How to Feel Like a Woman, or, Why Punishment Is a Drag
40 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2013 Last revised: 17 Mar 2016
Date Written: April 17, 2013
If a man in prison claims he was made “to feel like a woman,” this is commonly understood to mean that was degraded, dehumanized, and sexualized. This association of femininity with punishment has significant implications for the way our society understands not only the sexual abuse of men in prison, but sexual abuse generally. These important implications are usually overlooked, however, because law and society typically regard prison feminization as a problem of gender transposition: that is, as a problem of men being treated like women. This Article argues that feminization is punitive for both men and women: it is as unnatural and as wrong for women to be degraded, dehumanized, and sexualized under coercive circumstances as it is for men to be. This Article suggests that examining the sexual abuse of men in prisons can help disrupt the persistent and uncritical linking of feminization and women. By reading the sexualized abuse of men in prison as a form of forced drag, this Article hopes to expose the artificiality and violence of compelled feminization. The proper approach to assessing forced feminization is to focus on its oppressive structure, not on the gender of its victims. When we do so, we can see what all victims along the spectrum of sexual and domestic abuse have in common, and to form our social and legal responses accordingly. The phenomenon of male sexual abuse in prison thus provides a potentially illuminating opportunity to think about the structure and consequences of sexual abuse in general. This is significant not least because social and legal responses to sexual abuse outside of the prison setting – where sexual abuse is overwhelmingly experienced by women and committed by men – are constrained by pernicious gender stereotypes and a massive failure of empathy. Understanding the phenomenon of male prison sexual abuse is thus essential not only for addressing a specific problem in carceral institutions, but forces law and society to consider sexual abuse in a productively counter-intuitive way.
Keywords: criminal law, feminism, law and gender
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