Sexuality, criminality and the women's prison: Pat Arrowsmith’s Somewhere Like This

Rowe, Abigail (2012). Sexuality, criminality and the women's prison: Pat Arrowsmith’s Somewhere Like This. Prison Service Journal, 199 pp. 32–34.



Since the middle of the twentieth century, the women’s prison has held its place in one of the danker corners of the popular imagination. A perennial setting for B-movies and pulp fiction, the women’s prison of popular culture provides a backdrop for a cast of stock characters and recurring plot motifs: the ingénue first-timer, the sadistic guard and aggressive prison lesbian. Offering a cultural analysis of representations of sexuality in women’s prisons, Ann Ciasullo has described this as ‘an enduring cultural erotic fantasy: women imprisoned, trapped with one another in a criminal and sexual underworld’. It is also a fantasy with roots in early criminological theory, which connected criminality to sexual inversion. Ciasullo tracks this ‘women-in-prison narrative’ across genres, including in her analysis psychological and sociological studies of women’s imprisonment produced from the 1920s onwards. Here we see the social worlds of women prisoners organised around dyadic sexual relationships and complex pseudo-familial structures. For Ciasullo, it is the figure of the ‘prison lesbian’ that most clearly unites these disparate genres of the women-in-prison narrative. Appearing with remarkable consistency, she represents a site at which anxieties about sexuality, criminality, race and class play out3. Ciasullo’s inclusion of psychological and sociological research as examples of the women-in-prison narrative invites a critical re-examination of academic as well as literary representations of the women’s prison.

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