How gay is prison rape?

As there has been some debate recently over the possibility of gay soldiers engaging in sexual harassment of straight soldiers (which some would apparently define as being gay while showering with men who aren't), I thought I would take a look at a frustrating issue that I have never quite been able to clarify to my satisfaction:

Precisely what is gay?

Notice I did not say "what is homosexual?" -- because not all homosexual conduct correlates with being gay. For example, the type of men who rape other men in prison do not consider themselves gay. Nor are they considered gay by other inmates:

In many cases among men, the partner who penetrates another sexually is not regarded as homosexual among fellow inmates, and the receptive partner (who may or may not be consenting) is called a "woman", a "bitch," a "punk," or a "prag," and is regarded as homosexual[citation needed]. In the United States in particular, rape in prisons is a major problem, and may be perpetrated by inmates who do not view themselves as bisexual or homosexual. One of the conceptions that tends to minimize prison rape and sexual coercion is that the penetrating partner uses the act primarily to assert control or dominance, thus minimizing this activity as an expression of sexuality per se, an idea which is still repugnant to many, including perpetrators themselves. A man who has been raped, or who has been the receptive partner during intercourse, is often regarded as less masculine and hence a target for future rape and other violence.

According to one study,[4] 22.3% of male U.S. prison inmates had reported being a victim of prison rape. Although the rapist or the male who coerces sex with another male has clearly chosen to have sex with another male, other prisoners will view the male who has been raped or coerced as homosexual if he is unwilling to kill or die to protect himself from rape or is willing to negotiate a relationship to protect himself from attack by multiple rapists, while the perpetrator is not similarly labeled. This encourages and perpetuates sexual violence in an atmosphere where power and the perception thereof is regarded as paramount.

Arab men who have sex with other males do not consider themselves gay either.

If a man assumes the active role in anal intercourse with another man, his action is not necessarily regarded as shameful or as indicating any particular sexual orientation. He is merely performing the role that men normally perform in intercourse with women. The fact that he does this with a man rather than a woman may even be interpreted as a sign of heightened masculinity, since sex with another man is popularly thought to require greater strength or sexual prowess (indeed, many of the gay men who survived attacks in Iraq say they were raped by their attackers).

Assuming the passive position, on the other hand, is considered demeaning, since in this case the man takes on the role of a woman. The element of "shame", therefore, rests on an assumption that women are inferior to men. There is also a widespread belief that those assume the "female" role in sex cannot be doing it for pleasure - hence the tendency of the Egyptian police to regard such men as prostitutes.18

In the view of many Arabs, therefore, the significant distinction is not between heterosexual and homosexual but between penetrator and penetrated: men are the penetrators (of women and sometimes other men) while women are the penetrated - in which case the "deviance" of the shaadh is that he behaves as a woman.19

Unless their rapists are also to be considered gay, in both prison culture here and in Arab culture, gay men are clearly more likely to be victims of rape than rapists. (Because of this, those considered vulnerable are placed in protective custody in prisons.)

Are we to consider all men who rape men to be "gay." Are they? I don't think there is agreement on this point.

Does it matter? I don't honestly know. The answer would seem to depend on how "gay" is defined, as well as whether it is possible for heterosexual males to engage in homosexual behavior. Is it?

In Arab culture, the concept of "gay" seems to be an alien, Western one -- which relates not so much to sexuality but to emotion. Namely, love:

"Since the concept of same-sex relations does not exist in the Arab world, being 'Gay' is still considered to be a sexual behavior," says Outreach Director of the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society, Ramzi Zakharia, in an e-mail interview. But according to Western definition, "that limits it to 'homosexual' behavior, which does not mean that the person is Gay. Just because you sleep with a member of the same sex does not mean you are Gay... it just means that you are engaging in homosexual activity. Once a relationship develops beyond sex (i.e: love) this is when the term gay applies," adds akharia.

He believes that gays in the Arab world, unlike those in Western societies, "limit their activities to sex and rarely explore feelings beyond that," experience.


It would seem that in order to be considered "gay" in Arab culture there has to be a capacity of emotional reciprocation, as well as an acknowledgment of it. Thus, it might be misleading for news articles like this to refer to the rape of young Al Qaeda converts as "gay rape."

I cannot resolve these questions in a blog post, and the most I can do is attempt to spot issues. But it has long struck me that being gay involves more than engaging in homosexual acts; it would seem to require acknowledgement of it as a preference, and maybe even a lifestyle.

After being raped in prison, Charles Manson reportedly said "it's only gay if you like it." Which means he did not consider himself to be gay. (Even though he had a prison record as a homosexual rapist.) It's pretty clear, though, that on the outside, Manson preferred women. Is Manson gay? Whether he is or not, a sub-issue involves whether his gay status would be considered an indictment of gays, or of being gay. I don't think it would be, but some people -- especially those who carry on about Adolf Hitler being gay -- clearly would. Yet if Manson is considered straight, that would not be considered an indictment of straight people. Why is that? Is homosexual rape an indictment of gays if the rapists are considered gay, but it is not an indictment of heterosexuals if the rapists are considered straight?

If gays who engage have engaged in heterosexual sex are nonetheless gay, then why aren't straights who have engaged in homosexual sex nonetheless straight? Does gay subsume straight? Who gets to decide these things? Those who care the most? Aren't those who care the most also the most biased? How about the least biased -- those who care the least? Should the people who care the least be deciding things for the people who care the most?

The more I think about these things, the less sense they begin to make.

posted by Eric on 12.22.10 at 11:25 AM


A man who has sex with other men while in prison, but prefers women when he can get them, to me, is bisexual. Does that make him "gay"? I don't know. Probably. It certainly seems to prevent him from being defined as "straight".

Eric   ·  December 22, 2010 3:04 PM

I honestly see two primary groups arguing this -- homosexuals who don't want to be associated with rapists and prisoners, and rapists who are in denial about their sexual desires. It's a pretty self serving argument. (Yes, I know there are outliers from these two groups, but that's who you will hear it from 9/10.)

Yeah, men who rape other men are gay. The only reason anyone denies that is either because that person is in denial about their own sexuality, or that person has (a justified, I will admit) fear that idiots will extrapolate that to "gay people are rapists."

It's the same argument as the "rape is about power, not sexual desire." That's BS. Power is intertwined with sexual desire (both in and outside the context of rape), but sexual desire is always a component. Hell, if it wasn't, then rapists wouldn't get off on it. And they literally get off on it.

Phelps   ·  December 22, 2010 4:16 PM

Would Eric care to comment about the legal homosexual pedophilia occurring in the Pashtun area of Afghanistan.

Eric has previously said he opposed pedophilia because it was illegal. Since it is legal in this part of the world, do you still oppose it or would you prefer that your morality be imposed upon the Pashtuns?

DiogenesLamp   ·  December 22, 2010 5:13 PM

Phelps, I would tend to agree, except if men who rape other men are gay, then what would that make them if they also rape women? Gay?

DL, I didn't know that pedophilia was legal in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, but as I said before I think it is wrong. Is that imposing my morality on them? I don't see why. Put me in charge of the place and then ask!

Eric Scheie   ·  December 22, 2010 5:52 PM

Bisexual is part of gay in my usage. I don't have occasion to use it much in any event. It's not something that dwells on me.

Phelps   ·  December 22, 2010 6:49 PM

If bisexual is gay, then the Greeks and Romans were gay, even though they didn't know there was such a thing as two sexualities into which all people must be classified.

I guess a lot of people say they were.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 23, 2010 10:01 AM

let me through another variable in here - what is considered "acceptable" behavior in society will have a great deal of influence on an individuals behavior (and possibly how they classify themselves).

Now male and female sexuality are different so when we are discussing "gay" here, I assume we are dealing with male sexuality. Romans and Greeks, as you state Eric, would have no clue what we are talking about. Their sexuality as defined by their society's mores dealt with channeling sexual desire into class expression. Thus, a [male] citizen demonstrated his status by being the penetrator of women, slaves and boys. This was bifurcated from "love" and emotion. Indeed, Romans even had laws against same-sex relations between freeborn males. While not considered in a "sacred" status, marriage was a very important societal institution in Roman society (though men were allowed to seek sexual satisfaction outside of marriage, for women adultery was a criminal act)

Outside of instances of complete physical coercion (a penis can be made erect by manual stimulation even if the attached male is unwilling), sexual arousal is an indication of sexual desire. Teasing out what is exactly that desire is where we tend wander politically astray. Male sexual desire can be easily fetishized - everything from shoes to power. So "rape" can resolve to a power fetish; most power fetishes confined to BDSM role playing.

But all this historic male "everything goes" approach to sexuality - also was complicit in the low status of women. Women cannot be anything other than the "bottom", thus equivalent to slaves and other "non" humans. Any respect for the status of a married woman wasn't resolved to the woman but resolved to man in the marriage.

IMHO, bisexuality demonstrates a male who is sexually aroused by either sex. In a society that promotes heterosexuality, a bi will feel more acceptable by channeling his desires toward his straight side but as society champions homosexuality, he may suddenly "discover" and indulge his gay side. That doesn't make him "gay" any more than when he was a fully functional straight made him "straight".

Sexual orientation (sexual desire plus emotional desire) isn't either/or. The majority of people are hetero, a very small percentage are homo (2-3%) and the balance somewhere on the continuim between those two points.

The "have gay sex means you're gay" meme is political - a version of the racist "one drop" rule.

Darleen   ·  December 23, 2010 1:17 PM

Well, I've always defined it as an emotional thing - maybe I separate sex and love more than most. I probably could (physically) have sex with a woman and (physically) even respond, in a situation where nothing better (men) was available. But I'd be emotionally dead to her. I assure you I'd never have any urge to bring her flowers (and yes, I've brought flowers to men - much to their surprise).

So, yeah, I'm solidly in the 'having sex with same sex doesn't mean you are gay and having sex with the opposite sex doesn't mean you are straight' camp.

Go listen to this song. If you think someone of the same sex, you're gay. If it's someone of the opposite, you are straight. If you can't decide - you're bi. If you hate the song, I can't help you... lol.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  December 23, 2010 6:33 PM

Darleen, that was a great comment.

Kathy, I'm afraid I'm in the "beyond help" category on that one!


A couple of my musical favorites are songs which have managed to transcend musical and cultural barriers.

First recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972, there have been over 300 releases of "Always On My Mind." Willie Nelson's is the best known, but this one (the Pet Shop Boys) is my favorite:

Then there's that 1970s PC schmaltzy John Lennon song "Whatever Gets You Through The Night" -- somehow brought to life by Waylon Jennings:

(Let's see whether this comment passes through the spam catcher...)

Eric Scheie   ·  December 25, 2010 10:05 AM

The fact of the matter about male sexuality, especially young male sexuality, is that it's such a powerful drive that, in situations where there are no (or very few) women available -- whether it's prison or on ship or boarding school, or in any other sex-segrated situation -- it will find other outlets.

You can call it circumstantial homosexual behavior, or whatever you like, but plenty of men who have a strong sexual preference for women (and hence aren't gay or even bi, really) will engage in sexual activity with other men if they have no other easy choice. Then, when given the opportunity to have sex with women, they will go (back) to that.

This isn't to deny that other, more complicated things are sometimes going on. But often the simple explanation -- here, that (young) men are horn dogs -- is the best one.

Hard not to recall, in this context, the words of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (from Full Metal Jacket):

I bet you're the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around.

DJ   ·  December 25, 2010 11:01 AM

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