Owning Your Body Discussion


Owning Your Body Discussion August 1996


Query From Clifton Hawkins cchawkins@ucdavis.edu 01 Aug 1996

I would like to recommend a short piece in the August 1996 *Harper's* for subscribers to H-Women. "The Deal Behind Bars" [pp17-20] deals with the dilemma of a male prisoner who, in order to avoid gang rape, "hooks up" with another prisoner who will both exploit and protect him.

I found this piece horrifying and revealing because it taught me, for the first time, what it means to have your body, and, in effect, your person, owned by another human being. This, of course, was the situation of almost all women in the United States until very recently. Although I believe that I imaginatively empathize with victims of many kinds of oppression--almost feel what it would be like to experience them myself--I must confess that, although I have long abominated patriarchy, I did not, until I read this article, find myself able to put myself in the position of a woman in this crucial regard.

"The junior partner...gives up his independence and his control over his body to a senior partner...in exchange for protection from violence and sexual assaults by other prisoners," the article states. It then details something of what this means.

I feel that this article brings home, to men, the position of many women in a way that nothing else could. It is true that the ownership is by another man, rather than by a woman; but from this, a man can go on and apply this situation to gender relations.

The present realities of a still patriarchal society make it difficult for most men, I fear, to even imagine what it would be like to have their body controlled by a woman, in a way that most women have their bodies controlled by some man. That is why this article was such a revelation to me, ashamed as I am to admit it. Each re-reading horrified me more, as the implications and details sunk in. I have understood this issue in theory for many years; this article brought it home in an immediate sense like nothing else I have ever read. [And I have read many, many heart-rending descriptions of the plight of women, especially during the early 1900s]. There is nothing like having oneself put in a position, or imagining oneself in it concretely, to bring out the full horrors.

I would be interested in having subscribers to H-Women read this short article and say whether you think it would be fair to assign it to undergraduates, as a realistic depiction of the plight of many women in the US until very recently. [Please read the piece before responding; obviously, details will differ from a contemporary prison to 1900-1930 or later mainstream society, but I think the principle of ownership is graphically conveyed.] This would be an imaginative assignment; I think it would generate real thought, especially from men [women can already vividly imagine this issue].

The article can be read while you are waiting in line at the grocery store, if you want, although, as I said, for me, the horrors of the situation sunk in more upon re-readings.



>From Nancy Marie Robertson nmr1675@is4.nyu.edu 02 Aug 1996

I want to share a thought prior to reading the piece.

If, in fact, you end up using the article and others share your view that it brought home the experience of one's body being owned unlike any other piece, I think it is worth asking *why* a piece written by a man has that authority when the voluminous pieces by women have not.

I raise this point as I have just started reading a piece by Eric Lott on John Howard Griffin's *Black Like Me*. For those unfamiliar with the 1961 book, Griffin "passed" as black to see what the experience of black Americans was like in the segregated south (and explain it to whites). As Lott points out, Griffin writes "as though plenty of black-authored books had not investigated that predicament already." But beyond that, Griffin's project is totally rooted in a white man's position as a white man and has little, if anything, to do with African-American life and community.

I realize that you are *not* claiming that your subject thought he was a woman or that he (or you) now can speak as one, but I would suggest considering where your reaction has as much to do with men/masculinity as anything about women. I am not saying that the response you present us with is "wrong" or "incorrect" rather that it needs to be analyzed. What is assumed or conveyed that differed from any given piece by another woman on the horrors of "her" body being owned by another.

It could be a valuable part of teaching the piece if you end up using it.

I have, incidentally, vastly simplified Lott's article. The piece *White Like Me: Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness* can be found in A. Kaplan and D. Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Duke, 1993)

x-post from H-SHGAPE Rebecca Edwards reedwards@vassar.edu 08 August 1996

In response to Cliff Hawkins' question, the Harper's piece seems like a useful entry point for cross-gender dialogue. Talking with straight men about feminism, I've found many who say that gay sexuality makes them nervous because they can't control a gay man's gaze or his desire for their bodies. In honest conversation, this issue sometimes produces the "click" of understanding that feminists talk about--as it did, apparently, for Cliff.

Having said that, I don't think the piece really illustrates women's position in the pre-feminist family. In prison, everyone recognizes that the rules are temporary and conditional. For the corollary to work, prison punks would have to grow up believing they were destined by God and nature to be selfless, submissive helpmeets. If from an early age they rebelled against the thought, they'd experience all kinds of inner conflict because their families, communities, churches, and legal and political institutions would all contradict their feelings. Playing the role of the punk would be not just a strategy for physical survival; it would win punks praise from everyone they loved and respected--praise that would be withheld if they refused to be punks. Acceptance of the role would also reinforce punks' sense of themselves as moral, elite, or middle-class, white or otherwise "superior" people.

So I think it's incorrect to call punk life in prison a "realistic depiction of women's position in traditional marriage. The author addresses this frankly when he reassures punks that they are "just playing a role" and can leave it behind when they get out. I wouldn't want to judge whether it 's worse for a man to be forced to play such a role under the threat of gang rape or death, or worse for a woman to believe (as most pre-feminist women did and do) that it's the only role you *can* play and independence from a man will transform you into something ugly, lonely, and useless. I would just say they are not the same thing.

The Harper's piece might make a useful contrast for students who have already discussed women's historic roles in marriage and the family. It might offer an even more striking comparison with the narratives of enslaved men and women. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, for example, raise questions about manhood, womanhood, and forced sexuality. Using "The Deal Behind Bars," you could compare these to present-day issues of sex (and race) in prison. What is slavery? Can a slave fall in love with a master and vice-versa? You might get more than one kind of "click" from questions like these.

This is more that 2 cents' worth. But as a Harper's readers, an activist on prison issues, a 19th century historian, and a woman who's always delighted to encounter another feminist man, I thought Cliff's query deserved a thoughtful response.