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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Bad men

By Kristian Mjåland

Coming towards the end of a 7-months long ethnographic fieldwork in a Norwegian women’s prison, I would like to reflect on what this piece of research has taught me about being a male researcher.

The women I met and interviewed during these months had highly varied backgrounds and experienced their time in this prison in very different ways. One of the things the women in this prison had in common, however, was bad experiences with men. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember one single interviewee who didn’t talk about men who had hurt them in some way or other. These bad experiences with men were highly varied, and ranged from sexual abuse, domestic violence, psychological violence, bullying, infidelity, financial exploitation and coercive and controlling behaviour. Even though it is a well-established research finding that women in prison have a high prevalence of traumatic life experiences, and I knew this well before we started this fieldwork, the level and nature of their bad experiences with men hit me with full force and made me feel uncomfortable about being a man.

In this blog post, I will try to use the women’s bad experiences with men and how that affected me as tools to reflect upon some of the gendered dynamics of prison life and research.

I have for long believed that one of my great assets as a prison researcher is my non-threatening demeanour. I look like a guy that works with documents in an office (rather thin and physically weak), and who is accustomed to working with people (friendly and approachable). This has worked to my benefit in male prisons. I think I am rarely seen as a threat to anyone’s masculinity. I don’t believe the men I have interviewed have experienced me as dominating, and I don’t believe the men I have interviewed have felt a need or desire to dominate me. To quite a large extent, I never felt that my maleness was ‘in the way’; it didn’t contaminate the relational dynamic between my interviewees and me.

Confronted with the stories the women in the female prison told me about the men they had encountered in their lives, I started to think and feel differently about my gender, and how that affected the research. Two things appear particularly important, and they concern trust and disgust.

Several of the women said, during our interviews, that their bad experiences with men meant that they were suspicious of men and did not trust them. I could perfectly well understand that, but it simultaneously made me acutely aware and self-conscious of my gender and how I performed it. In some of the interviews we discussed whether bad experiences with male staff members in prison reactivated traumatic life experiences, and some women said it did. Although this is very important data, it added an extra layer of discomfort: was my presence in the prison, and my being in the interview situation, fuelling further mistrust in men? Or worse: was I, under the guise of doing research, reactivating traumatic life experiences with bad men? Looking back, I can’t now think of any occasion where I believe I did that, but the awareness that I could be doing that increased my ethical self-consciousness in the prison.

For the most part, I think this ethical and gender self-consciousness produced positive outcomes. For instance, I was even more concerned with how my interviewees experienced the interview setting, and I believe that I was even more alert to signals of comfort or discomfort during our conversations. On the other hand, I believe that the awareness of the mistrust my gender represented meant that I was slightly more careful than I otherwise would have been when discussing difficult questions in the interviews. I am generally not the boldest interviewer and often feel a desire to shift topics when I sense that my interviewee finds the questions or themes painful, and I believe that I was even more inclined to do this when interviewing women.

Inspired partly by Alison Liebling’s (2009) point that ‘women in prison prefer legitimacy to sex’, we deliberately chose to use the same interview schedule in male and female prisons. The idea was that the themes we know are important for prisoners (staff-prisoner relationships, contact with family and friends, power, respect, legitimacy etc) would be important for prisoners of both sexes, although with possible variations that we wanted to explore. While I still believe that this is a good research strategy, I have come to realise that a ‘gender neutral’ approach is difficult to accomplish when you are in the field. My maleness was more ‘in the way’ in the women’s prison, and consciously and unconsciously led me to slightly different ways of doing the interviews. Although it might have resulted in more ethical self-consciousness and ‘gender sensitive’ interviewing, I’m slightly worried that it also pushed me towards ‘gender stereotypical’ interviewing where I may have reduced my interviewees agency by avoiding difficult themes.

Disgust was a prominent feeling I had when the women talked about their experiences with abusive men. Reflecting on this now, I think the feelings of disgust had different dimensions to it. One dimension was related to responsibility. For reasons I am not fully aware of, I felt that the behaviour of the bad men reflected negatively on me, as a man. I felt an urge to stand up and shout: ‘I am not like that!’, and ‘On behalf of all men: I am sorry!’ Alice Ievins (2017) has written extensively on stain in prison in relations to men convicted of sexual offences and argues that many men feel stained by having to interact on a daily basis with other men whose offences they morally disapprove of. Although not entirely applicable for my experience, I still believe the disgust I felt when the women told me about bad experiences with men had to do with stain – I felt stained by my sex.    

The other dimension to disgust that I would like to highlight, concerns the way I have previously sympathised with ‘bad men’ in the research process. The fieldwork we completed shortly before starting up the study in the women’s prisons was with men convicted of sexual offenses. Here we interviewed men who were convicted of rape and sexual assault towards women, that is; the ‘bad men’ the women talked about. However awful their offences, as a qualitative researcher, you need to sympathise at least partly with your research participants to be able to do a good interview. I had surprisingly few problems with that as we were doing the study of men convicted of sexual offences, but I had more problems with that when we later started interviewing the imprisoned women. The disgust I felt when the women talked about their experiences with abusive men then had to do with moral inauthenticity: how could I have sympathised so effortlessly with the ‘bad men’ whose offences had caused so much suffering?

I believe it is unpleasant yet unavoidable to feel morally inauthentic in situations like this. Unavoidable mainly due to two reasons. First, as stated above, you do have to sympathise with the people you interview in order to do a good interview. In my experience, it is actually very easy to find common human ground in the interview setting, and this usually sparks off a dialogic and reciprocal sharing of sympathy that, at its best, turns interviewing into a most intriguing gift. Secondly, and for good reasons I would argue, the victims of your interviewees’ offences are not your primary concern when you interview prisoners with the aim of learning about their experiences of imprisonment. By way of some cognitive mechanisms I do not fully comprehend, my feelings about the harms caused by the offenders I have interviewed have not surfaced in the interview setting in a way that has distracted me from doing decent interviewing. These feelings may surface later, however, like they did with full force when conducting research in the women’s prison. The moral inauthenticity issue therefore has some peculiar ritual to it, which shares affinity with some forms of transgressive offending behaviour: you suppress feelings in the act (of interviewing) and it feels good, yet that suppression of feelings bite back and make you feel bad.  

To conclude, then, listening to the imprisoned women’s bad experiences with men produced feelings and dilemmas in the research process that I have not experienced when doing research in male prisons. Researchers doing in-depth qualitative interviews in prison have a lot of experience listening to and dealing with suffering, and after two years of interviewing prisoners in Norway and England & Wales I am no exception to that rule. The stories of suffering told by our female interviewees affected me differently because I was pushed to reflect on how my identity as a man intervened in the research. To fully realise that my gender communicated mistrust, and that my male body, for some at least, represented abusive potential, was a new and uncomfortable experience. Although I don’t know yet whether this awareness made me do a better job as a researcher, I am confident that it helped me to understand some of the gendered complexities of prison life and prison research.


Ievins, A. (2017) Adaptation, Moral Community and Power in a Prison for Men Convicted of Sex Offences. PhD Dissertation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Liebling, A. (2009) Women in Prison Prefer Legitimacy to Sex. British Society of Criminology Newsletter, 63: 19-23.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Mjåland, K., (2019) Bad Men. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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