Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Regina Kunzel's "Criminal Intimacy"

Regina Kunzel is Professor in the departments of History, and Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality, and reported the following:
Astonishingly, page 99 of my book gets at the heart of some of my largest claims. The preceding pages discuss accounts of sex in prison and efforts to explain the phenomenon in which predominantly heterosexual prisoners engaged in same-sex sex. The first partial paragraph on page 99 concludes:

Together, these accounts worked to deexoticize and depathologize same-sex sex in prison, presenting it as inevitable, understandable, and fundamentally human.

Page 99 is in a chapter that explores the mid-20th-century U.S.; in it, I describe the interpretative strategies used by a variety of historical subjects – sociologists, physicians, psychologists, journalists, prison administrators, and prisoners themselves – to explain the phenomenon of sex between prisoners. That phenomenon elicited new interest and anxiety at this particular historical moment, when the concept of sexual identity was coming into prominence. One of the defining assumptions of the sexual regime that announced itself as “modern” was the belief that the object of sexual desire reflected an individual’s essence. Who one desired, and what one did sexually and with whom, came to define, importantly, who one was. But if sexual identity was so fundamental, how was sex between prisoners to be understood?

Page 99 of Criminal Intimacy goes on to discuss the explanation of prison sex “as a compensatory response to heterosexual deprivation,” as well as the understandable result of “the irreducible and irrepressible nature of the human (and especially male) sex drive.”

To many at mid-century, prison sex was simply the natural and inevitable expression of a normal sex drive, temporarily and understandably rerouted. In their defensive insistence on drives, nature, and biology over psychology, personality, or identity, these writers worked to sever the connection between perverse desire and individual identity. More ambitiously, they endeavored to unburden sexual object choice, at least as manifested behind bars, from the weighty significance it was coming to assume.

That final passage gestures to my largest purpose in the book, which is to look to one of the most marginalized of American spaces -- the prison -- and its most stigmatized practice -- same-sex sex -- to illuminate questions about the cultural and ideological center and the making of the normal. Because as observers came to acknowledge, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the essence of the problem of prison sex was less the practice of homosexuality among prisoners than its implications for the nature of heterosexuality. Indeed, much of what was at stake in the anxiety over homosexuality in prison concerned its potential to reveal heterosexual identity as fragile, unstable, and, itself, situational.

What the reader won’t get from a scan of page 99 is a sense of the historical sweep of the book. It charts the fascinations and anxieties that the phenomenon of sex in prison inspired over the course of a couple centuries -- the different kinds of trouble that prison sex made for people in different historical moments -- from the early 19th century through the late 20th, in order to illuminate the uneven process of the making of sexual modernity.
Preview the Table of Contents of Criminal Intimacy, and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

Regina Kunzel's other publications include Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890–1945. Learn more about her work at her faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue