Prison Rape–Power, Identity and Masculinity

The sociological perspective of rape and sexual abuse attempts to shift the causality of rape from the pursuit of the more obvious and more suggestive drive of sexual gratification, to a more complex drive for power and dominance. More specifically this distinction is characterized by defining the differences between male masculine traits and female femininity. In modern day society the male represents the position of power, one of authority, one of dominance in economic, social, political, domestic and sexual institutions. Attached to the male gender and masculine traits is the sense of power and dominance that is perpetuated in masculine behavior and attitudes. Rape is a product of this socialization process that influences the perpetrator’s actions as a means of establishing or reconfirming one’s dominance over a subordinate. The fact that the majority of rapes are committed against women by men supports the theory of rape as an act of masculine violence against femininity. Strictly by wording rape has been socially classified as acts of violent aggression of men onto women. There is however a phenomenon in the study of sexual abuse and rape that is quite often overlooked namely because it occurs with a distortion to the traditional female-victim, male-aggressor model. This phenomenon is the occurrence of male-male rape and sexual coercion in the prison system. Prevalence of male prison assault is quite common and has been a very well known fact of inmate life by both the inmates themselves as well as prison officials. According to three wardens in a study, within days of being committed, just about every slightly build young man is approached and sometimes repeatedly raped by gangs of inmates (Davis 1968). There are numerous stories of incidents by individuals who have been in prison ranging from verbal sexual threats to full on assault by gangs of inmates with the use of brute force and weapons. One particular incident that appeared quite often in the literature was the case of Donald Tucker, a Quaker pacifist who in 1973 was arrested in Washington DC protesting US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. After refusing several times to post his $10 bail as a matter of principle, he was eventually transferred to a tougher cellblock where he was reportedly raped over 60 times in a period of 48 hours by gangs of inmates before receiving medical attention. Rape in institutions is not confined to the United States. Incidents of brutal rape and abuse occur in England, South Africa, Latin America, Turkey, as well as other places in the world leading to the assumption that prison rape is a widespread, cross-cultural occurrence. Perhaps a more striking fact is that it was also found common in the literature that rape and sexual abuse is also very common in places of juvenile corrections, detention homes (Starchild, 1990). According to a study done on assaults committed in a Philadelphia prison during a 26 month period 156 sexual assaults were documented including 97 different victims and 176 different aggressors, readjusted to fit the total inmate population, roughly 1880 assaults could have occurred (Davis, 1968). In New York State D. Lockwood (1978) estimated that 28% of prisoners were targets of sexual aggression at least once. Of course these figures must be taken into consideration for the fact that even more often then in cases of female rape, male rape goes unreported, even in the prison setting. Sexual abuse in prison today is so well known that the threat of it is used as an informal deterrence for at-risk juveniles visiting maximum security prisons as part of “scared straight” programs seen across the country as seen on a recent video documentary on MTV (1999). The popular men’s magazines Esquire and Maxim feature brief commentaries of tips regarding prison rape. Recently a Mr. Michael Blucker filed a lawsuit on August 25, 1997 in the Federal District Court in Chicago, Illinois against prison officials after it was revealed to him that he had contracted HIV from repeated incidents of sexual assault in prison. It is also an accepted fact and the subject of several jokes in the movies and TV about prison rape being a common occurrence and perhaps a given experience for all inmates. Given the widespread and long-term observed act of sexual assault in prison, there is strong evidence to suggest that there is an overlying sociological reason for its occurrence. Given the sexually unnatural and utterly repressive and humiliating environment, the prison inmate resorts to a system of masculine dominance over the weaker inmates surrounding him through extreme physical and sexual aggression as a means of reinstating some form of personal and societal dignity and identity.

Sociologist Ira Reiss (1986) has observed that sexuality is always linked to the power structure of a society. Inside as well as outside of prison, power is defined as the ability to influence others and achieve one’s objectives even if there is opposition from the other party. In the outside society, the role of the male is much more powerful than that of the female, so sexuality becomes linked to gender roles as the dominant male exerts control over the subordinate female. Taken into considerations the roles of masculine identity in males, incarceration is in many ways an act of stripping ones “manhood”. Self-determination, privacy, freedom, independence, employment, are all taken away and withheld from the individual upon entry to a corrections facility. Standard prison protocol for the newly admitted inmate is to break him down, to humiliate and put him into a position of obedience, of subordination, symbolically a feminine role. The prison environment thus becomes a vicious arena of power struggle; an all-male jungle where the Darwinian principles of “survival of the fittest” come into play as a brutal pecking order is established among the inmates namely based on the very masculine traits of physical size and aggression. The motivation for rape and sexual domination among prisoners is not so much for sexual gratification, but rather as a display of the individual’s masculine dominance over another prisoner by making the victim a “woman” through an act of sexual violence.

The “Jocker” and the “Punk”
Sexual abuse takes on two basic forms in prison, one is sexual exploitation and manipulation through coercion, and the other is violent sexual assault through rape. Both of these instances in their simplest form require two parties, the dominant inmate or “Jocker” who is usually the larger, older, masculine appearing, and physically violent and aggressive, and the passive, smaller, inexperienced inmate or “punk” that may possess several feminine qualities in comparison. Through proposition, coercion, and actual violence, usually with the assistance of several other inmates as lookouts and restrainers the Jocker will “take” the punk by assaulting him. These incidents are usually very brutal and graphic, with higher levels of violence to quell any attempts at resistance by the “punk”. Once a punk is “taken” he is stigmatized to the rest of the prison with the more passive, feminine status and is treated basically like a female and therefore is open game for rape by all inmates. Usually what follows is that the Jocker or another inmate will approach the “punk” offering protection from the rest of the prison population in return for steady sexual favors on demand. This relationship is clearly exploiting, as the “punk” who has been forced into a submissive role has to choose whether he is to be a sexual slave to one inmate or be subjected to rape by multiple inmates. Once claimed by the Jocker the “punk” is treated like an object, as a piece of property, quite like how real life women are treated by their male partners in abusive relationships. The Jocker at this point has gained status reputation as a “man” for taking in a “lady” from which he can get sexual gratification and quite commonly capital by prostituting his newly acquired “punk” to other inmates.

In sum, sexual assaults, as opposed to consensual homosexuality, are not primarily caused by sexual deprivation. They are expressions of anger and aggression prompted by the same basic frustrations that exist in the community, and which very probably were significant factors in producing the rapes, robberies, and other violent offenses for which the bulk of the aggressors were convicted. These frustrations can be summarized as an inability to achieve masculine identification and pride through avenues other than sex. When these frustrations are intensified by imprisonment, and superimposed upon hostility between the races and a simplistic view of all sex as an act of aggression and subjugation, then the result is assaults on members of the same sex. (Davis, 1968)

These notions are also reinforced by almost all of the “Jockers” insisting that they remain heterosexual even while committing homosexual rape and homosexual sex with a turned out “punk”. Homosexuals or “queens” are perceived as a feminine, and weak. Thus Homosexuality is also perceived as feminine and therefore weak role in prison, so it is not associated with the Jocker’s domination over a weaker, more feminine heterosexual “punk”. In fact Jockers will prefer to turn out heterosexual inmates rather than homosexual ones. Once “hooked up” with a Jocker, the “punk” is expected to take on more feminine characteristics to appear as a female as that is what he has become. Sexual gratitude serves the purpose of reaffirming the Jocker’s masculinity and control under the shadow of the prison.

Racial Factors
Understanding the role of power played in prison sexual assault, naturally racial issues come into play when rape occurs. As stated earlier, the idea target of prison rape is the middle-class, smaller, inexperienced white inmate. Aggression against smaller, weaker white inmates by African-American inmates can undoubtedly be seen as a gesture of dominance of the traditionally oppressed inmate of color over the symbolic white male. Davis (1968) reported that out of 129 incidents analyzed:

29% involved black offenders and black victims
56% involved black offenders and white victims
15% involved white offenders and white victims

Although the prison sample used in this study contained 81% black inmates, and is probably not a significant example of racial factors involved in prison rape, it cannot be ignored the strong desire and tendency for African-American Jockers to acquire a white “punk”. This is with the full understanding that the punk represents a woman, so therefore a white punk is viewed as a white woman, a symbol of power and control over the white man (Buffum, Male Rape). Sheer numbers of minority inmates influence the raping and dominance patterns, logically the majority represented in the prison population will have the most dominance, although more or less racial lines aren’t crossed too often. Also mentioned in the literature is the occurrence of Asian males being likely targets based on their smaller stature and lower numbers in prison.

Institutional Factors
In understanding the power aspects of prison rape, it is important to look at the environment that houses the “Jocker” and the “punk” as to what factors encourage this brutal dominance struggle. The prison institution is an environment that is designed to strip the inmate of his freedoms, his individuality. Each inmate is given a uniform, number, and cell which is to become his new identity. In reality, the only individuality allowed is that which is taken, usually in the form of violation of the rule. So it is with sexual aggression; the dominant ones invade the actual physical being of their victim and take what they want. The institutional setting itself allows this aggression, for by its very nature and structure it is conducive to attack. (Rape in Prison pg 8) In addition to the personal invasive nature of the prison, the officers and staff members of the institution have a greater agenda on hand rather then to worry about the sexual protection of the inmates. This larger agenda comes as a logical response to dealing with a large dangerous population.

“During the ten years preceding 1976, the inmate power structure at Angola was very, very powerful. And anytime that happens and a high level of homosexual rapes and enslavement is taking place, there has to be a tacit trade off between the inmate power structure and the administration.”–Phelps(Male Rape pg13)

The sort of “trade off” that is mentioned in the above quote includes a sometimes unspoken exchange of homosexual leniency by the guards in favor for a quelling of prisoner dissent rising to a riot. The system itself is set up to maintain order in the prison at any cost, even to sexual exploitation. While it is the accommodation process that determines the kind of sexual behavior that will or will not be tolerated within an institution, it is fueled by the almost natural inclination of the institutional security force to be tolerant of any type of situation that divides the prisoner population into predators and prey, with one group of prisoners oppressing another, a situation which prevents the formation of the kind of unity among prisoners that could tear down the very walls of the institution. A homosexual jungle-like state of affairs is perfect for that purpose. It’s another means of control, security and peace.

Basically, the rape victim in prison is in a hard position with little if any support from the prison guards, in an enclosed area of constant threat of harm and rape from fellow inmates and personal and emotional degradation dealt by the system. It is a situation of helplessness, of anomie where the “punk” comes to the realization that as a prisoner, as a convict, he is an outcast from society, a mere cogwheel to the system of criminal justice, locked up and forgotten. It is not totally inaccurate to attribute a large number of prison suicides to be due to sexual assault. Prisoners must also confront the fact of facing or returning to their families in light of living in their situation. Although extreme, the prison code of masculinity stands true to the “punk” as well as the “Jocker”, as his Jocker’s “woman” the “punk” has adapted a weaker, feminine role, and has lost his manhood. Upon release from prison he will undoubtedly have difficulty resuming the life he once knew. One of the perverse mores of the world of prison is that the victims of sexual violence are rarely regarded as “victims.” One of the key elements of the prisoners belief system is that a “man” cannot be forced to do anything that he does not want to-a “real man” cannot be exploited. Those unable to meet the stringent demands of that standard are regarded as not being “men,” as being weak and unworthy of respect from those who are “men.” Their weakness both invites and justifies exploitation. (Male Rape pg11)

Accuracy and research errors considered, the occurrence of male prison rape represents a disturbing flaw in the criminal justice system as we have it today. With the rape “epidemic” seen by Mary Koss’s study on date-rape (1988) attitudes toward the protection against the rapist-type offender drew national attention. Following the theory that the act of rape is more of an act of control rather then one of sex, then all rape, male and female must be dealt with on all levels. Male rape occurs most commonly and most frequently in unisexual institutions such as fraternities, athletic teams, the military, and most brutally in prisons. Upon release from prisons, rape victims can expect to encounter numerous hardships and crisis as they try to piece together their identity, sense of self, and sexuality back together. The burden of masculine image that society puts onto males that is amplified in prison is very much apparent outside the prison walls, and the former “punk” suffers from numerous psychological problems ranging from rape trauma syndrome, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and anomie. However most frightening is the likely possibility that the former rape victim reenters society with a bitter, negative outlook on life, and perhaps society. The characteristics of the common target for prison rape is the naïve, perhaps misguided 1st time offender who enters the prison system a non-violent offender and leaves quite different. The social stigma attached to those convicted of a crime is for the free members of society residing outside the prison walls is that of apathy. It is a statement in itself, how society chooses to turn the other cheek when it comes to dealing with prisoner’s rights and the well being. Although we live in a country that preaches protection of every citizen against “cruel and unusual punishment”, we are quick to confine the legal deviants of society to an environment that is barbaric and sexually, emotionally, spiritually and physically violating. The institution of the prison under the current system has in fact become a breeding ground for sexual predators and violent criminals. As for a sociological research topic, the occurrence of prison rape serves as a unique example of power struggle and domination among a semi-controlled population of excessively masculine and violently aggressive individuals. The example of prison rape supports the theory of the act of rape being an expression of masculine domination over femininity rather than simply an issue of sexual gratification.

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