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Dossier : Sexualité et institutions pénales

‘Prison is one place you don’t want your sexuality’

Sexuality, desire and survival among incarcerated behaviorally bisexual Black men in the United States
Sonja Mackenzie, Emma Rubin et Cynthia Gómez


Cet article explore les liens entre race, sexualité et incarcération de masse dans l'État de Californie aux États-Unis. Alors que les histoires abondent sur l'omniprésence de la sexualité en prison, des entretiens menés avec 48 anciens condamnés, des hommes noirs d’orientation bisexuelle, révèlent des expériences variées. Nous développons le concept d’intimités carcérales afin de saisir, au sein d’un cadre interprétatif complexe, comment les prisonniers négocient le pouvoir par le biais des relations intimes en contexte carcéral.

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Notes de l’auteur

This research was supported by funds from the California HIV/AIDS Research Grants Program Office of the University of California, ID08-SFSU-028.

Texte intégral


  • 1 Scholars and activists have begun to use the phrase “mass incarceration” to describe the unpreceden (...)
  • 2 This includes federal and state prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, Indian Coun (...)
  • 3 One in ten Black men in their thirties is currently in prison or jail, and one in three Black men c (...)
  • 4 California's state prison population increased dramatically from 71 per 100,000 in 1976 to a high o (...)
  • 5 Mandatory minimum sentencing refers to policies—including the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 (...)
  • 6 “Three Strikes” refers to a sentencing law enacted in 1994, which mandated that an individual found (...)
  • 7 The “War on Drugs” refers to a set of drug enforcement policies instituted in the 1980s—including h (...)

1Mass incarceration is a racial justice, sexual rights, and health equity issue.1 The United States imprisons more people per capita and the largest number of racial minorities than any other country in the world. In the United States on any given day, a total of 2.4 million people are held captive in correctional and detention facilities (Wagner & Sakala, 2014).2 In 2013, the U.S’s rates of incarceration were 716 per 100,000 - the highest in the world (Walmsley, 2013). One in three young Black men in the United States is currently incarcerated or under the direct control of the criminal justice system (Alexander, 2010).3 Penal institutions in the United States perpetuate the “second class citizenship” of African Americans as a permanent racial underclass deprived of basic civil rights created by slavery in the United States, replacing de jure segregation as a mechanism for creating and maintaining racial hierarchy (Alexander, 2010). In California – the state where this study took place – the number of prisoners increased by 500% between 1984 and 2007 despite declines in crime,4 in part due to state laws of mandatory minimum sentencing,5 “zero tolerance,” and “three strikes”6 enacted as part of the ongoing “War on Drugs.”7

2While scholarship has focused on the class and racial inequities underlying the “epidemic” of mass incarceration in the United States (Dumont et al., 2012), gender and sexuality remain under theorized in the context of carceral institutions. This perhaps reflects broader institutional and cultural silences, captured in the statement that “Prison is an ultra-masculine world where nobody talks about masculinity” (Sabo et al., 2001, 3). However, sexuality and gender reflect key terrain through which men navigate desire and domination in carceral institutions. The goal of this paper is to make sexuality relevant to academic understandings of the lives of men in prison and, conversely, to make articulations by men in prison relevant to theoretical understandings of sexuality. We intentionally foreground the voices of male behaviorally bisexual prisoners, and in particular prisoners of the group most marginalized and disproportionately impacted in the United States – African American men. The paper explores narratives about sexual relationships while incarcerated among forty-eight formerly incarcerated behaviorally bisexual Black men in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is located in the state of California. We ask how experiences of sexuality and gender – in particular, masculinities - are structured alongside racism in and through carceral settings. We contextualize our empirical analyses against the historical, and persistent, forms of racism and punishment faced by Blacks in the United States as we highlight the specific interface between sexuality and penal institutions faced by this group of men.

3Men in this research describe diverse experiences with sexual relationships – including, notably, not engaging in sexual relationships – as they navigate desire, gendered codes, social relationships and survival during their prison and/or jail experiences. From deeply felt first loves to avoidance of sexual activity altogether, men describe highly regulated sexual worlds in the carceral context. In this paper, we first contextualize our empirical analyses with a discussion of Black bi/sexualities, masculinities and the specific context of incarceration for Black men. Then, drawing on theoretical frameworks of Goffman’s “total institution” and Mackenzie’s “structural intimacies” to call attention to the structural production and political economy of sex and gender in penal institutions, we consider men’s narratives of agency, identity, and survival within the sexual systems they navigate while incarcerated. These empirical data contribute to critical interpretations of Goffman’s “total institution” that allow for prisoner agency despite being embedded in the institution. We additionally reflect on the role of gender in the implementation of research on prisons, bringing to light possibilities and constraints on the production of knowledge and methodologies for prison scholarship. Finally, drawing on empirical findings, we suggest carceral intimacies as an integrative framework that captures how power is negotiated by, not merely imposed upon, prisoners through intimate relationships in prison settings.

I - Black Sexualities, Masculinities and Incarceration

  • 8 The spoken and unspoken insistence of heterosexuality has become all the more pronounced in a commu (...)

4 As has been the case throughout history, the political economy of Black sexuality is intimately linked to institutions of racialized punishment and confinement in the United States. One of the ways that U.S. racism has operated has been through the creation and application of “criminalizing archetypes” of sexuality and gender which cast Blacks as hypersexual, “inherently dangerous, violent, mentally unstable, or disposable” (Mogul et al., 2011, 50), and needing to be disciplined (Collins, 2004). Allegations of the rape of white women were used to justify the torture and lynching of countless Black men in the American South, serving to keep Black people in their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy and in particular to punish “ 'non-submissive' free Blacks” (Mogul et al., 2011, 6). Racial profiling is a product of the perceived threat deemed inherent to Black male bodies (Collins, 2004). Historical anxieties about policing of Black sexuality, and male sexuality in particular, are inter-mixed with current-day forms of racism which serve to undermine the community’s “fragile dignity” (Cohen, 2009), creating a scenario in which the necessity of proclaiming heterosexuality – thereby erasing homosexuality - may be seen as an attempt to gain cultural legitimacy and power in a racist society.8

5While these criminalizing archetypes have shifted, their persistence is underscored with growing awareness of the racism embedded in U.S. societal institutions, largely as a result of the #Black Lives Matter movement led by Black queer women in the United States (Jee-Lyn García & Sharif, 2015; Rodriguez et al., 2015). This movement has served, in part, to bring increasing attention to white fear of perceived Black criminality, the over-policing of Black communities and the inappropriate use of force against Black people, their disproportionate incarceration, and the harms experienced by Black prisoners while incarcerated.

  • 9 “MSM” (and the corresponding “WSW” for “women who have sex with women”) is an epidemiological term (...)

6 Sexuality plays a role in arrest and sentencing disparities in the United States, alongside race and class. Black men who have sex with men (MSM) are arrested more frequently than white men who have sex with men, reflecting the prevailing racial disparities in arrest and incarceration in the U.S. (Lim et al., 2011).9 Research has found a lifetime incarceration rate, defined as having spent one or more days in jail or prison, of 60% among a sample of 1553 Black men who have sex with men (Brewer et al., 2014). In another study using the same data set, incarceration incidence over a 12-month period for Black men who have sex with men was estimated at 35%, with just under one quarter (24%) reporting a new incarceration within one year of entering the study (Brewer et al., 2014). Lower educational attainment and household income under $30,000 a year were significantly associated with incarceration incidence in this sample—not surprisingly given the classed dimension of mass incarceration. While the incarceration rates presented in these articles for Black men who have sex with men are high, they are comparable to the lifetime incarceration rates for Black men with less than a high school education - in 1999, 52% of Black men with less than a high school education had been incarcerated by age 34 (Western, Schiraldi, & Zeidenberg, 2003) – underscoring the intersectional forms of oppression related to patterns of mass incarceration in the United States.

7In this regard, and with an important role in documenting the overrepresentation of sexual minorities in prisons in the United States, the site of the prison has served to essentialize understandings of stable, inherent sexual identities. The need for applying sexuality studies analyses that understand sexuality as socially constructed, fluid and materially grounded (Butler, 1993; Cohen, 2009; Mackenzie, 2013; Rich, 1982; Rubin, 1984) to prison studies is underscored in recent prisoner-generated narratives of sex and sexuality, describing a range of intimacies and sexualities in the carceral context (Blackash, 2015; Stevens, 2015). Recent scholarship in sexuality studies has called for “a return to the material world,” with attendant sense of urgency given the “painful world of growing intimate inequalities” (Plummer, 2004, p. 60). Identity politics, or the mobilizing of constituencies around collective identities, have replaced the “politics of redistribution,” with hierarchies of power and race inscribing meaning around who and what are represented by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) communities and identities. However, as E. Patrick Johnson notes, “failure to ground discourse in materiality is to privilege the position of those whose subjectivity and agency, outside the realm of gender and sexuality, have never been subjugated” (Johnson & Henderson, 2005, p. 139). Attending to discourse in the domain of sexualities, as this analysis does through narratives of sexuality and imprisonment, allows for a lens not merely into ways of knowing, being, and acting in and through structural contexts, but also into the ways that discourse itself destabilizes and also produces power (Mackenzie, 2013).

  • 10 Cisgender refers to“individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, th (...)

8More specifically, the topic of bisexuality and bisexuals remains under theorized (Gamson, 2013), and there remain particular silences around Black (Dodge, Jeffries, & Sandfort, 2008; Malebranche et al., 2010; Sandfort & Dodge, 2008) and/or male bisexualities (Steinman, 2011). When bisexuality is a focus of social science, it is primarily considered as an attribute of individuals and not a socially, politically, and structurally meaningful category of analysis. Discourses of individualism and choice around bisexuality, and bisexuality’s marginalization, in effect serve to overlook the important social and structural dimensions of bisexuality (Mackenzie, 2013). In particular, social class, race and gender operate as part of daily lived experiences of bisexual lives that are not always named, yet still lived and loved. Given the deep bi-phobic undercurrents and hetero-normative political and economic organization of United States society, bisexuals have had to forge intentional and ongoing identity claims to be recognized – and yet these narratives serve to further marginalize non-hegemonic bisexualities (i.e. non-white, non-cisgendered sexualities 10).

  • 11 The‘Down Low’ is a term that refers to African American men who identify as heterosexual but have s (...)

9With the “twin epidemics” of HIV and incarceration among Black men in this country (Wohl, 2012), racist tropes of Black male sexuality have drawn on the carceral context to cast bisexual Black men as vectors of HIV and as perpetrators/victims of sexual violence (Sabo, Kupers, & London, 2001). Bisexual Black men have been cast as the cause of HIV’s disproportionate presence among African American communities, yet Black bisexual relationships remain understudied and under-theorized as a social and structural category and experience (Malebranche, 2008; Malebranche et al., 2010). Black male sexuality has been the site of an interrogation project into sexual behaviors (are men having sex with men inside? is HIV being transmitted in these encounters?), thereby reinforcing these narratives, rather than understanding more deeply the sexual relationships experienced by Black men in carceral settings. A particularly stigmatizing narrative that emerged in the United States in the 1990’s – through popular culture and public health institutions alike - to refer to behaviorally bisexual Black men was the term ‘the down low,’ which drew on racist perpetrator-victim tropes of Black male sexuality to produce a discourse that positions “deviant” Black men who have sex with men against “respectable” Black women and the Black community (Robinson 2008).11 The effects of such widely-circulated meanings – many perpetuated on the part of public health institutions themselves – serve as an example of the particular racism surrounding Black sexuality and the ongoing erasure of the structural underpinnings of sex and sexuality.

10Prisons present institutional arenas for the reproduction of hegemonic masculine gender norms. Given the disproportionate representation of Black men among the incarcerated in the United States, the carceral setting is of particular salience to Black men’s sexualities. Considerations of masculinity in prison typically describe a social world suffused with an aggressive, hegemonic masculinity and the machismo of the prison environment (Crewe, 2014). In the prison environment, dominance is achieved and maintained through physical size, strength, and violence, with physically dominant “big men” at the top of the social hierarchy, and at the bottom, young men, gay men, transgender people, and the physically weak (Crewe, 2014; Evans & Wallace, 2008; Sabo et al., 2001). Sabo et al. (2001, 9) describe this “gender order” in U.S. prisons as involving hierarchies of male dominance in which higher-status males dominate those of lower status, whom they define as “snitches, homosexuals, sex offenders, child abusers, bitches and punks (someone who has become the sexual slave for a prisoner by force). Feminized terminology, including 'boy' and 'punk,' are used to characterize males rendered as weak and feminine (Nandi, 2002). Toughness is required to avoid victimization, including and especially rape. Prisoners who have experienced sexual assault are often blamed for their own victimization by guards and prisoners alike for not being strong enough to fight off attack (Evans and Wallace, 2008, 487). Sexual violence has been described as an “integral” – and even expected - feature of imprisonment in the United States (Scacco, 1982), in part due to the coercive nature of confinement, but also due to the hetero-normativity and homophobia embedded within the system (Johnson Jr., 2014). This aggressive masculinity is enacted in an environment where men are subject to constant surveillance and control, and where their dignity is regularly assaulted (Evans & Wallace, 2008; Nandi, 2002).

11 While scholarly work examining contexts of masculinities in prisons is beginning to emerge, very little work to date explores homosocial relationships and desire within prisons. Perhaps even fewer examinations exist of tenderness and intimacy among men in prison when those relationships are sexual. While some prison scholarship points to the presence of cultural codes of homophobia in carceral institutions (Sabo, Kupers, & London, 2001), this work has typically fallen short of considering homophobia as a form of gender regulation or, further, the diverse range of expressions and negotiations of same sex desire in carceral settings. Silences about lived experiences of same sex sexuality have persisted while raced, classed and sexualized narratives of bisexual Black men have become ever more firmly embedded in the cultural imaginary through vilifying narratives of criminalization and HIV transmission attributed to this “bridge" bisexual population (Malebranche, 2008; Malebranche et al., 2010).

12Despite the fact that all sex, including consensual sex, is illegal in all U.S. federal and state prisons, it is understood, even by prison officials, that sex does indeed take place behind prison walls (Wilkinson, 2003). Many prisoners engage in nonconsensual survival sex with guards or other prisoners to gain a modicum of safety or protection, for commissary items, or in an attempt to prevent harassment or disciplinary action (Mogul, Ritchie, & Whitlock, 2011). Sexual violence is deployed by prison staff and other prisoners as a way to enforce gender, sexual, and racial hierarchies, and used by staff as a way to reduce tension, placate or punish certain problematic prisoners, and maintain social control (Sabo et al., 2001). Notwithstanding the presence of sexual violence and coercion among prisoners, and the coercive nature of the institution itself, choosing to develop intimacy and form sexual attachments can be a way to survive, to affirm one’s own desire and each others’ humanity and resist dehumanization, and to cultivate resilience (Mogul et al., 2011). This paper aims to contribute to understandings of sexuality in the carceral context through the relationship narratives of a group of men whose sexuality has historically been vilified through institutions of incarceration and their accompanying tropes.

II - Theory

13In this paper, our primary focus is on men’s articulations of sex and sexuality in light of their navigations of the disciplinary reach of the carceral context. These narrations of sexuality can be understood as a form of structural intimacy, namely stories produced by the meeting of intimate lives and social structural patterns (Mackenzie, 2013). Structural intimacies create a rhetorical space at the nexus of large-scale social forces, local cultural worlds, and their embodiment in the sexual, and, as narrations of intimacies in everyday life, “denote those social institutions, material circumstances, and relationships between state and class that are played out through forms of domination” (Mackenzie, 2013, 7). Attending to the narratives themselves as well as the material realities that they represent, structural intimacies conjoin critical analysis of the material, cultural and discursive production of sexual bodies. Structural intimacies are complex rhetorical spaces in and through which broader political and cultural representations and community- and individual-level narratives are negotiated through the body and the sexual.

14Goffman’s concept of the “total institution” provides a framework for considering narrations of sexuality and the social world specifically in the carceral context (Goffman, 1961). Prisons are one of five forms of total institution identified by Goffman, serving as bureaucracies for the management of people. Notably, prisons are defined by Goffman – as by men in this study - as institutions where the welfare of the inmate, in Goffman’s language, is not of concern. Total institutions structure life through the disciplinary control of prisoners, through practices that both create the prisoner and strip him of his outside identity. The total institution creates deference and powerlessness in accordance with stringent systems of time, space, and the body.

15 While the scope of Goffman’s analysis centers perhaps overmuch on the carceral institution, at the expense of broader analyses of political, cultural and structural contexts, this institutional framework nonetheless allows for close attention to the social world of the prisoner in its midst: “every total institution can be seen as a kind of dead sea in which little islands of vivid, encapturing activity appear” (Goffman, 1961, 69). Goffman discusses the practices through which a prisoner resists the totality of the institution as “secondary adjustments,” or practices “that do not directly challenge staff but allow inmates to obtain forbidden satisfactions or obtain permitted ones by forbidden means” (Goffman, 1961, 54). This work serves to build on critiques of (mis) interpretations of Goffman’s total institution as unilaterally repressive, when in fact the total institution also encompassed “latent agency” and autonomy, in particular through the secondary adjustments that prisoners configure to orientate to this system of power (Scott, 2010). As such, considering gender and sexuality in light of the total institution allows for an analysis of subjective experiences of social and sexual worlds in the carceral context, one that simultaneously recognizes men’s prisons as “a key institutional site for the expression and reproduction of hegemonic masculinity” (Sabol et al., 2001, 5).

16Moving closer to the body itself, this paper draws on intersectionality to analyze gender and sexuality as they are invariably connected to other forms of social identity and marginalization, including race and class. Intersectionality, or the mutually constitutive relations between and among social identities, has been developed as a theoretical and empirical approach to understanding systems of social oppression and their felt experience, first developed through the work of critical race theorist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (Collins, 2004; Malebranche et al., 2010). Intersectionality has informed a renewed academic focus at the nexus of class, race, gender, and sexuality on social (Cohen 1996; Patrick Johnson and Henderson 2005; Collins 2004; McDermott 2011; Plummer 2005) and health inequalities (Bowleg, 2012; Bowleg et al., 2013; Wyatt et al., 2013). In particular, the work of sociologist Patricia Hill Collins and others in the field has been instrumental to building work on Black sexuality at the nexus of multiple forms of power and oppression. This work insists on a lens that considers the ways in which intersecting forms of oppression (including racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism) are informed by and inform meanings about sexuality (Bowleg, 2012; Collins, 2004). By making explicit interlocking nodes of social power underlying sexual behaviors and identities, intersectionality presents a fitting theoretical framework for analyzing raced and gendered understandings of the ‘masculine’ Black bisexual body that much of the health and sociological literature has served to reinforce (Crenshaw, 1991).

17 Feminist and anti-racist scholarship has considered the prison as a “gendered organization” (McCorkel, 2003), and yet gendered analyses of incarceration tend to conflate gender with the demographic category of women, rather than to center gender as an analytic category in itself. Far from a gender-neutral system through which “gendered” bodies move, the carceral setting operates through a highly gendered set of regulations and norms. This paper draws on R. W. Connell’s understanding of masculinities as “simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture” (Connell, 1995, 71). Specifically, we consider that gay, bisexual, and transgender masculinities are subordinate to hegemonic masculinity, the dominant form of masculinity in a particular context – in the U.S., hegemonic masculinity is defined by whiteness, heterosexuality, being cisgendered, male dominance, violence and competition (Sabo et al., 2001, 5). By tending to masculinities as simultaneously a space in gender relations and a set of practices (Connell, 1995), and the felt effects of these practices in bodily experience, this paper considers men’s narratives of the central role of gender in navigations of sex and sexual relationships.

III - Methods

  • 12 All men were cisgendered.

18This paper elaborates on findings from the MASAI Study (Men Acting with Strength and Initiative), a research project that investigated the structural and cultural context of sexuality and HIV through ethnographic methods and in-depth individual interviews among a sample of 59 behaviorally bisexual Black men in California’s San Francisco Bay Area from 2009 – 2011 (Mackenzie & Gomez, 2010).12 One of the specific aims of this study was to illuminate the ways in which Black men who were sexually active with both men and women articulated the connections between the particular structural context of incarceration and their sexual identities and practices. The first and last authors were Co Principal Investigators on the study, funded by a California HIV/AIDS Research Program’s IDEA Award (Innovative, Development and Exploratory Awards), a funding stream designated for the generation of novel theories and approaches, and/or to challenge existing paradigms, in HIV/AIDS research. The project aimed to re-frame the discourse of the so-called “Down Low” by generating ethnographic data to enhance understandings of the structural contexts of Black male bisexuality. The research team additionally consisted of a part-time Project Coordinator, and a field team of three outreach workers and recruitment staff, all of whom were African American and had extensive experience working in community contexts with behaviorally bisexual African American men.

  • 13 The erasure of Black male bisexuality due to the imposition of hetero-normative and white understan (...)

19Participants were self-identified Black or African American males over 18 years old, who reported sexual activity with both a man and a woman in the past twelve months. Because bisexual identity is a normative construct, often racialized to denote white sexualities, that does not reflect any stable underlying state – and indeed can often be used to delimit the rich contextual understandings of sexuality that we hoped to generate - our recruitment was based on eligibility criteria of sexual practice, rather than asking people whether they cohered to a culturally imposed sexual identity label.13 As such, the term “bisexual” was intentionally not used in recruitment materials, to ensure that our sample was not limited to a group of men who mobilized around or aligned themselves explicitly with a term that many Black men do not align themselves with. After initial recruitment efforts in San Francisco yielded several gay-identified men who had sex with men and women, we added an exclusion criterion of self-identification as gay, to ensure that the specific local terrain of sexuality in San Francisco did not generate a primarily gay-identified sample.

20Men were recruited through ethnographic mapping and targeted outreach. The study’s two male-identified African American outreach workers and one African American woman each brought extensive recruitment experience and knowledge of local communities of African American men who have sex with men and women in the Bay Area. Outreach staff conducted ethnographic mapping that involved doing fieldwork, writing up field notes, and physically mapping specific locations where potential participants were perceived to spend time (including parks, specific blocks, dance clubs, sex clubs, bookstores, arcades, fairs) (Munoz-Laboy & Dodge, 2007). We found few venues where this population was “out” and receptive to being approached. However, this approach proved to be effective when used alongside the social networks of the study participants and the professional networks of outreach staff (approximately 20% of our sample were recruited through social networks).

21Participants took part in a one-time open-ended qualitative interview that lasted from 1 – 2 hours and was audio recorded. In-depth interviews were based on five overall domains that had been identified through formative interviews with five key informants representing both community and research expertise working with behaviorally bisexual Black men. The five domains encompassed questions about: sexual identity and practices, HIV/AIDS, HIV risk behaviors, disclosure, and incarceration. Interviewers asked several questions about men’s sexual identity in the interviews, including how men came to an awareness of their sexuality, whether and how they felt that their sexuality had changed over time, and, how they identified their sexuality. Informed consent was obtained from each respondent prior to the interview. Interviews were conducted in private rooms at a downtown San Francisco State University office and a community field site in Oakland by two Black male-identified interviewers. The study received Human Subjects Approval from the Institutional Review Board at San Francisco State University.

22A noteworthy finding was that, out of 59 participants in the research project, fully 48, or 80%, discussed personal histories of incarceration. Further, 15 men (or 31%) of the formerly incarcerated sub-sample were living with HIV. Given that men were not recruited based on having incarceration histories, the fact that 80% of the sample had been incarcerated speaks volumes about the extreme and disproportionate impact of incarceration on this population of sexual minority Black men. The sample of 48 interviews of men with incarceration histories was analyzed for this paper.

23Initial data analyses took place alongside data collection, informed by grounded theory approaches which emphasize this simultaneous process in order to allow the basic social and structural processes inherent in a phenomenon to emerge naturally (Charmaz, 1983; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Transcripts of each interview were open coded by the primary interviewer and a trained qualitative analyst, using ATLAS.ti qualitative data analysis software (ATLAS.ti. Version 5.0., 1999). Open coding is a process through which conceptualizations of data are created - “codes” - based on the data. Open coding generated a list of over 62 primary level codes, with 2,309 data quotations. All data about participants’ experiences of incarceration were coded into one primary level code, which generated the sub-sample of formerly incarcerated participant narratives, totaling 78 data quotations comprising 130 pages of interview narrative. These data were further analyzed by this team of qualitative analysts for themes related to the social and sexual context of incarceration and HIV risk, drawing on initial analyses of masculinity in the carceral context by the first author.

24This paper considers the methodological stance that issues of power and social control are embedded in research on incarceration, as they are in the topic in question. Incarceration is a social and sexual space that strips men and women of rights, humanity, and sexual freedom; and research on incarceration must navigate and engage with these power dynamics as they arise in the research process. The fact that the two interviewers were male-identified seemed to support the trust and confidence of the interview participants, many of whom said that they were discussing their sexual activity with men for the first time. The primary interviewer was younger than most participants, which created a non-threatening dynamic for participants as they discussed their intimate experience and seemed to put them at ease as they discussed sensitive histories. The interviewers recorded field notes and the research team reflected in weekly research meetings with the Principal Investigator on the often-stressful experience of hearing about traumatic histories, and of interviewing men, some of whom shared stories of experiencing and enacting extreme violence during their time while incarcerated and beyond. Study procedures were set up to support not just reflection and mutual support from the research team, but to ensure the physical safety and emotional well-being of study staff. Research on traumatic history and state-sponsored violence, including incarceration, must take an open approach to eliciting data (i.e. not making the assumption that people do not wish to talk about traumatic experiences) while bringing a nuanced understanding and adequate support systems to address the effects of secondary trauma on the researchers themselves.

IV - “Just send me to the pen:” The structural context of incarceration and sexuality

25Most men described having multiple and often shifting senses of their sexual identity.

  • 14 These findings about sexual identity were also found in the overall sample, with no notable differe (...)

26Approximately forty percent (N= 19) of the sub-sample of men in this analysis identified as bisexual.14 Half of these men described an integrated sense of a bisexual identity, in which the term bisexual comprised an identity that they claimed and used in their lives. The other half invoked the term “bisexual” as a descriptor for their behavior, often haltingly because the term did not assume meaning as a social or political identity for them. Well, I guess I’m bisexual because I have sex with men and women was a common statement. One third of this sample of formerly incarcerated men (N=14) said that they did not identify with any particular sexual identity, and some of these men actively resisted the idea that sexuality must be named, describing this impulse as a white construct while instead embracing a sense of the fluidity of sexuality. One quarter (N=12) of the men identified as heterosexual, and most of these men had been or were currently married to a woman. While the term bisexual was invoked primarily as a behavioral category, the three remaining men identified as queer.

  • 15 With the advent of the “War on Drugs,” a first time, non-violent drug possession charge can carry a (...)
  • 16 All names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

27Men discussed ongoing cycles of incarceration related to minor offenses and parole violations, with experiences of incarceration that ranged from one-time, short experiences in jail to several who had lived most of their lives in prison.15 While two of the socioeconomic status indicators were notably low - with two-thirds of the sample living on less than $10,000/year (N=31 or 65% and 80% of the sample currently unemployed (N=38) - it was a relatively educated group of men, with 40% having completed or had some college experience (N=19). This reinforces the challenges to securing paid work in the formal economy among African American men in the San Francisco Bay Area, as it experiences increasing gentrification and outsourcing of its labor. Kevin,16 a middle aged man born raised in San Francisco, vividly captures the constant cycle of incarceration, failed attempts to engage in the formal economy, substance use and abuse, parole violations, racism, and police surveillance in everyday life that underscored so many of the men’s experiences of incarceration:

It’s a[n] in and out thing. In and out, in and out. I was just tellin’ somebody about this the other day I was like “Man you ain’t gotta do shit, these white folks want to fuckin’ mentally have you in mental bondage… You don’t really have to do nothing [to get arrested]... Fuck that. Just send me to the pen.

28Just send me to the pen – the inevitability, the sheer devastation of incarceration and its structural reach into the everyday lives of Black men is powerfully reflected in Kevin’s words. Another man, Khalil, describes the direct impact of federal welfare reform cutbacks on his attempts to work in the formal economy and secure sufficient funds to subsist outside of the drug economy. In 1996, drug addiction and alcoholism were eliminated as qualifying criteria for receipt of federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. However, as Khalil describes, the effects on those struggling to make ends meet often forced people further into the informal economy, echoed by research documenting increased economic hardship faced by those formerly on SSI benefits (Hogan et al., 2008): So basically, that’s when I stopped working completely and that’s when I moved... and the surroundings out there just kinda sucked me in. The sense of inevitability and pervasiveness of men’s engagement in the criminal justice system is further reinforced by men’s almost universal descriptions of knowing people from the streets inside carceral institutions. Men frequently described being locked up with people from the same neighborhoods (and, furthermore, the impact of this on their experiences of sex and sexuality) – underscoring the reach of incarceration in individual lives as well as its overwhelming community level impact on African American communities.

29In light of the pervasive reach of incarceration in their lives, men described sexual activity and sexual relationships with other men while incarcerated in the local context of systems of social hierarchy inside. Men described varied sexual experiences while incarcerated. Just over half of the men who were asked reported sexual activity with men while incarcerated (N=19, or 51%), and just under half reported that they were not sexually active with men while incarcerated (N=18, or 49%). Men’s consensual relationship configurations spanned long-term intimate partnerships with men; “shacking up,” often involving social protection (including protection from sexual violence) in the context of rigid gender norms; transactional sex; and sex for pleasure. These relationships were not necessarily mutually exclusive, and sex with men was often described as meeting many of these ends. Some men described experiences of coercive sex, in particular in relation to violating rigid gender norms. Men who described not having any sex inside attributed this primarily to not being willing to risk their reputation on the street, given the ubiquity in prison of others from their neighborhoods. Factors influencing men’s sexual relationships included: personal sexual identity, physical desires, length of sentence, perceived masculinity (of themselves and others), and community social networks/social status.

  • 17 The data reflects this individual’s usage of the word “inmate,” notable as one of the means through (...)

30Discussions of sexual relationships were inseparable from the overall oppressive system of dehumanization, and from the regulatory workings of masculinity. The institutional context of the prison permeated men’s discussions of their lives – and sexual worlds – inside. When describing life in jail, Bill made a distinction between the “police part,” namely the world of guards and the institution, and the “inmate part,” the social world of prisoners.17 Prisoners must navigate both of these separate but intersecting and mutually constitutive worlds as they make decisions about sexual behavior and relationships inside:

…Well there’s two parts; there’s the police part and the inmate part. But the police part, imagine being with a whole bunch of people that have power over you that have absolutely no qualification for it. That would be the police part. Maybe there’s like 5 out of every 50 police that I would actually want to protect me… And the other thing, the inmate part, imagine being around your worst enemy in jail and having to be around him all the time. That’s just the way I saw it. And all sorts of you know male masculine power play things going on you know.

31Bill imbues his discussion of his time spent incarcerated, in which he chose not to be sexually active with other men, within the workings of masculinity-as-power, within the institution’s systems of regulation and surveillance – the “police part” – as well as the peer social systems – the “inmate part.” This institutional context was echoed by many of the men as they described in more detail their sexual relationships against the context of these elements of the total institution. In discussions of sexual relationships as well as in choosing not to seek out sexual relationships, men often considered their peers both as mechanisms of surveillance and support, as well as the surveillance of the institution itself, enacted through guards and specific prison policies. The distinct rendering of these mechanisms of surveillance – and negotiations therein - through relationships as experienced by prisoners bring to light Goffman’s view to the subjective experiences of the prisoner world in the context of their structural determinants.

32Interviewers asked men whether they thought that guards knew about sex in prison and jail. Men indicated, in almost every circumstance, that they did. They described corrections officers ignoring sex inside, tolerating it, sometimes commenting on or supporting relationships by transferring prisoners or placing gay-identified prisoners in specific units to minimize tension, and, in some cases, having sex with prisoners themselves. The behavior of guards varied significantly from prison to prison, and across prisons and jails, but tacit acknowledgement of sexuality inside existed across institutional spaces. Al recounts guards commenting on his relationship: It’s like one time I was sitting on the bench crying and they [the guards] said, 'A., are you having domestic problems? [Your partner] roaring up on you? W., you beatin’ on your wife?' You know that type a thing. In this perhaps mocking interaction, guards acknowledge not only the presence of sex, but its attendant domesticity. In the U.S., engaging in sexual activity while in prison or jail is illegal, something that some participants have addressed. For instance, Alec noted: If you get caught by the guards it’s a new charge and they send a letter to your house, which might be to your wife or loved one saying that you got caught having sex with a man and these are the charges… It’s a charge like you would get if you get caught fuckin’ in the street. It’s called public lewdness. Despite the tacit acknowledgement of sexual activity in prisons and jails, many participants noted that condoms were not available during the periods of their incarceration.

V - “My first true love:” Love, desire and survival while incarcerated

33About one quarter of the men who had sexual relationships while incarcerated described being in long term relationships with their male partners. These men were more likely to be serving longer sentences, and to be more open about their sex with men on the outside, and therefore willing to take on the risks of being identified as gay. Josiah is a 49 year-old man born and raised in the Bay Area who has been living with HIV since 1984. He has sex with both men and women, and while he identifies as bisexual, seems to prefer sex with men. Since becoming HIV-positive, he has much less sex, and when he does, it is mostly with people with HIV. He has been incarcerated on and off throughout his life, starting at the Youth Authority, and describes prison as “living hell.” The primary relationship that Josiah describes in some depth is an 8-year relationship with his cellmate in and beyond prison. His cellmate was a heterosexual man living with HIV who was married to a woman and had two children, and Josiah’s description captures how difficult it was for him to be partnered with someone who was not able or willing to be open. His partner said that he would leave his wife, but he never did, despite the fact that their relationship continued for a time on the outside. Josiah’s descriptions of this relationship are intertwined with his narrative of his partner’s painful death related to a failed liver surgery when they were back in prison; in many ways, embodying the pain of the relationship through the story of him leaving life:

And he died you know and it was - it was sad. I mean that’s the dude I was in a relationship with for 8 years… But it’s - it was a trip. I mean it was a trip to go through those many years with just one individual but not being married [to him]. I mean I ain’t married to you, we just homeboys, we just kick it you know. [He] was real strong at one time and then all of a sudden deteriorating and then go[ne].

34Several other men discussed long term relationships based on love while incarcerated. Al described how he was pursued by the man who would become his first true love inside: My first true love there was W; this guy named W. He was from [Prison]… I’ve always been the bottom and I’ve always been - I was the one who did the socks, I was the one who did laundry. You know when I came in the yard I guess he could tell. He was at my locker like 20 minutes before I even unpacked. He put his bid in and we were very close. When we left we became good friends. While they continued to have a relationship based on gendered relationship roles that were clearly communicated, and established, as the premises of the relationship, that this was a formative relationship of ‘true love’ for Al was clear from the beginning.

  • 18 Incarcerated people are allowed to receive money to purchase items not issued by the prison or jail (...)

35There were differences in relationship experiences if men had long-term prison sentences versus short-term jail sentences. Men described county jail as much more permissive or hypersexual, and a place where sex for trade was a common way men interacted. In both long and shorter term sexual interactions, considerations of the pragmatics of survival were often at play. Donte described trade and sexual favors: If you needed money on your books, there were some guys who would pay for that sexual favor... The guy would proposition you and say “Hey you want me to suck your dick?” And it’s like “Yeah here.” And he’ll say he’ll get some money in your books or give you some cigarettes or what not.18 So it’s sexual favors. Several men spoke of changes over time in their decisions to have sex within prison environments where fear of violence and of perceived weakness are eventually substituted by a better understanding of prison dynamics and therefore a more direct, non-violent and non-consequential exchange of sex. This is captured in the following statement by Moses as he reflects on his varied experiences of jail and prison: Um well until I went to prison I didn’t have no sex with juvenile boys or nothin’ like that. And I didn’t have sex with nobody in um county [jail]. But when I got to prison… I finally had sex ‘cause I finally got in a cell with a punk and once I got in a cell with a punk, that’s when I started havin’ sex with them inside of a cell.

  • 19 As sex-segregated institutions, prisons and jails in California still frequently incarcerate transg (...)

36Men’s decisions to have sex in a large state prison environment were much more complex than those who had shorter jail sentences since they were influenced by longer term navigations of gang violence, dynamics of protection by others, and were often associated with negotiating gender roles where femininity could be a life-threatening sign of weakness. As was the case for a considerable number of men in our sample (about one quarter of men who had sex inside), Joaquin had sex primarily with transgender women while incarcerated.19 He was first incarcerated in Youth Authority at age 15 and has been in state prison for most of his life since then, and was in a three-year relationship with his transgender partner while partnered with cisgendered women on the outside. Joaquin describes a strong sense of protection and self-assurance in his transgender partner - when nobody had me, she had me - and further discusses his attraction to transgender women as being about: The way they carried their self. The honesty. The loyalty. Yeah. How much love they had to – how much love they had. If you ever gotta know one it didn’t even have to be about sex. It’s just the love. The honesty, being for real, I dug all that… We could talk about anything. Anything. And you can’t do that with other people. Other people were – how can I say this? – in denial, fakin’. They weren’t real to their self, they couldn’t be real with nobody else. Despite his close sexual relationship, Joaquin additionally describes racialized codes of masculinity that he navigates:

R: Light skinned guys all of ‘em ain’t men… So when I went in there I knew a lot ‘a guys from the thing I did on the streets, who I hung around with. A lot ‘a guys knew me so I didn’t have that problem ‘cause I would do what it took to survive.

I: So can you explain that statement you just made about like if you got into prison and if you weren’t a man you were a girl pretty much?

R: Yeah, you would get raped. Within a week. Mostly light skinned guys had that problem.

I: But you knew dudes in the street.

R: Yes, when I was put to the test I passed the test.

I: So what was that test?

R: I killed somebody. And from that day on I never had a problem no more. When people see that you will handle your business they’ll leave you alone.

37The only way Joaquin feels he can survive inside as a light-skinned, effeminate man becomes through the taking of another’s life – an extreme act that nonetheless reveals what is at stake for him. Another participant who primarily had sex with transgender female partners found out that he was HIV-positive when he was 19 in the early 1990’s at a state prison, when it was announced over the loudspeaker to upwards of 2,000 people. Jamir describes having lots of sex inside: Everybody wanted to get at me there, ‘cause I was young and good looking at the time. I was very popular… Plus I had money you know and it just all comes with it you know. “It all just comes with it– this echoes so much of the ongoing interplay of factors of desire, survival, love, and daily livelihoods that lay the groundwork for sex and sexual relationships in the carceral context.

VI - Shacking up: If you can’t be a man, have a man

38Shacking up emerged as a practice of masculinity in which men described engaging in sexual relationships – whether co-habiting or not - with another prisoner in order to experience relational intimacy and protection. These relational structures exist invariably in reference to relationship structures in free society, yet exist as a gendered mechanism of survival in the carceral context. In particular, some men – typically younger and more effeminate - described seeking the social protection, status and security offered by more masculine men in exchange for sex, which they often referred to as “shacking up.” One man living with HIV, Nathaniel, described his relationships with men, all of whom were HIV-positive, over the course of his five times being locked up: I shacked up and stuff. Especially when I came the fifth time, cause like I said I didn’t know nothin’ so people shacked up when they’ve been there for a time. So they took me under their wing and stuff like that… protect[ed] me. 

For Nathaniel, who only sought out relationships with other men living with HIV, and for whom “prison is hell,” sex served to “release some of the tension.” The power – and, indeed, necessity – of this release becomes all the more clear as he describes the de-humanizing processes of being incarcerated: … When you’re in that cell you become an animal. You have to be led out to eat, shower or whatever and become an animal. And I know I’m better than that even though like I said I used to do things that put me there.

39The insistence of masculinity and masculine gender norms as they inform sexual relationships becomes all the more evident in the case of several self-described effeminate men who pointed out that, in the absence of being a man, they were still able to have a man. Here, we can understand the subordinate gendered experiences of bisexual Black men as per Connell’s place in gender relations, rather than as attributes of individuals. In so doing, we can foreground gender as a strategy of survival, one that changes over the course of men’s experiences while incarcerated and their shifting needs for intimacy, survival, and locations of themselves within the rigidity of proscribed gender roles inside. As Al put it: You have all these different classes, all these different structures where you have to fit in to one specific category. He continues:

Even though I was never a darling diva, I was always a gangsta gay boy you know. But you still had to have a man. One time this guy moved in my cell and he wouldn’t have sex with me and I was going to put him out. He said, “Well I took an HIV test and I’m not sure. I could very well be positive.” And you know what for that moment I didn’t care. The ones that I had sex [with], we didn’t have condoms. I was just so worried about having a man, you know having sex, that I thought he was lyin’. And then it turned out that he was HIV positive.

40For this HIV-negative participant, having sex with a man who he knew might be HIV-positive was not a consideration alongside his need to, as he says, “have” a man. However, the social – and sexual – systems are rigid and, in his estimation, non-negotiable. As Al says, you have all these different structures where you have to fit in to one specific category. You try to fit in a category that may not necessarily be yours. You have to be one or the other; you have to stand for one or the other.

41Many of the men described intersectional understandings of sexuality, locating sexual identity necessarily in relation to race/ethnicity. Al echoes what other men articulate about sexuality inside prisons being divided along lines of race/ethnicity as well as sexual identity, elaborating on the varied racial, gendered, and sexual categories that regulate men’s lives inside: Blacks can't talk to whites and whites can't talk to Mexicans and Mexicans, you know all that kind of shit. Then most of the gay population you have your divas and your queens, the ones that tend to make up and make themselves look like women and then you have the guys that are just gay boys and all that kind of stuff. At the same time, “cliquing up” to align with gang members, being protected with a back-up, not being “weak prey” by oneself -- all of these social arrangements are informed by norms of masculinity and if one does not cohere to masculine ideologies, body type, or practices, “having” a man can perform masculinity. Prisoner codes of manhood are informally regulated such that those who violate them can face punishment on the part of other prisoners. Al describes a first year of hazing rituals, forced sex, being robbed, intense relationships with men, and finally the place where he came to fit in – over daily pinochle with the older men, one of whom became his protector. He had to do a year of time at that time, and vividly describes looking over the yard the night before being released on parole, thinking with a sense of accomplishment: I made it. I made it. I did this.

42Shacking up does not come without a price, however, as articulated by Jon, who was in a relationship with his cellmate while doing nine months of time in county jail:

You have to stay on guard all the time and you have to sometime pretend to be somebody who you’re really not just for survival. Because if you’re weak you get preyed upon so you have to you know step up… you have to be supported with a back up. You know, a person that’s by their self is weak prey. They prey you know so things can happen.

43Weak prey by himself, Jon shacks up, describing his time while in jail overall as a “good experience,” due to his ability to perform masculinity, despite – or perhaps because of – his covert sexual relationship with another man.

VII - “That can get you killed”– Avoiding sex and sexual relationships inside

44For some men, having sex was not worth jeopardizing their social power within prison walls or their status on the outside. While most men described a spectrum and often-simultaneous experiences of consensual to coercive sexual relationships, we also heard from just under half of this sample of bisexual men, including Marcus, who described not wanting to or not having sex inside because they were not willing to risk their reputation as heterosexual on the street.

I’ve never got down in prison. I feel for my safety more importantly, that they’d try to harm me and I would lose my social status... I’m gonna call it like it is. In prison I would be considered an outcast. And I don’t want to lose that, that status that I’ve got built up.

45Bisexual men who considered themselves masculine-looking perceived themselves as having the option to appear heterosexual. These men were often the most covert about their sex with men on the outside, and there was a lot at stake for them if they were to be “discovered.” Khalil is a sixty year-old man from Oakland who, from the outset of his discussion of years of relationships with both men and women, is clearly guarded about his sexual relationships with men: I just basically keep it low yeah and just, you know… You really c[a]n’t be yourself even if you want to, you’d get run out of the neighborhood or beat up. He tries to inject a “little masculinity in my walk” to build up perceptions of his heterosexuality on the street and identifies as a top with both men and women, voicing concern that if he were to be penetrated, he would “flip all the way over” (become gay). While fiercely protecting his masculinity on the outside through bodily and sexual practices, Khalil describes intentionally not having sex during periods of incarceration because of upholding his street reputation. I always knew somebody I grew up with was there, but you can’t, you gotta keep your reputation or whatever you got together so you can’t. I wouldn’t want you know word to get out you know. Khalil draws on gendered strategies both inside and outside the carceral context to construct his heterosexual appearance and maintain his safety. In this sense, heterosexuality is a resource accessible to some men who describe various forms of gender performativity to enact acceptable (hetero)sexualities. Considering what is at stake here, Alec put it simply: I don’t fuck in jail. Cause that’s jail politics. That can get you killed.

  • 20 This is another term for the ‘down low.’

46Other men discussed the proximity of social networks in carceral settings to their communities outside as the main reason for not being sexually active with men, and echoed these as dual strategies for survival as men who have sex with men on ‘the low.’20 Carlo describes a situation of desire and closeness with his cell-mate of four years, and just how hard it was to resist a sexual relationship with him: It was really hard to fight it too. It was really, really hard because that person was just so open and so honest and I was there about like four years at that time and you know it was just like a connection bein’ made… I just fought that though. I fought it. However, as challenging as it was for him to resist developing a sexual relationship with this man, he is clear about the reasons why.

I didn’t want that to follow me back to the streets... in jail if you’re considered to be gay or sleepin’ with a guy, whatever, it’s a good chance people will try you. It betters your - it’s always a good chance people will try and whoop on you and steal your stuff but it’s a better chance now because now you don’t have no backup... So in order for me to click up, I - I played the click up role pretty good you know. I done whooped a lot of us ass there so they they know that [I] wasn’t no pushover ‘you ain’t gonna steal nothin’ from me’ so I got my respect.

47Cliquing up entails avoiding sexual contact with men, thereby allowing Carlo to ensure his own survival while doing his time with as few issues as possible. As he puts it, I don’t want no problem; I’m here to go home.

48Many participants talked about abstaining from sexual activity or intimate relationships because of the “prison politics” within the institution, dynamics that were strongly influenced by the presence and social norms of racially defined prison gangs. While some participants reported affiliating with prison gangs for protection, several reported that gangs were intolerant of sexual activity in prison and, for that reason, participants either abstained from sex or hid their sexual activities (whether or not they were gang affiliated). Several participants commented that being discovered having sex in prison could get you killed. In the words of Bill, Like I said you have your so called Joe Organizations, these so-called gangs that represent white, black, Mexican or whatever they all swear that they don’t have sex in their little groups but they actually do. And it’s about not getting caught. Michael discussed a situation where an prisoner was found to have sex with a gay man by members of his gang, and had to be transferred to another institution because his life was endangered: Well, I just felt sorry for this one guy you know he had a life sentence and he you know before this case - he’d been fighting his case for like two years and he started havin’ sex with this guy that was obviously gay you know he was a real feminine guy and the other gang members found out and they told him they was gonna hurt him real bad. So they had to transfer him to another jail.

49Apart from prison politics related to gangs, participants described avoiding sexual activity, denying sexual activity, and demonstrating aggressive masculinity because gaining a reputation for being willing to have sex could lead to pressure for sex, including violence. If faced with threats or coercion, people talked about the importance of fighting back or standing up so as not to be seen as weak and therefore open to further harassment. Sexual coercion was described within a context of both prisoner and institutional violence. Having sex with men was often described as holding assumptions, stigma, and perceptions of “gayness,” with “phobias” that could engender being victim to physical and sexual violence. Avoiding sexual abuse, in particular rape by other prisoners or correctional officers, was another reason why men described their choice to avoid sexual relationships while incarcerated. Bernard describes serving three years at a state prison, and responds to the interviewer’s question as to whether he was having sex on the inside by saying, [I] won’t play that… You become a target that way so no. You can get raped like that, and I wanted to get out, so no. While sexual violence was by far the most frequent discussion of sex while incarcerated, Josiah, who was in relationships with men explicitly discussed being forced to have sex by other prisoners while in prison:

P: I was calling myself straight and at one time they was puttin’ - separatin’ the flamboyant people from the straight people so I didn’t want to be with all these gays and considered people being gay you know. So I took a chance on going with the - around brothers. But see where I fucked up, I started doin’ shit with certain individuals and other individuals got word that I was doin’ it and then you know I had problems then so I had to get up out of there.

I: What problems did you have?

P: Problems meaning wanted me to do things for them that you know I was doin’ for others that I wasn’t doin ‘ for them so --

I: Sexual acts?

P: Yeah. Oral. With a line. They lined up one at a time… I said, “Come on now man. So it’s like “No I can’t do this.” So I went up to the gate and told them to put me upstairs.

50The fear and accounts of sexual coercion or rape were discussed by men as matters of fact within incarcerated settings, and not described as acts of crime that could be brought to the attention of authorities. It is unclear if this desensitization of sexual violence reflects a numbness if they themselves have been victims in the past, or an acceptance of sexual violence as a reality of men’s lives behind prison walls - a reality either to be avoided or to engage in as a social status “right of passage.” It is likely that men would not consider that prison authorities would act as a resource for them in instances of sexual violence by either protecting them against acts of violence or by enacting “justice” for committed acts. More feminine-looking or “pretty” men, regardless of sexual identity, sometimes chose to prove their heterosexuality through sexual coercion or violence to establish their power position and avoid being labeled as gay or vulnerable to rape. Kaleb, who served many years at a state prison, said: If you have sexual experiences in jail and it gets out it’s all bad. You’ll have the roughest time in your life. If they find out that you do that they’ll try to rape you. If they find out - if they find out your sexual orientation is you go both ways you can really get caught up… Especially in prison you want to keep your manhood. ‘Hell no I don’t get down’ - even if you do get down you don’t get down, not in there (snickers). Pointing to the role of what kind of sentence a person may have in the calculus of safety and sexuality, Kaleb continues to describe the “cats” inside with long sentences, for whom having sex inside is much less of a risk: Some of them are doin’ 30 years, phhsst if they want to have sex, hell, they figure what they gonna do to them, give them an extra year if that?

51Kaleb, with his years of time in prison, renders with brutal eloquence the all-encompassing world of carceral institutions, and the power of their reach into sexuality. As he says: [State Prison] is its own city. It’s a city. If you mail somethin’ to [State Prison] you mail it to [State Prison] City. So the prison has their own laws, their own rules and regulations and once you get behind that wall then anything goes and it won’t get out unless they want it to. You know a person could be killed in prison - that’s the only places where a murder can be committed and it can be swept under the rug real easy.

VIII - Discussion

52This paper presents new insights into the sexual relationships of incarcerated behaviorally bisexual Black men in the United States, emphasizing the importance of sexuality as a resource in – as well as a potential threat to – the lives of men in prison. The spectrum of sexual identities used to describe their sexuality among this sample of behaviorally bisexual Black men indicates the complex contours of self-identified sexuality, the ways in which intimacies are experienced as fluid, and the resonance of social constructionist frameworks that foreground the structural and cultural contexts of sexuality for people’s own understandings of sexual identity. Further, this paper underscores the importance of articulations of men in prison for enhancing understandings of sexuality in the carceral context and beyond. While often vilifying, racialized stories abound about the ubiquity of prisoner sex and the harms therein to prisoners and innocent women beyond prisons’ walls, these interviews with formerly incarcerated bisexual Black men provide insight into just how varied men’s experiences of sex and sexuality are within carceral institutions.

53These findings echo the auto-ethnographic research about intimacy between men conducted by Robert Blackash in a UK prison, in which he emphasizes that male prisoners engaged in “multiple discursive strategies around intimacies… across a complex spectrum including hetero-flexibility, prison-gay and deep friendships.” (Blackash, 2015, 56). As with the intimacies described by men in this study, the intimacies described by Blackash took on multiple forms, and sometimes – but not always - included sexual intimacy in addition to companionship, kinship and caregiving relationships (Blackash, 2015). The fluidity of relational forms is also reflected in the fluidity of sexual identities described by men in this study, as described earlier in the findings section. As Blackash similarly notes in his UK prison setting: “the prison setting, rather than reinforcing stereotypical public definitions of sexual orientations, seemed to allow for more fluid performances based first on genuine friendship, care, and expressions of affection” (Blackash, 2015, 62).

54For the men in this study, sexuality and gender become sites of reinvention, resistance, as well as embodied evidence of day to day navigation of life in carceral settings. While men repeatedly described the other-worldliness of incarceration and its all-encompassing institutional reach into every dimension of physical, psychological and social lived experience, echoing Goffman’s consideration of the structuring determinants of carceral realities, men’s narratives also present a challenge to a unidimensional interpretation of Goffman’s total institution. Far more than mere physical structures, carceral institutions are fully validated institutional systems, worlds within worlds, and, as Kaleb articulates above, entire cities unto themselves – certainly experienced as total institutions, and at the same time presenting opportunities for discursive and embodied acts of resistance. This reflects the “latent agency” in Goffman’s total institution that Scott and others have found to be overlooked in scholarly considerations of the total institution. Given the extent of Goffman’s discussions of institutional elements involving authority, anonymity, scheduling and resocialization, interpretations of his framework have overlooked the fact that the total institution was a “precariously constructed social reality that was constantly re-accomplished and upheld by its members, but vulnerable to challenge” (Scott, 2010, 215). In these interviews, we hear the presence of fully-functioning internal social systems in which sexualities become embedded and, further, harnessed as spaces for survival, pleasure, resistance, power and pain unto themselves. These are the spaces in which prisoners engage in “secondary adjustments” of sexuality – namely, those practices that allow prisoners to engaged in a forbidden activity in the total institution (Goffman, 1961). As Scott notes, “Authorship of the reinvented self is not the unique privilege of the subject, nor simply directed by the experts to whom they turn, but rather emerges from the interaction between the two” (Scott, 2010, 213). Polarizing borders of institution-self, power-powerlessness, heterosexual-gay become questioned as we consider the dynamic interaction between institution and individual held within these narratives of sexuality in prison.

55The detailed descriptions of everyday life and the varied terrain of sexuality reveal more than mere disconnect with the outside world. Indeed, systems of power, survival and desire in the carceral context were ultimately understood to be quite connected to relationships and social institutions beyond the carceral in various ways. The presence of so many people from men’s neighborhoods and lives outside not only underscores the overwhelming burden of incarceration on Black men, but more specifically often became one of the salient factors in how men decided to engage in, or avoid, sexual relationships with men. The gendered configurations of relationship structures as they avoided, shacked up, or held long term relationships with other men while incarcerated were firmly embedded in the local institutional setting, yet inevitably referenced, and often seeked to replicate, hetero-normative relationship structures from home communities.

56In their descriptions of bisexual masculinities, men narrated the central role of gender in their navigations of sex and sexual relationships. Men in these interviews described gendered codes, practices, and regulatory strategies that they negotiated through sexual practices amidst complex sexual and social hierarchies in carceral settings. Men’s ability to “be a man” or to “have a man” was intimately linked to their sexuality, sexual relationships, and often survival. Regardless of their relationship configurations, men’s descriptions of sex and sexuality inside reflect the complex ways in which who one is far more than what one does. The sense of who one is becomes navigated through sexual relationships as well as deeply embedded in the institutional structure that surrounds men throughout their time inside. Men described gender as a resource they harnessed in order to perform, replicate, or otherwise demonstrate acceptable forms of (hetero)sexuality. Alec echoed the performativity voiced by so many involved in navigating social and sexual systems inside: You have to pretend to be somebody who you’re really not just for survival. However, much of this is navigated in and through spaces of silence – of not being, not doing, or, as so many articulated, of the performativity of what is and what cannot be. For Kaleb, the all-pervasiveness, the reach of this world is so powerful that, as he concludes, prison is one place you don’t want your sexuality. This statement – “a place you don’t want your sexuality” – speaks to the reach of carceral walls, the silences and silencing of sexuality, the maintenance of intersectional forms of oppression through the total institution, at the same time as it opens up the possibilities for subversive forms of sexuality. These sexualities are those that are there, despite all this; that persist and exist as a reflection of the mere existence, the power held within those bodies still alive inside.

57In light of the spectrum of intimacies men discussed in this project, we propose the framework of carceral intimacies to capture how power is negotiated by, not merely imposed upon, prisoners through intimate relationships in prison settings. Drawing on the framework of structural intimacies, or sexual stories produced by the meeting of interpersonal lives and social structural patterns, carceral intimacies draw on men’s relationship narratives in which they “embed[ded] sexual selves in structural worlds, opening up new discursive possibilities for understanding sexual worlds” (Mackenzie, 2013, 18).

58As structural intimacies in the context of the total institution, carceral intimacies acknowledge the specificity of the penal institution and its profound impact on sexuality and relationship experiences, while foregrounding the structural and cultural factors – as well as individual agency – at play in many of these relationship experiences. We acknowledge the importance of a theoretical stance that considers the power still held by prisoners, even as they are stripped of certain forms of power by the total institution. While the prison itself is a non-consensual institutional environment, and must be fully acknowledged as the total institution that it is, we build upon nuanced understandings of the total institution that not only identify, but actively recognize, the agency of prisoners despite this punitive institutional reach. These empirical findings reflect the ways in which prisoners – far from mere victims of the institution - negotiate power through sexuality and intimate relationships. Men’s narratives at once describe the totalizing world of the penal institution, but it is one that they are able – for the most part - to not only navigate, but to survive, drawing on gendered enactments, sexual relationship configurations, and personal and community resources therein. Whether in silence or as a resource, men describe complex and diverse sexual relationship configurations that call into question dominant cultural narratives of victimization and vilification, but that suggest that there are indeed affective, long-lasting and/or meaningful relationship experiences that many men have while incarcerated.

59While the empirical evidence presented in this paper does indeed speak to love, tenderness and companionship, many of the stories considered here also speak considerably to practices of coercion – and to complex blends of these categories along a spectrum of coercion and consent. These narratives describe the ways in which men sometimes victimize each other, acting within the logic of structures of power existing both within and outside of prison walls. The need to investigate the structural contexts and complexities of non-consensual sex in prison is clear and future work could draw on this framework to consider the relationship between institutional structures and sexualities. We hope that one of the contributions of carceral intimacies can be to trouble notions of intimacy as always and completely positive and consensual in prisons, jails, and beyond, through considering the operations of structural power in and through sexualities.

60Carceral intimacies – as narrative articulations of intimate worlds in the carceral context - demand not just feeling as they call forward an audience for their hearing, but reflect a call for justice in the discursive, political and felt domains: “Speaking daily forms of structural vulnerability, these narratives hold within them critical relationships to hegemonic narrative representations of sexual communities” (Mackenzie, 2013, 115). As such, carceral intimacies speak of and are claims for justice, both in their content and in their circulation. Carceral intimacies demand that we – as scholars, as social change activists, as engaged citizens – listen to the narratives of the incarcerated as we configure research and practice on sexualities and penal institutions.

61This paper has drawn on men’s narratives of intimate relationships while incarcerated, and presents carceral intimacies as an integrative framework that captures how power is negotiated by, not merely imposed upon, prisoners through intimate relationships in prison settings. Understanding the gendered dimensions of incarceration is critical if we are to resist dominant vilifying discourses of bisexual Black men that further embed racism and sexism in our understandings of incarceration. We must advance empirically-driven understandings of the structural determinants of sexuality in carceral institutions, and deepen our understandings of the complexities of gender and sexuality in carceral settings and beyond. Spanning prison studies, sexuality studies, sociology and public health, carceral intimacies presents a cross-disciplinary framework whose contribution, in part, is a call for the necessity of interdisciplinary and intersectional work for providing insights into the complexities of sexualities in carceral settings. Carceral intimacies provides a framework for integrating structural analyses of sexualities within understandings of the total institution in support of movements for sexual and racial justice in carceral settings and beyond.

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1 Scholars and activists have begun to use the phrase “mass incarceration” to describe the unprecedented scale of incarceration in the United States. The phrase has gained popular currency with the publication of Michelle Alexander's seminal work: The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (Alexander, 2010).

2 This includes federal and state prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, Indian Country jails, military prisons, immigration detention facilities, and civil commitment centers.

3 One in ten Black men in their thirties is currently in prison or jail, and one in three Black men can expect to be incarcerated sometime in their life (The Sentencing Project, 2015). For Black men, the incarceration rate is 2,805 per 100,000 (Carson, 2014).

4 California's state prison population increased dramatically from 71 per 100,000 in 1976 to a high of 478 per 100,000 in 1997--and then fell slightly to 396 per 100,000 in 2010 (California Sentencing Institute, 2012).

5 Mandatory minimum sentencing refers to policies—including the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988—which set unprecedentedly severe minimum penalties for drug offences, including simple possession without intent to sell (Alexander, 2010. For a first-time offense in federal court, a typical mandatory sentence is 5-10 years (Alexander, 2010). These acts also established a dramatic sentencing disparity between crack (preferred by Black drug users) and powder cocaine (preferred by white drug users), which has exacerbated racial inequality in incarceration (Alexander, 2010).

6 “Three Strikes” refers to a sentencing law enacted in 1994, which mandated that an individual found guilty of a felony after having been convicted of a prior felony be sentenced to twice the usual prison term. If an individual is convicted of a third felony, the law mandated that they receive a state prison sentence of 25 years to life. In 2012, voters approved a ballot measure, Proposition 36, which tempered “three strikes” by stipulating that the “third strike” felony be serious or violent, and created a pathway for individuals serving a “third strike” sentence to petition the court for a sentence reduction (“California’s Three Strikes Sentencing Law,” 2015).

7 The “War on Drugs” refers to a set of drug enforcement policies instituted in the 1980s—including harsher sentencing requirements for drug crimes and federal enticements for increased drug enforcement, including cash incentives for drug arrests, police training in military-style techniques, and supplying police departments across the country with an arsenal of military equipment (Alexander, 2010). By incentivizing drug arrests, loosening restrictions on searches, and creating a culture that encouraged police to constantly stop and search people of color while going about their daily business, the federal government brought millions of people under the scrutiny of law enforcement, and into the criminal justice system (Alexander, 2010). A political reaction against the civil right’s movement’s gains in the 1960s and 1970s, racially coded “War on Drugs” rhetoric has succeeded in appealing to white, working class voters, preserving and expanding the Republican party's base (Alexander, 2010; Mogul et al., 2011).

8 The spoken and unspoken insistence of heterosexuality has become all the more pronounced in a community in which sexuality has been the grounds, indeed the justification, for racism in its most egregious forms throughout history. For an extensive discussion of Black sexuality and the “new racism,” see Patricia Hill Collins’ various works, including Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy and Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (Collins, 2000, 2004).

9 “MSM” (and the corresponding “WSW” for “women who have sex with women”) is an epidemiological term which originated in the HIV prevention field and became commonly used in the 1990s. The term describes people based on their sexual behavior rather than their sexual identities, underscoring that behavior rather than identity places people at risk for sexual transmitted infections (Young & Meyer, 2005).Those described as MSM may not identify as gay, bisexual or queer. MSM is used here in conjunction with its use in the cited research.

10 Cisgender refers to“individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity" (Schilt & Westbrook, 2009).

11 The‘Down Low’ is a term that refers to African American men who identify as heterosexual but have sex with men without disclosing to their female sexual partners (Malebranche, 2008). Note that the usage of the term the ‘down low’ reflects a series of complicated societal relationships interpreted and enacted by various invested parties, including public health authorities, the media, popular culture, researchers, Black men and women, whites, and other racial/ethnic groups with whom this phenomenon is now associated (Mackenzie, 2013). Political theorist Cathy Cohen has argued that the down low represents a form of “indigenous moral panic” through which Blacks themselves come to produce and police the “deviant” and “out of control” sexuality of a subgroup within their communities (C. Cohen 2009). Cohen finds that what is at stake here is the “maintenance of Black communities’ moral worth and legitimacy” in a racist society through the regulation of sexual bodies.

12 All men were cisgendered.

13 The erasure of Black male bisexuality due to the imposition of hetero-normative and white understandings of sexuality has exacted a significant cost, not the least of which is the sexual silencing we did not wish to re-inscribe through delimiting sexual constructs. As discussed below, that bisexuality was the preferred sexual identity that approximately 40% of this sample used to best describe their sexuality, indicating its status as a linguistic term and its meaning for some people as a self-assigned construct.

14 These findings about sexual identity were also found in the overall sample, with no notable differences in how the overall sample of behaviorally bisexual men and the formerly incarcerated sample identified their sexuality.

15 With the advent of the “War on Drugs,” a first time, non-violent drug possession charge can carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 5-10 years. It is not unusual for defendants facing sentences of ten years to life imprisonment to plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence, even if they are innocent and the prosecutor has no real evidence of their guilt, and it is estimated that 2-5% of those in prison are innocent of any crime (Alexander, 2010). After release from prison, formerly incarcerated people often spend years on parole or probation—under which they are subject to a state monitoring and surveillance and additional restrictions on their behavior and association. Those on parole or probation are more likely to be searched and arrested, and, if found guilty of violating the terms of their parole or probation, are sent back to prison. Participants described spending decades in prison because of parole violations, long after serving their original sentence.

16 All names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

17 The data reflects this individual’s usage of the word “inmate,” notable as one of the means through which the hegemony of the institution becomes expressed. For critical, reflective analyses of the term “inmate, see the poetry of Little Rock Reed, No Neutral Ground, powerfully expressed as he states:“Inmate/ Nasty word, that/ Denoting diseased/ psychopath receiving treatment/… This is a prison/ We are prisoners/ We are oppressed/ dehumanized/ repressed out of existence/… There is no neutral ground”(Little Rock Reed, 1993). For a broader analysis of the role of language and power in relation to prisons, see Charles Huckelbury’s article, “Talking Points: How Language Serves as a Status Determinant in Prison”(Huckelbury, 2009).

18 Incarcerated people are allowed to receive money to purchase items not issued by the prison or jail, including food and hygiene items, known as commissary. Men referred to being able to trade sex for items that they would purchase from their commissary accounts.

19 As sex-segregated institutions, prisons and jails in California still frequently incarcerate transgender women in men’s prisons (Jenness & Fenstermaker, 2014; Sexton, Jenness, & Sumner, 2010).

20 This is another term for the ‘down low.’

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Sonja Mackenzie, Emma Rubin et Cynthia Gómez, « ‘Prison is one place you don’t want your sexuality’ »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. XIII | 2016, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2016, consulté le 22 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sonja Mackenzie

Santa Clara University. Contact :

Emma Rubin

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Cynthia Gómez

San Francisco State University. Contact :

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