|| Kjersti Ericsson
and Dangerous Sexualities
Alana Barton: Fragile Moralities and Dangerous Sexualities.
Two Centuries of Semi-Penal Institutionalisation for Women. Ashgate,
Fragile Moralities and Dangerous Sexualities Alana Barton
takes a look at women considered deviant, the discourses employed
to describe and explain them, and the social control exercised over
them. Her account is situated in a line of intersection between
criminology and history, which produces a valuable perspective.
The main case explored is an institution called Vernon Lodge, with
a history of nearly 200 years as a ‘semi-penal’ institution for
women, in various guises and under different regimes. A ‘semi-penal’
institution, according to Barton, is an institution that is neither
‘formal’ in the sense of a prison, nor ‘informal’ in the sense of
the family, but simultaneously utilises the regulatory methods and
disciplinary techniques employed in both the custodial and domestic
arenas. Vernon Lodge was opened in 1823, as the County Refuge for
the Destitute. From 1948, it has been a probation hostel. In the
years between, the institution has served several purposes: refugee
for women released from prison, reformatory for recalcitrant or
‘wayward’ girls, institution for women deemed to be feeble-minded.
Barton has reconstructed the story of the institution from original
documents and records. These documents and records were stacked
away in boxes in the attic of the hostel, and accidentally discovered
by Barton herself and a staff member (!)
reconstruction of an institutional story is very interesting, exemplifying
a general tendency well known to students of institutions for those
considered dangerous, in danger or merely a nuisance: Such institutions
frequently have long historical roots, going through several metamorphoses
in the course of their lives, adapting to changes in ideological
climate and hegemonic discourses, but still retaining some basic
modes of functioning.
of Barton’s main purposes is to identify and describe just this
constant element in the changing story of Vernon Lodge. She focuses
on the efforts of the institution to reform and rehabilitate its
all-female inmates, efforts which seem to have some basic assumptions
in common, across decades and even centuries: 1) The main problem
with the women committed or voluntarily (at least formally) staying
at the institution is seen as their deviance from the norms of acceptable,
feminine womanhood. 2) The model of femininity that the institution
tries to socialise its inmates into, have two main components: domesticity
and sexual modesty. There is also a strong tendency to regard the
women as fragile, vulnerable, childlike, and simultaneously as dangerous
fact that women seen as deviant are subjected to a kind of control
focusing acceptable femininity, with its traditional twin pillars
sexual modesty and domesticity, has been demonstrated by feminist
researchers over a wide range of institutions, countries and times
in history. Barton’s work adds to this body of feminist research
with an interesting and convincing case.
addition to describing and analyzing the history of Vernon Lodge,
Alana Barton has also done participant observation in the institution
of today, and carried out in-depth interviews, both with women living
in the hostel and with members of the staff. Her analysis of this
material focuses on similar issues as the historical section of
the book: the feminizing discourses exalting traditional femininity
as the main road to a well-adapted and satisfying life; the conception
of the women as vulnerable, but also as difficult to manage, more
so than men; the informal, and sometimes infantilizing techniques
of disciplining, frequently borrowed from the repertoire of child
upbringing in the family and transferred to an institutional context.
Barton manages to convince this reader that the historical legacy
of Vernon Lodge is discernible even today.
from the practical field (and academic readers as well) may, however,
feel a slight exasperation face to face with critical analyses of
Barton’s kind. Whatever the staff do, it is depicted as discipline
and control, in harsh or soft varieties. Practitioners may feel
in a Catch-22-situation. Barton herself comments on this, thus voicing
a feeling of uneasiness that I think she is sharing with many other
critical researchers doing work in similar fields. However, she
makes an important point in indicating that most efforts to rehabilitate
and help female (and male) offenders target their ‘faulty thinking’
rather than their material and social circumstances.
two main critical comments to Barton’s book concern theoretical
perspective. I have no quarrel with Barton’s main point that women
are subjected to social control that focus conformity to the appropriate
gender role, and that this control is exercised in a variety of
contexts, formal and informal. Frequently, however, I think she
is stretching this perspective too far. One example is her comment
on women in prison, that experience a process of ‘infantilisation’:
“Many women prisoners have reported that the custodial regimes they
experienced encouraged a dependency culture in which they were denied
the rights to make decisions about their lives and which hence reduced
them to a child-like status.” (p.2). This reduction to a child-like
status is one of the most general findings in studies of prisons
and other total institutions, regardless of the sex of the inmates.
On the same page, Barton emphasizes the family as ‘a major ideological
site of control for women’. I do not disagree, but it may be pointed
out that the family is a major site of control of men as well; a
fact that is reflected in ‘risk-assessment’ instruments employed
in prisons. In such instruments, a stable relationship to a woman
is interpreted as a risk-reducing factor in the case of male
offenders. A third example is her indication that only women are
subject to informal and ‘internalised’ forms of control: “In other
words, women are not only subjected to formal external disciplinary
regimes, as are all individuals, but are subjected to informal mechanisms
of control as well as ‘internalised’ forms of regulation.” (p. 26).
If only women, and not men, were subjected to informal and internalized
forms of control, human interaction would hardly be possible.
are other examples as well. I do in no way deny that a gender perspective
on social control is appropriate and fruitful. But even if gender
is everywhere, it ought not to blind us to general mechanisms of
social control and institutional life. Furthermore, social control
as enforcement of an acceptable gender role is hardly aimed exclusively
at women. I definitely think that social control of men, as control
of masculinity, has been far too little explored. I do not criticise
Barton for not having made a study on the control of men in addition
to the one on women that she has done. However, I think that a greater
sensitivity to the general literature on institutions, and to men
as gendered beings, would have served to sophisticate and nuance
her main perspectives.
other critical point concerns the concept ‘resistance’. Barton
is very eager to demonstrate that the female inmates are not ‘passively’
submitting to the control and discipline they are subjected to.
She is looking for signs of resistance everywhere, from acts of
overt protest to conformity. The implicit assumption that non-resistance
is synonymous with passivity, functions as a straitjacket on the
analysis. It also carries a problematic normative message, implying
that the only dignified reaction to control is resistance.
these critical comments, Barton has written an interesting and important
book. The thorough work on the history of the institution, combined
with the analysis of its function today, makes the book especially
is a professor in the Institute of Criminology and Sociology of
Law at the University of Oslo, Norway.
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