuals, who proceeded to spread the word and its semantic reach among the educated middle-class, receiving an enormous boost from its use by Kinsey, who unfortunately paid no attention to role distinctions.
But as late as the mid-1960s it was still common for middle-class American gays and lesbians to divide people involved in same-sex activities into butches or trade and queens or femmes, and while in the working-class the old role-oriented distinction remained standard. The homophile movement took its cues from the intellectuals, using the term homosexual (and later gay) and blurring role distinctions.
Since the national mass media broke the taboo on discussion of the subject in the wake of Stonewall, these media have featured educated middle-class discussants and writers rather than members of the working class. Since both the leaders of the gay and lesbian movement and their religiously-motivated opponents agreed on the crucial question of labeling male penetrative behavior as homosexual, they have jointly succeeded in imposing their concept of homosexuality on the public discourse of the entire population.
Nevertheless, there remains remarkable resistance to this concept of homosexuality, which is closely associated with mutual androphilia, among those Americans whose ancestry did not derive from north of the Alps, and that population includes most of the lower class and about 85% or more of prisoners. If academics were not so often blinded by their own class prejudices, they would recognize that their primary categorization scheme based on biological sex of partner is not universally held. In fact, and I wish to emphasize this, it has no better claim at scientific standing than a classification scheme based on sexual role; both are arbitrary and have difficulty accounting for those who cross the boundary from time to time, but one has been imposed by elites on a general population which had held to the other for millennia; one is rooted in religion and law and the other in psychology and daily life.
In the past two decades academics have also become obsessed with another arbitrary and culturally based rather than scientific concept: gay identity, which is usually though not explicitly associated with exclusive homosexuality. This has led to academic blindness towards those who, according to Kinsey, constitute the majority of all those who have experienced same-sex activity.
We see it even now in the debate over military policy, which is being framed on both sides as a question of homosexuals in the military although the policy in question actually calls for discharge of anyone who participates in a single sexual act with a member of the same sex, and has in fact frequently been used to discharge heterosexuals.
Because these invisible participants are not politically mobilized, and in fact are even overtly discouraged from joining gay rights efforts because they reject gay and lesbian identity, they are ignored by politicians, activists and academic writers alike. But this no more helps us understand the real world than a disregard of illegal immigrants helps us understand the economy of south Texas. It certainly will not help in understanding sex in confinement, where most same-sex activity takes place among males who strenuously and accurately reject any gay identity.
The application of middle-class concepts of homosexuality to prisoners produces much absurdity and little understanding. It leads writers who ought to know better to designate males who rape males as aggressive homosexuals and to argue that conjugal visiting programs would have no effect on prison rape because these aggressive homosexuals would obviously have no interest in sex with women! It causes Nacci and Kane to ask the wrong question, Kinsey's statistics to be misread, and other writers to engage in fruitless theorizing over the astonishing number of homosexuals in prison. It produces verbal atrocities such as the term homosexual rape for an offense virtually no incarcerated homosexuals commit. It leads even such a supposed authority as Peter Buffum to lament the damage inflicted on young inmates who are, and I quote, the victims of aggressive, sex-driven prison homosexuals and who later even goes on to call these punk victims made homosexuals.
The salient fact that the overwhelming majority of young males in confinement, freed from the fetters of social disapproval, will seek sexual gratification from members of the same sex, strongly implies that the capacity for male homoerotism is nearly universal, its suppression a matter of cultural mores and the availability of women.
If this be so, and there is abundant data from outside confinement to support this conclusion, what are its implications for our understanding of sexual orientations and their causes?
For concepts of gay identity and homosexuals as a minority group?
These questions remain on the table even if we choose to ignore them as too uncomfortable for our currently fashionable ideas.
For the majority of prisoners, penetrative sex with a punk or queen remains a psychologically heterosexual and, in the circumstances of confinement, normal act; the relationships involved are also psychologically heterosexual to them (as well as to most of their partners, willing or not). These prisoners, who are perhaps more focused on the physical and less on the psychological dimensions of sexual activity than members of the middle class, insist that the difference between the experience of entering a female mouth and of entering a male mouth is not significant, that the experiential difference between entering a vagina or female anus and a male anus is not significant.
In all of these cases they are aggressive, thrusting, dominating, stimulating the nerves in their own penis in quite similar fashion, inserting their energy and themselves into another body, and obtaining orgasms for themselves.
A wide gulf, they insist, exists between such behavior and becoming passive, taking someone inside their own body, providing pleasure and orgasm to someone else's penis instead of their own.
If one is to draw a line dividing sexual behavior into two categories, they argue, it is much more logical to separate these two radically different experiences than to draw the distinction based on whether one partner happens to have an unused, uninvolved, and ignored penis or not.
The fact that these arguments are made by prisoners rather than by professors and that they do not advance a political agenda does not make them one whit less valid.
Until academics recognize and address them, one can only conclude that current religiously-based concepts of sexual orientation prevail only because their advocates are afraid to debate them.
Another area where current dualistic concepts based on legal distinctions fail to address actual prisoner sexuality is that of coercion and consent. Writers divide all sexuality into that which is coerced-rape and other forms of sexual assault-and that which is voluntary.
But for the passive prisoner in most acts and relationships, the punk, neither term usually applies. I have coined the term survival-driven as an intermediate category, and suggest its applicability in other contexts, including heterosexual ones, as well. From the typical punk's point of view, none of his passive sexual activities are truly voluntary, since if he had his own way, he would not need to engage in them.
Many continuing and isolated liaisons originate in the aftermath of gang rape, or to counter the ever present threat of gang rape.
Prison officials and researchers label such behavior as consensual, and I, too, would treat it legally the same as consensual activity, but fear on the part of the passive partner is certainly the prime motivation. On the other hand, when a punk hooks up with someone, forming a long-lasting relationship with a protector, often selected by him from among multiple contenders, we are clearly dealing with something other than rape or sexual assault, something which exists only because to the punk it is dramatically different from, and greatly preferable to, rape and sexual assault.
Thus we need a third category.
Wayne Dynes and I developed a typology of same-sex relationships which Dynes presented to you in a handout at the very first meeting of this University Seminar, and which can be found in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality under Typology.
The application of this schema to prisoner sexuality is not obvious, though clearly androphilia is not present. The relationships with queens at least are gender-differentiated, and some of the characteristics of that type are applied to punks as well. But since the punks are generally the youngest prisoners and the jockers somewhat older, there are elements of age-differentiation involved. Unlike pederasty, the punk is not expected to mature out of his passive status and become active as he gets older.
The preferred age group for punks suggests ephebophilia, but other significant traits of that type are reversed. Certainly the question of situational homosexuality arises, since for the jockers and the punks the same-sex activity is a product of a particular situation characterized by the absence of the opposite sex.
Reflecting the preoccupation of academics with questions of identity, however, the situational type has not been examined in any systematic manner and the possible commonalities of prisoner sexuality with that of sailors, students in boarding schools, monks, etc., while in some cases obvious, have not been explored.
The type that fits most generally, however, is that found to prevail in ancient Rome: the dominance-enforcement model where the sexual element expresses and symbolizes a previously imposed power relationship, the desires of the passive partner are irrelevant, the rulers are prohibited from taking a passive role, and sexual penetration of an adult male is viewed as the natural fruit of conquest. Prisoner sexuality also raises the thorny issue of socially assigned gender.
This phenomenon is well known to anthropologists, and can be observed tonight in New York wherever heterosexuals pick up transvestite prostitutes for oral sex, but it raises messy boundary questions for feminists and others and is therefore usually ignored by American academics.
It is a clich?f academic presentations to conclude by urging further research and theoretical exploration. But in few fields is this standard appeal so richly justified as in that of sexuality in confinement.
A million jockers, punks, and queens demand an explanation, and their numbers continue to soar with every year.