August 3, 2010

The Prison Effect

I apologize for not posting in forever. I’ve been busy with non-LGBT stuff. Also, the discussion group isn’t doing well. I’m attempting to revive it and not lose hope. [Update: Two people have already expressed serious interest in taking over the group when I leave!]

This past week I was at the computer hacker’s conference Defcon in Las Vegas. This led me to think about the “prison effect” which famously produces Lesbians Until Graduation (LUGs) at elite women's universities like Smith. Though I have never been to prison, I have been to Catholic school, math camp, frat parties and now a computer hacker’s conference which was 99.99% white male. (I know what you're thinking: Catholic school? I have fantasies about all-girls Catholic schools! The hetronormativity and proximity of our "brother school" created an exotic type of "prison effect.")

I am particularly susceptible to this effect for three reasons. I don’t know of any reliable, classy (sorry Steel Blue) queer women hangouts in the RTP area. I’m excited to check out CC's hip-hop nights. Since I have a girlfriend it would be for observatory purposes only. I’m interested in male dominated fields like computer science and business. And I’m the kind of femme who finds masculine energy more important than gender.

Picture this: I am surrounded by men. It’s probable that one out of the thousands of straight men I encounter at a computer hacker’s conference will think I’m attractive. It’s probable that I will find at least one man without a floppy Mohawk, giant Goth pants, and a beer gut. In fact, he will have a winning smile, an adorable Oklahoma accent, broad shoulders and the ability to hack SCADA systems. I can safely assume this man is straight. My nonchalance is an asset. For once I am not the embarrassing, over-aggressive chaser.

Of course there are one or two women that catch my eye. But, save for subtle body language (which I don’t understand) and asking a woman upfront, I’m not going to know her sexuality. Butches/studs are easy to spot, but I’m afraid they want more femmeness than I can provide. I have never seen a nerdy, Rachel Maddow type butch in the wild. And I’m not exactly attracted to women who wear sensible shoes, so the L Word gaydar checklist does not apply.

Finally, I avoid casual sex with women because protection is so confusing. Men get condoms. Women get dental dams. I have never used a dental dam! Yes, I am a public health hypocrite. So as to not destroy my public health credibility I simply don’t have casual sex with women. I don’t feel confident in initiating the use of such an awkward device. And since I have a girlfriend my lack of dental dam aptitude is a less urgent concern.

Do I feel good about my conquests? Not really. But it’s something. I want to taste that privilege many straight people have of getting lucky at a generic college party. Making out on the dance floor. You know how it goes. It’s like eating coffee flavored ice cream. I don’t like the coffee flavor, but it’s still ice cream.

I know many people won’t understand my susceptibility to the prison effect. They think if I call myself a lesbian instead of a queer woman I should treat interested men like wild hyenas. I think calling myself queer would be a cop-out. To me there is a gulf between romantic and physical attraction. I call myself a lesbian because my romantic attraction lies squarely with women. My physical attraction is nebulous. I bet (I just came back from Vegas after all) if you walked a mile in my shoes you would also hook up with some computer hackers, entrepreneurs, math nerds and Catholic school boys along the way.


  1. Awh Veronica, I absolutely adore you.

    I totally understand the prison effect on you though and I like how you explained it and provided the very good summary at the end haha (fyi, I think queer is kind of a cop-out too).

    There's absolutely nothing abnormal about being physically attracted to men, women etc...Everyone recognizes attractive people as such, no matter their sexuality. I'm pretty sure that I've been called beautiful/attractive/gorgeous by more gay men than I have by any other people.

    You know where your romantic interest lies, and as you said, it's squarely with women. There's a lot of grey in the world of sexuality, hence the LGBTQIAA Alphabet Soup =D

  2. This is SO GOOD. Gah, I love it! I can totally relate-my favorite line was the coffee ice cream part leading into your last paragraph. I totally get that.

    And Steel Blue-ahaha that was amazinggg when we went. What a crowd. =)

  3. wait a minute. I'm a little confused about "the prison effect". Does that mean you're only attracted to the same sex until you leave school? Or that your attraction is limited to what you observe around you?

  4. "There's a lot of grey in the world of sexuality, hence the LGBTQIAA Alphabet Soup =D"

    If you believe the quote above, why is queer a cop-out? I personally avoid identifying as queer because I think it is treated with much of the same suspicion as bisexuality is in the LGBTQ community. Your statement that it is a cop-out seems to confirm that assumption of mine though the "there is a lot of grey" quote suggests otherwise. I'm just kinda confused as to what you mean and I do not like queer being called cop-out.

  5. Anonymous 1: The prison effect is the idea that men who consider themselves straight tend to engage in sexual behavior with other men while in prison. Being cooped up with people of a certain gender will lead you to find people of that gender attractive and to engage in sexual behavior you wouldn't otherwise.

    Peep it:

    Anonymous 2: I know this is directed primarily to Swati, but I don't want my essay to cause confusion. I don't believe that queer is a cop-out. I believe it would be a cop-out to call myself queer. By calling myself queer I don't have to deal with people who say I'm not a lesbian because of certain behavior I engage in. I identify as a lesbian because of my long-term romantic attraction to women and the excitement I feel for women that I don't feel for men. I think queer is a swell term that many people feel comfortable with.

  6. Reliable, classy women hangouts?

    Duke, you need to get out with me more.
    The pinhook usually has a great mix. Also, my big haus. :) I don't like the idea that we all have to go to bars for something to be considered a suitable hang out.

  7. You got me there Summer.

    I plan on checking out the Pinhook in addition to CCs. I know Durham is a hotbed of queer women, but the inertia for me and most Duke students is always away from Durham. The lameness of places like Steel Blue doesn't help. Vespa is great but SO HARD to tell if girls are queer. Note to freshman women: Get out of the the bubble as much as possible!

    Of course I'll be hanging out at your house!

    I generally don't like spaces that have a lot of ambiguity. Which is why I like going to the center. And since it's not loud I can more easily talk to someone about their orientation.

  8. I also want to emphasize that the main point of my article is not to bash what's available in the RTP. The main point is that in my day-to-day intellectual/working life I don't come into contact with tons of women, let alone queer women. I am interested in male-dominated fields. So it's not that I can't meet queer women, I just meet a lot of men.

    My social life, where I might go to Vespa or the Pinhook or Summer's house, is a slightly different story. When I choose to go to a frat party with a bunch of my friends, the prison effect takes hold.

  9. As a straight woman, I think this makes total sense. I have gone to gay clubs and enjoyed the attention of queer/lesbian women. The difference is that straight women are given space to experiment with other women and still be considered straight. People don't question whether I'm straight or tell me I'm copping out when I kiss another girl--in fact, it almost cements my desirability as a heterosexual, in a way.

    I know I'm not queer at all, but sexuality is more complicated than raw physicality and hormones. Sometimes it is about making conquests, feeling attractive and wanted, the chase, ego, etc. That's why I think the prison effect is definitely real.

  10. i. I hoped someone would eventually say what you said! I think that is also has an analogy to race. As a white person I can dress in "ethnic inspired" or hip-hop clothing and be seen as experimental and creative. A non-white person dressing in "white" fashion could potentially be seen as a traitor.

  11. 'The prison effect' is known to work only for some group of people. So your betting that every lesbian would go for sex with men if she was in your shoes is quite annoying tbh. Some women base their lesbian identity actually on a fact that even though they loved men, they didn't feel any sexual attraction to them and that was final proof for them that they are lesbians.

  12. And one more thing. It is not prison. Following your logic, all those guys in all those guy-dominated places should keep having casual sex with each other, but somehow it is not true. Apparently because there are always willing lesbians...