Sasha Gear, South Africa; Sex Behind the Bars,
Mail & Guardian, October 25, 2002.
'He may be
fucking his cellmate every night but if you ask him: 'Have you had a homosexual
experience in prison?' he will truthfully, as far as he is concerned answer,
This is a warning that Stephen Donaldson, a
Stop Prison Rape activist, once gave researchers of prison
Sexual practices among male prisoners show that sex acts in themselves are not
automatically equated with one or another sexual identity. For this reason
people working towards better understanding of diverse sexualities and the
promotion of safer sex practices are increasingly replacing the use of the terms
"homosexuality" or "gay" with the phrase "men who have sex with men". In men's
prisons we find a situation that can seem contradictory: a subculture that
supports probably the greatest concentration of male on male sex in the country
is at the same time virulently homophobic. In fact, the workings of sex in
prison lay bare ideas of gender and sexuality that have a repressive grip on
society in general.
Patriarchy and misogyny are rife. Because women aren't available to service men
and a particular notion of masculinity (as defined by power and domination)
"women" are "created". Part of the horror of being raped or coerced into
unwanted sex in prison is that such an event is understood to destroy men's
claim to "manhood" and to turn them into "women". And "women" are not worth very
In dominant prison culture forced sexual penetration casts on those who are
penetrated a detested "woman" identity. "Women" are regarded and treated as sex
objects and domestic servants. Prison "marriages" between "men" (husbands) and
"women" (wives) are usually brought about by an initial forced sex act. A range
of sophisticated techniques -- not only blatant rape -- can be used to trick or
manipulate people into a first event of sexual subordination.
In prison marriage relationships "men" are active, they do "business" in prison
and provide materially for their "wives". They are the penetrators in sex. Women
must be passive, sexually and otherwise. These are the rules governing the
"accepted" and most common sexual relationship and type of sex in prison, and
are endorsed and entrenched by prison gangs and inmate culture more generally.
Not all "marriages" will unfold like this and not all sex occurs within
"marriages", but protagonists who negotiate other ways of relating best keep it
secret or incur the wrath of the powers of the dominant inmate culture.
To have the "wrong" kind of sex or to have sex with the "wrong" kind of person
is punishable. Ushintsha ipondo (literally meaning to exchange a pound) is
marked by mutual agreement and is apparently quite common, especially among
younger prisoners -- who are often other men's "wives" too. They agree to take
it in turn to penetrate or "play the man" and to receive. But this consensual
sex is considered deviant because it is associated with homosexuality. It's even
more scandalous for an older "man" to be involved.
"It's a serious matter" if you're caught doing it, explains Piet, who spent most
of his life behind bars. "It's like being a big man in a house where everything
is under your control ... and my wife hears that I've done homosexuality with
another man. It would shock her! It's just like that if I get a man of my age
and I do Ushintsha ipondo with him. If the gangs hear about this -- Ay!"
Ushintsha ipondo disrupts the process that allocates "manhood" on the basis of
penetration and power and interferes with the heterosexually oriented
environment that is the preserve of the gangs.
The gangs and dominant inmate culture police sex in prison with a remorseless
homophobia. For this reason ushintsha ipondo is outlawed. At the same time,
experiences of violence and humiliation in power-defined interactions breed and
intensify phobic attitudes. Part of this is a tendency among some to conflate
notions of homosexuality with forced sex. Witnessing or experiencing prison sex
and sexual abuse is some people's first encounter with male on male sex. It is
not surprising that in such a context, notions of homosexuality or "gayness" can
become confused with sexual coercion.
For some people prison encounters constitute the yardstick for understanding sex
and sexual relationships between "men". And these encounters seem more often
than not to be primarily defined by coercion. "Gays" are people who "make" you
sleep with them "when you don't know what's going on", says one young offender.
Others talk about "victims" of homosexuality and being afraid of homosexuality
when it is clear that what they are afraid of is being forced into sex.
Same-sex activity in many subcultures re-enact heterosexual gender roles and the
accompanying ways of relating: deviations from these are frowned upon. So the
fact that prison "marriages between men and women" are supported while
"homosexuals" are punished conforms to this pattern. But the extent of the
coercive and repressive power that is so central to the accepted marriage-style
sex in prison reminds us more of the heterosexual relations they imitate than
same-sex activity in other subcultures. We're consistently reminded of how what
goes on inside is connected to the rest of us.
"In fact, those things that are done by women, you must do them," says Jabu when
we're talking about how "wives" must behave. "If your husband wants tea, you
must go and make tea. If he wants his washing done, you must do it."
On the sex requirement, another remarks: "It's my duty as a wife, every night to
give him whatever he wants ... It's just like a woman outside." Not so weird,
perverse and fundamentally "other" after all.
Prisoners are not in the business of creating from scratch a whole new society,
but rather in drawing on and adapting identities and ways of relating that they
bring with them from outside. Intervening in these processes can help stem the
flow to the outside when prisoners are released, of these intensified and
adapted social prejudices, and the harm they cause. We on the outside have a lot
of work to do on the way we relate to each other, too.
Sasha Gear is a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence &
Reconciliation. This article is based on a study entitled Daai Ding: Sex, Sexual
Violence and Coercion in Men's Prisons