Sex in Prison: Myths and Realities

Sex in Prison: Myths and Realities

Editors: Catherine D. Marcum and Tammy L. Castle.
Publisher: Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013. 191p.
Reviewer: Amber L. Morczek | January 2016

Criminal justice researchers, policy makers, and the general public are increasingly aware of the fact that sexual activity occurs throughout the modern American correctional system, and as a consequence of the sensationalism propagated by the media and the implementation of federal legislation aimed at stopping the “epidemic,” prison rape is now widely acknowledged as a serious concern. Unless one has spent time in prison in some capacity, however, the rhetoric that is commonly associated with prison-based sexual activity is predominantly speculative and only superficially appreciated at best by those lacking the appropriate requisite knowledge. Thus, in order to fully appreciate the complexity of such an issue, Sex in Prison: Myths and Realities, should surely be reviewed by scholars and policy makers alike. Unlike many other analyses of prison sexual behavior, the current text, edited by Catherine D. Marcum and Tammy L. Castle, contains a number of scholars lending their expertise to specific topics that fall under the expansive umbrella of prison sexuality. The book logically emphasizes aspects of prison sexuality that are not understood by those unacquainted with prison social nuances, and provides the reader with the ability to assess complex sexual relationships unique to the prison subculture. If Marcum and Castle’s goal was to represent all aspects of prison sexuality in their text, it has been met and even exceeded.

The first section entitled, “Examining Prison Sex Culture” written by one of the editors of the book, Catherine Marcum, gives an overview of prison culture, including sexual activity. The author indicates that despite almost complete control over inmates, correctional authorities cannot prevent the formation of prison subcultures, as inmates learn to cope with an uncompromising environment by adapting, forming their own language, and developing psychosocial hierarchies. Of course, as Marcum points out, despite our best efforts, gathering accurate data on prison subculture can be uniquely arduous. For instance, institutional review boards are often reluctant to green light research on prison based sexual activity, as inmates are considered a “protected population” (p. 9). Moreover, if research is initiated, obtaining honest responses from inmates about the prison subculture may be difficult, as inmates give inaccurate information to bolster their criminal appearance or forgo participation all together for fear of retaliation from correctional authorities and/or fellow inmates. This portion of the book is certainly a strong overview, setting the reader up for what is to come in the rest of the text. In sum, the opening segments of this text arouse the reader’s curiosity by amalgamating many facets of the topic while giving just enough factual data without taking anything away from subsequent chapters.

The next section, written by Kristine Levan, discusses aspects of consensual sexual activity behind bars — a necessary topical inclusion despite correctional policy largely forbidding the practice. The author discusses the gendered aspects of inmate sexual behavior and highlights that inmates are delineated into specific categories based on sexual orientation and behavior prior to and during incarceration, based on their active or passive participation in the hierarchy of prison sexual activity. Although the author skillfully emphasizes the consensual sexual hierarchy, I would be remiss not to point out what seems to be a misrepresentation of what many would consider to be coercive sexual activity as being “pseudo-consensual” (p. 16). “Turning out” an inmate is certainly not a mutually consensual practice, especially considering the characteristically dangerous and restrictive dynamics of a prison environment — an environment riddled with grandiose power differentials. “Begrudgingly” engaging in sexual activity because one needs protection does not suggest truly consenting, even with the word pseudo attached, but rather should be considered a fundamentally coercive situation where an inmate acquiesces due, in large part, to fear. Indeed, in Chapter 4, Barbara Zaitzow labels this type of sexual activity coercive, calling it “survival sex” or sex one engages in, not because he or she wants to, but rather because failing to do so could result in “injury or deprivation” (p.64). Despite this relatively minor criticism, the chapter is otherwise scrupulously researched, comprehensive, and appropriately complex.

Following up the chapter on consensual sex is a chapter noting the historical development of empirical data on sexual victimization behind bars. Authors Tewksbury and Connor organize their chapter into three chronological sections, illustrating how research on prison-based sexual victimization has evolved considerably over time. Early data were not always reliable nor a valid measure; in fact, the first noteworthy piece on male inmate sexual victimization was not available until 1968, although it had been studied since the 1940s. Of course, after the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), studies have increased in frequency and methodological sophistication. These authors conclude their chapter with a thoughtful discussion on the future of prison victimization research, noting the association between sexualized violence and other forms of violence in prison, how preventative measures are critical to combating sexual violence, and how more research on typologies for victims and offenders is warranted.

Barbara Zaitzow follows up earlier discussions on prison-based sexual activity with a chapter dedicated to responses to sexual victimization behind bars. She writes of prison, “[i]t’s a place where dignity, privacy, and control are given up to guards and prison administrators, where isolation and boredom can drive someone insane, and where the simplest of necessities seem like luxuries” (p. 53). She discusses the omnipresent nature of violence, be it the threat thereof or tangible abuse, and how rape is so closely associated with prison life that it is now satirical — a running joke in mainstream media that lacks both taste and comedic substance given its ubiquitous connection to the prison experience. Moreover, the author complements already insightful factual content with specific, albeit varied, case studies that give the reader an intimate window into the primary and secondary trauma associated with prison-based sexual assault. Despite the admittedly disheartening nature of the subject matter, Zaitzow’s chapter is an information-laden and authentic overview of responses to sexual violence in prison, concluding that not even PREA will solve the problem despite its benevolent intentions.

The editors also include a section on conjugal visitation, written by Tammy Castle. She points out that although only five states offer conjugal visitation, there are striking benefits from doing so both during and after incarceration. Conjugal visitation serves as a behavioral management tool, enticing inmates to behave while behind bars, reduces recidivism via a “normalizing effect” and perhaps most topically relevant, reduces the proclivity toward sexual violence in prison by granting deprived inmates intimate heterosexual outlets. In fact, the author points out that the rates of sexual violence are much higher in prisons without conjugal visitation when compared to states with such policies.

Another very useful chapter addresses lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGTB) inmates. The authors, Blackburn, Fowler, and Mullings summarize the unique dynamics surrounding, and the characteristic of inmates falling outside the heteronormative spectrum of sexual behavior, and explain how sexuality is a fluid concept. Perhaps their most important point is how pre-prison sexual characteristics inform prison-based sexuality.

Following discussions of health issues, what is known from cross-cultural studies, and a content analysis of newspaper articles pre and post the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, the editors make a plea for more research, education, legislation, and site-specific policies aimed to address this issue. Their book is both comprehensive and sophisticated, giving the reader deeper insight into the issue of prison rape, which is generally understood superficially at best, or not understood at all at worst.

Amber L. Morczek, PhD Candidate, Washington State University, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology

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