As an educated, queer black man in prison, I certainly don’t fit the socially constructed concept of masculinity. I lift weights and generally wear a scowl, but that’s where it stops.
My voice isn’t very deep; it is effeminately inflected. My mannerisms are lithe. A conversation of five minutes or less would betray any semblance of the traditional manliness my outward appearance conveys from afar.
To this day, my closest friend says that, before speaking with me, he thought I wanted to fight.
Does this make me less of a man?
In prison, we are expected to act a certain way as men — tough, brash, misogynistic. Especially in front of others, we must appear more macho than the next guy.
I’ve heard and participated in conversations with men who objectify women. They treat women as a means to a lascivious end. They sometimes speak of them violently.
Prison is much like an audition where we must outperform all others. To vie for the starring role, that performance often looks outlandish.
A violent misogyny
A hot topic when I started my bid in prison was Tory Lanez’s shooting of fellow rapper Megan Thee Stallion. As I read in bed, I listened to my cubies discuss the incident.
“Bro, she’s probably lying.”
“What if she ain’t?”
“So what if she ain’t? If she comes at me, I woulda shot her, too.”
Stories of psychological torture and physical violence against wives or girlfriends are also discussed. Once, my closest friend casually recalled a time where he smacked a woman clean across the face for accidentally using teeth during oral sex.
“Her glasses flew across the room, and she sat there on her knees like this.” He laughed as he mimed her hand on her cheek and mouth agape.
Objectifying women is not a new problem in our society, but in prison, objectification takes on a whole new performative level. Who is the manliest? Who can puff out their chest the most? Who has the largest collection of lewd photos?
Photos of women are a popular and lucrative form of currency. Depending on the content of said photo, it may fetch anywhere from two to four soups, the equivalent of $1 to $2.
One time, I found a laminated, double-sided photo of a fully nude woman in a copy of Brad Taylor’s “The Insider Threat.” I was able to trade it for two donut sticks and half a jar of peanut butter.
If they aren’t ogling women in photos, then the men trash talk about women on TV. Female staff members, including nurses, are subjected to similar treatment.
Meant to hide something?
I believe displays of such aggressive masculinity are sometimes meant to cover up a person’s sexual fluidity.
Talking openly and explicitly about your sexual exploits should, in theory, cement your sexual orientation in the minds of your listeners.
But in my eight months of incarceration, I have witnessed and experienced the sexual fluidity of several men who wear layers of aggressive masculinity.
While quarantined for COVID-19, I lived in a cell for 10 days with a man serving seven years. When the question of my sexuality came up, he begged me for fellatio as a favor, so he had something to think of in the shower during his last few years locked up.
The other day after a shower, I was getting dressed when a man locked eyes with me, while jangling his junk. He later insisted I was lying when I said I wouldn’t have sex with any man here.
“That’s bull,” he said with a sly grin. “You’d let me.”
There is a clear dichotomy between what men say and how they act when they think no one is watching or listening.
I am not innocent in this — I joke around too about female officers and counselors. I do it because I feel like I have to protect myself, so I’m not preyed upon.
The fifth edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “manly” as “having the qualities regarded as suitable for a man; virile, brave, etc.”
But that begs the question: Who decides what is acceptable for men and what is not?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.