Sexual Behavior in Prison Populations Understood Through the Framework of Rational Choice and Exchange Theory

By April N. Terry
2016, Vol. 8 No. 01 | pg. 2/3 |

Exchange Theory & Rational Choice

When explaining the relationship between exchange theories and rational choice theories, the following will be used as the working definition, “social behavior is guided by the rational calculation of an exchange of rewards and costs” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 121). Such theories discuss how one would opt to remain in a relationship with others when there are some perceived or real disadvantages in doing so. The rational choice and exchange theories would suggest that the benefits still outweigh the costs (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011). It appears that many inmates may consider sex something similar to a commodity and as such, are less willing to surrender such an activity (Tewksbury & Conner, 2014).

As cited in Sit and Ricciardelli’s (2013) work on male inmates, attitudes towards prison sexuality takes the social constructionist perspective on social reality as being, “created by individuals in light of their prior socialization, lived experiences, and daily interactions” (p. 336). Additionally, this approach suggests that a historical context and culture influence an individual’s understanding of how they should act. This theory rejects the idea that homosexual behavior within prisons is due to biological drives or an innate force and instead focuses on the individual and cultural histories (Sit & Ricciardelli, 2013; Trammell, 2011). According to Festinger, Schachter, and Back (as cited in Homans, 1958), the more cohesive a group, the more likely they are to influence the behavior of others.

As applied to inmates, when powerful inmates encourage sexual behaviors with other inmates, such coercion may then transform previous deviants into conformers. Although Homans’ (1958) intent was not to write his theoretical perspectives to fit with inmate sexual behavior, one passage in Social Behavior as Exchange (1958) seems to capture how the mainstream behavior relates to the prison subculture. “Persons that give much to others try to get much from them, and persons that get much from others are under pressure to give much to them” (Homans, 1958, p.606).

In 2011, Trammell reviewed the idea of protective pairing as provided by Donaldson (2001). The notion of protective pairing refers to the exchange of protection for sexual behavior. Accordingly, sex is only a part of the arrangement between inmates. Trammell (2011) points out that generally the “stronger” male becomes the husband in the relationship while the perceived “weaker” male becomes the wife. This form of relationship then leads to other aspects of the arrangement to include other stereotypical feminine roles (e.g. cleaning). Generally those deemed to be the weaker inmates are described as either physically and/or mentally inept to other inmates (Trammell, 2011). Others have argued that this use of power takes the form of symbolic violence which creates dominance over others. This behavior is legitimated as they are integrated cultural norms; meaning, inequality of males and females is socially constructed and perceived by most to be the “norm” (Bourdieu, 2001).

According to Blau (1964), one mainstream norm may be that most individuals derive pleasure from providing favors to others. Generally, people are grateful of such favors and in turn, repay their social debt. Blau would argue that most individuals act according to their social debt yet likely still act in selfish ways; there is an awareness of the indebtedness produced between individuals. This concept applies to those in and out of prison walls. Although there may be a separate subculture within the prison, inmates are generally aware of the “favors” performed by others and their current “outstanding debt.”

Similarly, Blau suggests that on the surface, some individuals may not make a decision based on a result with the highest tangible exchange. Rather, individuals may actually make decisions that, on the surface, appear to be poor decisions. However, in this situation, the individual has to assess the longevity of their goal, or objective, and engage in exchanges accordingly. Additionally, those deemed to be in control of the power may use this in future situations at their disposal as others are obligated to him/her. However, as Trammell (2011) found in her prison interviews, inmates still referred to such relationships as being based on a “voluntary” exchange. One such inmate stated the following,

If a guy gets hit, let’s say he runs up a drug debt or something, then the guys come after him for payment. If he gets hit hard enough then having someone to take care of you looks pretty good. I knew of a guy who was straight, he got cut pretty badly. From then on out, he gave head for protection. He wasn’t gay, I talked to the guy, this wasn’t about that. He just knew that he had to be someone’s girlfriend from then on. (p. 315)

Trammell (2011) further discussed such relationships as a division of labor in which each inmate serves different roles in the arrangement. She also speculated that such arrangements resulted in a hierarchy within the division of labor in which the stronger man achieved higher status. She provided further testimony from inmates indicating that although many feel that prison rape is rampant, most inmates knowingly, and willingly, engage in sexual behaviors with one another and that violence is not a central concern. Some men in the study described such relationships as beneficial to all involved (Trammell, 2011).

According to Sprecher (1998), most social exchange theories share several basic assumptions, “(a) social behavior is a series of exchanges; (b) individuals attempt to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs; and (c) when individuals receive rewards from others, they feel obligated to reciprocate” (p. 32). Sprecher then proposed that sexual relationships are built on the idea of equity. She proposed that socially desirable people (those with physical attractiveness and intellectual appeal) are more likely to be desired by others for sexual relationships and/or dating/marriage.

Although Sprecher’s work was not in relation to inmates, the premise can still be applied. Sprecher points out that once a relationship has been established, equity theory then explains why two individuals continue engaging in the relationship. Those noted as being more equitable are more likely to last. Additionally, Sprecher points out that in the typical relationship, couples may disagree on when to engage in sexual relations. If one is resistant and then agrees, she believes that although not explicitly stated, an exchange, or trade, has occurred. Gifts or special favors may also come from the individual who is pushing for more sexual activity; this action is viewed as a form of reciprocation. Just as many speculate that sexual activity among inmates is due to a form of bartering, so too are relationships outside of prisons (Sprecher, 1998). Posner (1992) discussed several aspects of sexual behavior to include its benefits. He divided the benefits of sex into three categories: procreative, hedonistic, and sociable. He further states that one considers the costs and benefits of engaging in sex and other sexual behaviors which vary over societies and time (Posner, 1992).

Furthermore, equity theory suggests that individuals look for maximum levels of rewards with the lowest level of costs. As such, this theory suggests that individuals tend to end up in relationships where the distribution of costs/benefits is equal for both partners (Vanyperen & Buunk, 1990). Also, Blau uses the example of attraction in outlining reciprocal relationships. He points out that one individual may give more initial effort to entice the interest of the other. The two then come together but not really on equal terms; the reciprocity for the first individual requires much more effort than that of the second individual. A similar notion is observed in prisons when one inmate goes above their regular level of effort in an attempt to secure another in the social relationship (Blau, 1964).

Rational choice theory is a theoretical framework which has been used to investigate many areas of sociological research to include the decision making of all offenders (Beauregard & Leclerc, 2007). Additionally, Cornish and Clark (1986) report that such decision making is a weighing of the rewards with the costs associated with a specific action. At times, offenders may be constrained (e.g. time, ability, availability) which is also taken into account when deciding to, or not to, act (Cornish & Clark, 1986). Although the consensual sexual relations of inmates take on a form other than coercion, the same method is applied in decision making. One, or both, inmates involved choose to act based on the situational context and the environment (Beauregard & Leclerc, 2007).

Perceiving risk is part of this planning process which is similar to the routine activity theory. However, why some inmates still engage in sexual behaviors even when the costs are high is outside of the scope of this paper. With that said, a likely explanation may be due to personality, lack of self-control, or a combination of other factors (Cornish & Clark, 1986). It is also possible that in a previous situation deemed high risk that some part of the structure is reevaluated to be of lower risk (Cornish & Clark, 1986).

Homans’ (1958) work may also be of use in understanding the rationality behind decision-making as he suggests five behaviorist propositions associated with individual conduct. Proposition one would suggest that inmates engage in sexual relations based on previous similar situations. If the agreement within such a relationship has produced a positive outcome in the past, both inmates are more likely to engage in such behavior again. Propositions two and three relate to the gained reward/benefit received by both inmates. In the case of sexual behavior, one inmate may gain sexual gratification while the other inmate may receive additional commissary, protection, companionship, etc.

If the frequency of such reward(s) decreases for one or both inmates, the nature of the relationship is likely to eventually terminate. Proposition four would suggest that as time progresses, one or both of the inmates would have their fill of the gained benefits. Inmate one may lose interest in the sexual gratification previously received while inmate two may no longer need the extra resources, protection, or companionship. If either is to occur, the frequency of their relationship again diminishes. Proposition five is likely a regular occurrence in such prison dynamics. If either inmate perceives their reward to be of lesser value than that to which they give, they are likely to feel frustrated about the relationship.

Homans referred to this problem as distributive justice. If either inmate feels they are giving more than they are receiving, anger will likely pursue as will a termination of the agreed upon relationship. Inmate one may feel as though the sexual benefits do not outweigh the tangible cost of such benefits (or whatever the exchange may be) while inmate two may feel as though engaging in such sexual relations does not produce enough of a benefit to continue. Much of this decision, according to Homans, revolves around one’s history and previous exposure to similar situations (1958).

A large body of research suggests that the engagement of sex-same sexual relationships amongst inmates is likely a function of “imprisonment pains.” Thus, inmates engage in sexual behaviors as a form of dealing with some level of psychological discomfort (Einat & Chen, 2012). According to Johnson (1971), homosexuality in prisons was not something to be viewed as an epidemic, but rather, as an adoption to the prison culture. Kassebaum (1972) pointed out that such sexual relationships could be viewed as either coercive, commercial, or romantic. Einat and Chen (2012) found that as much as 67% of a female inmate population speculated that the main factor for engaging in same-sex sexual activities was due to economic factors. Interviewees stated that unequal access to such things as money and material items would lead to such relationships; “poor” inmates would be willing to engage in sexual relations in order to obtain items from canteen.

Another interviewee admitted that such engagement was “disgusting” but that inmates continue to engage in sexual relations in order to obtain goods (Einat & Chen, 2012). Just as Coleman (1988) points out, the role of social capital varies based on trustworthiness and environment. Within the prison subculture, actors, or inmates, vary in their level of social capital. Some inmates just passively complete their time while others may engage more within the subculture which may result in more of the outstanding “credit slips” (Coleman, 1988). In Greer’s study, it was found that such inmates may be known as “canteen whores” (Greer, 2000). Kirkham (1971) viewed the same idea with male inmates referring to these inmates as “canteen punks.” Similar relationships of power can also be observed within the regular community at large. Such financial differences contribute to power differentials.

Groth (1979) implied that sexuality was not an inherent part of a person but rather a construct of that person’s society. Such an idea suggests that one’s decision(s) to engage in sexual behavior is more a product of their environment and something that is dynamic in nature. In the prison setting, this is likely socially constructed as a way to form hierarchies within the prison walls (Groth, 1979). Such hierarchies may contribute to why some inmates choose not to report nonconsensual sexual encounters. Hensley & Tweksbury (2002) speculate reasons as to why inmates do not report sexual assault. Such reasons include fear of remaining in protective custody, fear from other inmates due to reporting, and a way to remain silent to protect one’s reputation (Hensley & Tweksbury, 2002).

Although some research suggests that same-sex sexual activity within prisons is due to deprivation and sexual desire, an alternative explanation is more about power and control and less about obtaining sexual gratification. The prison culture itself creates an environment in which some inmates feel they must reinforce their own self-worth via controlling others through sexual victimization. Since inmates are not able to act out their frustrations with their situation, they instead channel their frustration towards inmates (Hassine, 1999). Sexual bartering has been seen as a common underground economy within prisons which is reflected through sexual encounters of inmates (Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011).

According to Pardue, Arrigo, and Murphy (2011), sex in prisons, “is a quid pro quo relationship in which sexual favors are exchanged for good (e.g., drugs, cigarettes) and/or services (e.g., special work detail or cell assignment) built on unequal or differential power among prisoners or between incarcerates and correctional employees” (p. 290). They go on to report that female inmates will participate in such relationships even if it is based on a perceived standing or influence. Although there are many reasons for such engagement, some speculate that sexual acting out while incarcerated is a form of expressing one’s freedom as it may be one of the few things like that the inmate can control (Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011).

According to Marelich, Lundquist, Painter & Mechanic (2008), there are times that sex is viewed as a cost with the reward being some sort of resource related to the relationship. Further, others have agreed that some sexual acts are performed for varies reasons such as impressing others, gaining approval, and other external rewards. They also suggest that some individuals (not sampled on a prison population) may engage in sex as a way of avoiding confrontation or some other negative circumstance (Marelich et al., 2008).

Most literature on prison inmates suggests that they engage in behaviors as a form of trade; according to the view of Marelich et al. (2008), inmates may engage in sexual relations as a way to avoid some form of confrontation. Policy implication for the rationale behind sexual involvement of inmates is important when looking at consensual and non-consensual behaviors. There is a body of literature that suggests that sexual victimization changes the social culture of the inmate and may actually lead to more violence (Struckman-Johnson, Rucker, Bumby, & Donaldson, 1996).

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