The Whole World a Prison: Forced Feminization Narratives and the Politics of Sexual Identity

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[Editor’s note: Though undoubtedly analytical, the post below contains references to mature themes, sexuality, and sexual assault. Please proceed accordingly.]

The idea that gender and sexual identities are malleable has become increasingly familiar to many Americans in recent years. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s challenged ideas of what femininity meant—the submissive, dependent housewife and nurturing caretaker was not all womanhood could mean—while the rise of LGBT activism since the late 1960s put forth new models of acting, being, and loving in the world, which did not necessarily comport with older notions of heteronormative male and female identity. Most recently, the movement for trans rights has provided perhaps the greatest challenge to fixed notions of what it means to be male or female, that biology is destiny and somehow determines who one is and how one should act.

Yet there is a great deal of pushback. We are in the midst of a United States presidential campaign in which the female candidate is derided by critics as too cold, not smiling enough, while the male candidate has sailed on the strength of a sort of unbridled, bullying masculine id. States such as North Carolina have gone out of their way to dictate who is allowed to use which bathroom based on their birth certificate, with the same kind of zeal they bring to denying people to right to vote. Suddenly, a genetic, biological gender identity has taken on a vastly greater political salience that it has ever had before, at least not since battles over women’s right to vote in the 1910s, or the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s or 1970s.

We see notions of gender and sexuality in flux in a particular and unusual subset of literature: online sex stories. Throughout the early to mid twentieth century, pulp fiction offered readers the potential to find stories that included sexual content; indeed, this cheap, accessible form of semi-illicit literature allowed for expressions of LGBT sexuality considered too controversial for mainstream film or fiction. (Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, originally written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, later went on to become the brilliant Todd Haynes’s film Carol in 2015.)With the rise of the Internet, a whole new demimonde opened up for people to write and share stories about sex, especially alternative forms of sexuality, from garden variety gay and lesbian tales to all manner of themes such as transvestism, S&M, and even rape or bestiality. As with video porn, there are sex stories for just about everyone and every predilection.

These stories sprouted up in the 1990s, being a very low-tech and easily shared form of literature on various web forums and online groups. The Nifty Erotic Stories Archive, for instance, has existed since 1992, and includes a wide range of stories on a number of themes, broadly grouped into “gay male,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “transgender.” The stories are the original and quintessential “user-generated content,” furnished by members of the Nifty community—unheralded and often unknown writers, whose passings are noted on the front page of Nifty.org. Nifty is one of the older sex story sites, though there are numerous others—Literotica.org and Asstr.org, for instance—most of which share the same sort of frumpy, no-frills web design reminiscent of Geocities in the 1990s.

Stories of domination, humiliation, and forced feminization give a unique window into the ways people think about gender and identity. A surprisingly ubiquitous genre of sex story, these tales are typically categorized under a “trans” label, as they involve a cis male being forced to become feminine or female in some way. Rape is almost always a feature of the stories, playing a key role in the conversion of the victim from male to female. Indeed, in some ways sexual assault is like the kiss that turns a frog into a prince in fairy tales—the decisive moment that transforms the character.

This essay takes three online sex stories as its subjects, although many others share the same themes, assumptions, and narrative structure. These stories are noteworthy in terms of their relatively sophisticated and complex storylines—at least compared to the large number of crass and unbelievable fictions available on the same sites—and they exemplify certain notions about sex, gender, and identity that are common across many forced feminization narratives. Together, they offer a window a rather peculiar subculture that doubles as sexual fetish—like any pornography, they appear to be written with sexual stimulation and titillation in mind—and surprisingly transparent commentary on sex roles and gender identity.

Notably, each of these stories is supposedly written by a woman. This writer has doubts about the gender of the authors, but for whatever reason having a female author (if not narrator) seems to be part and parcel of the forced feminization genre. “Prison Wife” by Mother Kali is perhaps the most developed and involved sex story under consideration. Over the course of ten installments, we learn of the trials of Joseph Carlton, an upper-class accountant who suffers the indignities of prison after embezzling money from his firm to pay for his wife’s high-flying lifestyle. Joseph is the quintessential ingenue in prison, far out of his depth as the prisoner bus rattles into the institution that will be his home for the next few years. Naively, he thinks he can keep his head down and avoid eye contact to avoid trouble, something he supposedly learned from nature documentaries. From the beginning, Joseph thinks of his fellow inmates in animal terms.

You can imagine where it goes from here. Two inmates corner Joseph and threaten to beat him up unless he agrees to give them oral sex. If he does so, they promise, they won’t hurt him or rape him. But as soon as he’s done, they think differently. He must be “a prodigy. Like one of those little kids that can play the piano real good. Only pretty thing here– well, his gift is for wrapping his lips around guys’ dicks.” They are about to rape him when Gus comes along.

The commanding, macho figure, Gus rescues Joseph. The new inmate thinks he has been saved, until he realizes Gus has a proposition. If he will be his “wife”—submitting to anal and oral sex, and basically being under Gus’s complete control—then Joseph will be save from perpetual gang rape.

It is an arrangement known as “hooking up,” as the late prison activist Stephen Donaldson described in exacting detail years ago. A physically weaker prisoner tries to avoid being assaulted repeatedly by coming under the protection of a “daddy” who will control access to him and protect him from random violence. In some, but not all cases, the daddy will try to force his reluctant partner to become more feminine. (A similar storyline occurred in the OZ, the disturbing HBO series that made sexual violence and forced feminization in prison part of pop culture—though many of these stories predated the show.)

In “Prison Wife,” this is very much the case. Gus undertakes a complete feminization of Joseph, who is too weak, scared, and vulnerable to offer up much, if any, resistance. It begins with their first unwilling act of sex. As in many stories of forced feminization, rape is the moment when a character’s will is broken and the feminine transformation begins: “He understood now that there was no manhood to salvage once you’d let yourself be taken like a woman. And so he didn’t just sob. He cried his heart out into the dampening pillow as his husband gave him a honeymoon he would never forget.”

Joseph is shocked again and again as Gus increasingly forces him to knuckle under a perverse and extraordinary discipline. He has to wear makeup and women’s clothing, put on a “tuck” to hide his penis, and—quite unwittingly—take a pill that initiates his hormonal transition. Over time, Joseph (now dubbed Joanne) begins to notice he is growing breasts and realizes he has been forced to take female sex hormones that Gus, in his infinite wisdom and power, has sometimes managed to sneak into the prison. As any transwoman will tell you, such changes are nowhere near as swift and drastic as they are portrayed in “Prison Wife,” in which Joseph gets a 36B bust and curvy hips in just a manner of months. But under Gus’s discipline and the threat of gang rape, he continues to become increasingly feminine, physically and psychologically.

In the long run, Joseph falls for another “punk,” Carlos, another man who is “hooked up” with a dominant fellow inmate but not required to undergo feminization. Through his experience, Joseph begins to empathize and relate with women: his changing body makes him wonder what girls go through in puberty, while his sexual relationship with Gus causes him to realize how women are disempowered or dissatisfied in many contexts with men. Most importantly, though, he begins to embrace the position of a receptive sexual partner and lusts after Carlos, with whom he finally consummates a relationship shortly before being released.

There is much more to Joseph’s story—his being cuckolded by his wife and former boss, at the same time that he is being robbed of his masculinity in prison, and a ludicrous subplot in which he sleeps with the warden in order to get lingerie to hold Gus’s interest, so as not to get “divorced” and thrown to the wolves. Throughout, the theme is Joseph’s own thorough emasculation—not just his bodily feminization but his reduction to utter, blubbering dependency, like a desperate housewife in a 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama. This is still a prison rape story, but Joseph rapidly and completely surrenders to a role of feminine dependency that is not that different from any Lifetime movie—with the none-too-subtle implication that it is his own weakness that allows him to become feminine. Even the name “Joseph Carlton” implies a prissy, upper-class gender identity that is easily shattered by the brute realities of prison, and in this story, like so many other, weakness is equated with femininity. Notably, race seems to be totally absent from these stories—despite the fact that so many other forms of pornography are racialized in the basest and most stereotypical terms.

In another story, “Cut It Off,” published in 1994 by Rebecca, a similarly well-heeled lawyer by the name of Mark recounts how he came to be feminized in a lonely cell. His story begins with a romp between the sheets with a random floozie while his wife, a doctor, is out of town at a conference. When the wife comes home early, she catches him with the girlfriend, but seems oddly unfazed. However, when Mark wakes up, he finds himself chained in a small room. (How their lavish country estate had a windowless cell that could serve this purpose is an unexplained detail.)

Peggy had locked Mark up in his sleep, likely giving him a sedative, and now he was stuck. He did not quite understand at first, but she was determined to teach him a lesson.

All of you men are the same. You will promise anything but as long as that thing between your legs is working you will abuse and take advantage of women. I don’t think you are capable of knowing how we feel as women and I am going to teach you a lesson. It may take a long time but when I am through, you are going to understand how it feels to be a woman. Remember one thing — I’m not doing this to punish. I’m doing it because I still love you and I want you to grasp some reality. I want you to see the world through my eyes.

She injects him with estrogen shots and forces him to dress in women’s clothes. At first he resists, refusing to dress as directed and therefore going without food for several days. Finally, he surrenders and wears a “cotton dress in gingham black and white checks,” which, he confesses, “was quite comfortable.” We see the edifice of his masculinity beginning to crack, and he gets to eat.

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Things proceed from there, and Peggy continues in her campaign to turn her husband into a woman, by force. He begins to grow breasts, like Joseph, and is forced to wear bras, panties, dresses, and nightgowns in his little cell. His hair grows long and he gets a perm. But eventually there’s a turning point:

I can’t say exactly when it was that I surrendered to Peggy’s efforts to feminize me. I put up what I thought was a good fight, but one day it just didn’t seem to matter any more. Maybe it was the day I first noticed the small pert breast that were forming on my chest and realized that other very feminine changes were taking place around my hips and thighs. Most likely, however, it was the night I was visited by Big Al. This is the part of my story that I had planned to leave out but I have decided to tell it so that you can understand just how my spirit was finally broken.

As you might expect, sex—that is, rape—is the critical moment for shattering what remains of Mark’s masculinity, as well as his will to resist. When Peggy pierces Mark’s ears, he feels a sudden sting of shame about what he has let her do to him, and he lashes out, smacking her on the face. Peggy decides the time has come.

“Damn you!” She had tears in her eyes. “You were making such good progress and now that macho garbage just had to surface. Look at yourself in the mirror and be honest with yourself — The man is gone. The sooner you let go of the male inside, the easier it is going to be for you. Tonight we get rid of Mr. Macho for good.”

Predictably, she brings in “Big Al,” a huge man likened to Arnold Schwarzenegger—a man whose gender and sexual identity is unimpeachable, unlike weak Mark or Joseph. Mark is ashamed because he chose to wear an especially feminine raspberry nightgown that night, when he is being exposed to this big, strong man’s man. He pulls up the covers to hide himself. Big Al offers to help him, massaging his arm and then planting a kiss on his face. Al’s mission—and he is purportedly the “boyfriend” of one of the “transsexual girls” Peggy works with as a surgeon—is to rape Mark. He forces his penis in Mark’s mouth and then forces anal sex on him. The striking thing about this horrific scene is how the author portrays Mark as responding to Al sexually, perhaps because of his own latent same-sex desires or, implicitly, because of the effect of female hormones:

His lips moved from mine to my breast and he began to suck. I couldn’t believe how good it felt and I experienced feelings of gult for liking it. I don’t remember doing it but when he pulled away, my hand was on the back of his head… The speed and force of his thrusts increased and I found myself pushing my pelvic up to meet his attacks. I felt the explosion deep inside my body. I could feel his warm male juices as they surged from his body into mine. Al relaxed and I felt the full weight of his body. He kissed me one more time very passionately and this time I found that my tongue was deep inside his mouth.

After this point, Mark completely surrenders to Peggy’s designs. In fact, he adopts the new name that Big Al gave him (Linda), completing the transformation that rape apparently commences. He is now Linda, and he goes with along with the idea of being female, almost becoming a roommate and friend to his wife: “When she thought that I would look good as a blond, I became a blond. Somewhere along the way I began to enjoy my new gender and I found myself looking forward to her next effort to make me a complete female.” Eventually, Mark/Linda has sexual reassignment surgery and begins working as a paralegal for his former partner at the law firm where he previously worked. The story ends on an ironic note, as the horndog lawyer had been trying to get Linda in to bed from day one, and finally succeeds. They might even marry. “Wouldn’t that be ironical?” Linda muses. “The law practice would be half mine again.”

Take note of the patterns here. Men are portrayed as innately vulnerable, unable to resist violence imposed on them, which makes them become more feminine. And in both Joseph and Mark, there is some kind of underlying same-sex desire that becomes evident when they have sex with men, as Mark even begins to participate in his own rape by some reflexive reaction. The characters learn things about themselves by becoming more feminine; as Mark says,

I have always felt that the hardest parts of being a man were the stupid macho games we had to play. We pretend that we do not feel pain, that we can handle all situations, that tenderness is sissy, that might makes right and most of all, we must pretend that the fact that we are never taught to love is unimportant. I do not have to pretend any more.

This epiphany toward the end of the story somehow tries to make an ennobling virtue out of what has been a story of sexual violence, domination, and humiliation—that being “weak” has taught him to be tender and not have to “pretend.” Likewise, Joseph grows into his femininity thanks to Carlos, confessing that he feels “more comfortable with my breasts than my dick.” The message is either that gender and sexual identity are completely pliable, or that certain men—i.e. these characters—are predisposed to be weak and feminine, dominated by men like Gus or Big Al whose sexual identity is not remotely in question because of their physical prowess. As Joseph laments, when Gus advises him to get SRS treatment once he’s out (“a pretty pink pussy to go with those gorgeous tits I gave you”):

It was so easy for Gus. He could just throw out all these disturbing ideas, and then move on to the next conquest, confident in his masculinity. Even though he engaged in homosexual acts every night, he never had to question himself, because he was always on top, always in complete control, dominating his partner completely. But Joseph– well, Joseph was left to sort out the wreck of his sexual identity.

What is most striking, though, goes beyond an internal sexual or gender identity. The stories accept a fantastical idea of gender transition, in which a few months of hormones suddenly transform a man’s body to visibly “female” (Mark tops out at a C cup) and both body and mind are supremely malleable. Whether or not the authors presume a latent femininity or vulnerability in their sex-changing protagonists, they definitely take for granted that the human body can be easily changed in almost magical ways.

The final story is “Bambi,” published by Lisa Fox in 2000. Though the other stories are hardly believable, this narrative departs from plausibility in even more profound ways. Taylor Stark is a member of a softball team who suffers severe retribution for calling in sick for a game. The other members of his circle of friends, led by the sadistic Dick, punish him by forcing him to wear makeup and dress like a girl. From there, the charade gets out of control as the group continues to force him to enact a female identity and, of course, the guys eventually rape him. Taylor is renamed “Bambi,” even though one member of the group points out that Bambi was actually a boy in the animated film, and he becomes essentially their sex slave—a sort of “prison wife” on the outside. The author holds that Taylor does not flee because of the shame of what has happened, but the narrative hardly makes sense. As in the other stories, Bambi reacts physically to sexual assault:

That strange feeling of pleasure was overwhelming me again, and I heard myself moaning in the back of my throat, just like a girl might do while making love to her boyfriend. The sound brought on a chorus of laughter from the other three guys as they watched Art and I going at it and made comments on our technique.

And, as in the other stories, Bambi falls in love with one of the men he has sex with. The notable departure is that “Bambi” does not involve any hormones, and it’s only late in the story that the men propose having Bambi get breast implants. In other words, the story does not rely on the pseudo-scientific trope that estrogen causes immediate and drastic changes in a character’s body, while simultaneously changing his mind to be more feminine. “Bambi” is entirely about violence and domination transforming a person’s character, though the end result is the same: the protagonist comes to accept a feminine identity that has been brutally forced upon him.

It is hard to understand exactly who writes these stories, who reads them, and why. Are they written for men who fantasize about being female, or being dominated? Are they just sadistic and ironic riffs on gender stereotypes? The melodramatic and often ridiculous depths of humiliation that the characters endure suggests a kind of schadenfreude, along with a guilty-pleasure identification with the victim. One might suppose the stories even had a feminist valence, one of ridiculing and mocking tropes of masculinity, if they did not so thoroughly embrace such norms. In any case, the stories amount to a small but significant part of Internet subculture, going back to the earliest days of online sharing when various alternative or subversive sexual fantasies could be expressed in the seemingly anonymous world of online publishing. I doubt that Lisa Fox or Rebecca or Mother Kali are who they claim to be; they may be male or female, but they are definitely deeply invested in a form of narrative that fetishizes male humiliation at the same time as reinforcing a patriarchal and sexist view of relationships between men, women, and anyone who falls elsewhere on that spectrum. To be a man is to be strong, dominant, and inviolable; to be a woman, or a feminized man, is to be weak, dominated, and vulnerable, but also tender, loving, and empathetic. It is, indeed, a very traditional view of gender, refracted through a cracked lens.

These views are not unique to a particular subgenre of online erotic literature, of course—they are very much a part of the culture. A man is a “bitch” if he doesn’t stand his ground against other men. People make jokes about prison rape, as if it is par for the course that a shoplifting conviction naturally brings with it the penalty of sexual violence and trauma. As legal historian Rebecca Trammell has shown, ideas about strength and manliness run deep in prison culture, as inmates rationalize the rape and forced sexual relationship of “hooking up” as a reflection of the gay tendencies or personal weakness of particular prisoners. As one prisoner put it:

Yeah, that happens. Men pick these guys carefully. They want to be with a guy who acts like a chick. They want to be with someone who will dress like, you know, like a woman. They hook-up. There is plenty of sex in prison, that’s a fact. If you are, you know, if you act like a chick, you’ll get a man to take care of you. I would not do it but there are plenty of faggy guys who will give it up to have a daddy take care of them.

For some men, prison may become like the lurid sexual fantasies of “Prison Wife” or “Cut It Off” or “Bambi,” thanks to a broader culture that views women as inferior, as objects of ridicule and derision, and sorts men according to their degree of manliness or womanliness. Indeed, in the world of these stories, every man is one rape away from being broken, rebuilt, re-gendered. And prison is the ultimate metaphor for forced sexual conversion: an unnatural environment where rule of law is essentially suspended and brute force allows the strongest to rewrite the rules of identity and society. This world is not unlike the one proposed by feminist Gayle Rubin in her classic essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex”—men treat anyone physically less strong than them as property, even a commodity, if they can, and prison is the ultimate testing ground for that hypothesis. For men, prison is the place where that happens. But for women, it could argued that the whole world is a prison.

Casey Baskin is writer based in Batavia, Ohio and a Master’s student in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at Ohio State University.

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