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Criminal Intimacy

Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality

Criminal Intimacy

Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality

Sex is usually assumed to be a closely guarded secret of prison life. But it has long been the subject of intense scrutiny by both prison administrators and reformers—as well as a source of fascination and anxiety for the American public. Historically, sex behind bars has evoked radically different responses from professionals and the public alike. In Criminal Intimacy, Regina Kunzel tracks these varying interpretations and reveals their foundational influence on modern thinking about sexuality and identity.
Historians have held the fusion of sexual desire and identity to be the defining marker of sexual modernity, but sex behind bars, often involving otherwise heterosexual prisoners, calls those assumptions into question. By exploring the sexual lives of prisoners and the sexual culture of prisons over the past two centuries—along with the impact of a range of issues, including race, class, and gender; sexual violence; prisoners’ rights activism; and the HIV epidemic—Kunzel discovers a world whose surprising plurality and mutability reveals the fissures and fault lines beneath modern sexuality itself.
Drawing on a wide range of sources, including physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists, correctional administrators, journalists, and prisoners themselves—as well as depictions of prison life in popular culture—Kunzel argues for the importance of the prison to the history of sexuality and for the centrality of ideas about sex and sexuality to the modern prison. In the process, she deepens and complicates our understanding of sexuality in America.

352 pages | 15 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2008


Gay and Lesbian Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History

Sociology: Criminology, Delinquency, Social Control, Social Institutions


“Regina Kunzel has written a pathbreaking study of prison sexual culture from the origins of the penitentiary to the AIDS crisis. She reveals the complex history of inmates’ same-sex encounters and traces the shifting explanations for prison homosexuality advanced by officials, reformers, and activists. Criminal Intimacy revises our understanding of modern sexual identity, showing how much homosexuality and heterosexuality have been unstable and unconsolidated categories. This is one of the most significant books on the history of American sexuality in recent years. ”

Kathy Peiss, author of Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture

“Written with elegance and argued with verve. In this brilliant analysis, Kunzel uses sex in prison to rewrite the history of modern sexual identity. Through meticulous research, she shows us how concerns about sex refracted shifting anxieties about class, race, gender, family, and violence. A sleek, smart, and important book.”

Joanne Meyerowitz, author of How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States

"Criminal Intimacy successfully conveys the continued sidelining of the complexities of sex in prisons. For even in the face of the constant fear of violence in so many American prisons, Kunzel depicts a world in which sexual love between men, or between women, once it is given the attention it deserves, can still threaten to unsettle dominant conceptions of stable sexual identities. It is this that makes Kunzel’s book essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about the multifarious exchanges between sexuality and identity, in any context."

Times Higher Education

“Kunzel’s fascinating history of the changing attitudes toward same-sex sex in prisons challenges views of sexuality and gender identity as simple or immutable.”


"This much-anticipated book does not disappoint. Regina Kunzel not only offers a long-overdue, rich account of sex in prisons, but uses the institution’s position . . . to obtain an important new perspective on modern sexuality. . . . This book will change the way you look at modern sexuality."

Stephen Robertson | Journal of American History

Table of Contents

1     “An Architecture Adapted to Morals”   
2    “Every Prison Has Its Perverts”
3    The Problem of Prison Sex in Mid-Twentieth-Century America
4    “The Deviants Are the Heterosexuals”
5    Race, Rape, and the Violent Prison
6    “Lessons in Being Gay”


Modern Language Association GL/Q Caucus: Alan Bray Memorial Book Award

Foundation for the Scientific Study of Sexuality: Bonnie and Vern L. Bullough Book Award

AHA Committee on Lesbian and Gay History: John Boswell Prize

American Studies Association: John Hope Franklin Publication Prize

Lambda Literary Foundation: Lambda Literary Awards

The Publishing Triangle: Publishing Triangle: Shilts/Grahn Award for Gay/Lesbian Nonfiction

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