The Dangers of Regulation

After reading the entirety of Angela Davis’s haunting true tale of the explicitly complicated and heavily weighted happenings in today’s penitentiaries, I was most struck by the fourth chapter in particular. Entitled “How Gender Structures the Prison System,” this lengthy section of the book focuses on the implications that gender has on the prison system, and the implications that the prison system has inflicted upon gendered bodies.

I was most disturbed by the knowing notion of the regulated system of sexual assault that is solely, though not exclusively, expressed in Davis’s book and that exists in the realms of the female-only prison. This regulatory status of regulation appears also in the public/private sphere of domestic abuse. After wading through the messy findings and haphazard conclusions that I’ve drawn in my mind, I have realized a danger that prefaces a lot of today’s public understanding: making regulation regular. When something is regulated it becomes this “norm” that all other options are compared and criticized against: The “norm” of masculine criminality, the “norm” of cavity searches performed on female prisoners, the “norm” of feminine criminality being socially linked to hyper-sexualization and insanity, and the “norm” of the prison system itself (for which no other solution or option can possibly be constructed).

I would like to mainly focus on the hyper-sexualizing of female “crime” and the sexual assault that is regulated in our prison systems. “Sexual temptations,” explains Davis were what “they believed were often at the root of female criminality” (70). With this ridiculous belief in mind, cause for sexual assault and unnecessarily thorough internal investigative searching procedures is made to seem forgivable. The regulatory nature of this dangerous belief has created a sexualized control of female inmates that, because of its regulation and procedure-like components, often go ignored. Much like the sexually abusive relationship between slave and master, notes Davis, the actual violence enacted by the powerful onto the powerless is “transferred” to the woman because of her assumed natural prowess to sexual deviance.

“Sexual abuse–which like domestic violence, is yet another dimension of the privatized punishment of women–has become an institutionalized component of punishment behind prison walls,” explains Davis. She connects an often ignored link between the punishment experienced by women (domestic and sexual abuse) in the “free world” that are extremely similar to the abusive experiences that are enacted onto them within the prison system.

Women are unable to say no to their aggressors within the confines of the prison walls. They must strip. They must allow for fingers and examination tools to be inserted into their vaginas and anuses. They must accept the rape inflicted upon them by prison guards: “We found that male correctional employees have…sexually assaulted and abused [the female inmates]…in the course of committing such gross misconduct, male officers have not only used actual or threatened physical force, but have also used their near total authority to provide or deny goods and privileges to prisoners to compel them to have sex” (78).

Because of the normalization and the regulatory nature of regulation, sexual abuse has often gone under the radar when one “educates themselves” about the prison system. Because imprisoned women are often deemed less-than human, they are seen as criminal bodies. When they are seen as criminal bodies, they are seen as objects. When they are seen as objects they are deemed hyper-sexual deviants.

I found a clip from The Maury Show, a television program, through over-dramatized and unrealistic, portrays certain “types” of episodes. Usually, the episodes constitute a female searching for the true father of her child. The particular “type” of episode that came to my mind, though heinous and lewd, offers a cultural relevant piece of media that exhibits female correctional facilities as the outcome for “promiscuity.”

The girls in the clip are in their early teens (thirteen, fourteen and fifteen). They have all been forced on the show (so we are told) by their “concerned” and “worried” mothers who have either heard rumors about their daughters or have stumbled across sexual texts or diary entries. When each of the young girls flash on the camera, a small blurb is introduced below them: “Tina is thirteen and is already sexually active!!”

Oh, save us, what are we to do?

It is interesting that, though these girls obviously have issues with violence and self-esteem, the main cause for their fake incarceration is their sexual behavior. It is also interesting to note the race of the girls presented.

The girls are screamed at by a robust man in a sleeveless t-shirt in front of an audience, then screamed at some more by some “rough” female inmates in order to “scare them straight,” as if to suggest that sexual promiscuity automatically leads to incarceration. Maury uses phrases such as “out of control behavior” when referring to their sexual acts, and claims that the girls should be “off the streets and home with their families”–indicating that female safety lies within the confines of the home system.

The regulation of these ideals and actions–female “sexual deviance” and the “necessity” of invasive strip searches–is where the danger to social reform lies.


1. Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? Open Media Book. Seven Stories Press, NY. 2003

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2 Responses to The Dangers of Regulation

  1. channabach says:

    Fabulous post!

    You do a great job of linking the normalized sexual violence of the PIC to the ways sexual norms constrain women beyond it. And your close reading of the Maury show clip is very compelling. The clip is just awful.

    I’m curious what you make of the ways that the spectacle of gendered punishment, coercive sexual norms, the caging of people of color, and the threat of bodily and sexual violence are made into entertainment (after all, it is a television talk show designed for viewers’ pleasure). How are these violences further normalized through visual media? Just something to think about.

    Great job!

  2. MeghanB says:

    I found your blog post to be extremely interesting and eye opening. The idea that women in prisons are seen as sexual objects, and that sexual temptations were believed to be the root of female criminality reminded me of our readings from Foucault. I saw the connection because of the assumptions that are made about women in the prison system due to their gendered bodies. I also really enjoyed your connection of Davis’s piece to the show, “Maury”. I have (unfortunately) come across that show many times and never noticed how Maury, the audience, and the family members focus primarily on the sexual behaviors of the girls rather than pay attention to the clear anger and self-acceptance issues they have. This example was a perfect way to connect Davis’s piece and I really enjoyed reading your post! =]

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