Prison sexuality refers to the sexual relationships of individuals confined to correctional facilities. Sexual relationships behind bars may include consensual and nonconsensual inmate-to-inmate sex or conjugal visits. Prison administrators face some serious questions about how to deal with sexual relationships within their facilities. It is important that they make ethical decisions about policies regarding prison sexuality, that is, policies that are fair and equitable.
In 1958, Gresham Sykes was the first to write about the pains of imprisonment in his book The Society of Captives. These pains consist of the deprivation of liberty, goods and services, autonomy, security, and heterosexual relationships. The latter deprivation forces prisoners to seek alternative means for achieving sexual gratification including masturbation, consensual same-sex sexual activity, or coerced same-sex sexual activity. Inmates also may be able to participate in conjugal visits with their legal spouse, but this practice is rare (that is, only six states currently allow it).
Consensual same-sex relationships are relatively common in both male and female prisons. Many inmates report that they were not homosexual when they entered prison but that the need for sexual release was so strong they decided to be “gay for the stay.” Males claim that their participation in homosexual behavior is driven primarily by the need for sexual gratification, while females report the need for both emotional and physical intimacy. There are individuals who enter the prison system who identify as homosexual, too. Like their heterosexual counterparts, homosexual inmates often participate in sexual relationships during their incarceration.
Offenders in most prisons are prohibited from any type of sexual behavior. For example, inmates are not allowed to masturbate or to possess any form of pornographic material while incarcerated. Prison officials often defend such policies on the grounds that masturbatory discharges (seminal and vaginal fluids) may pose a serious health risk for staff and other prisoners. There are reports in male prisons of inmates that have used semen as a weapon and thrown it at correctional staff. The fear is that others will be exposed to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as the HIV/AIDS virus.
Masturbation is preferable for some inmates to seeking out a homosexual relationship. Married inmates report masturbation allows them the sexual release they need while remaining faithful to their spouses on the outside. Additionally, inmates argue that masturbation allows them a sexual release without seeking out a homosexual relationship that might potentially expose them to the HIV/AIDS virus. Male inmates also argue that masturbation allows them to release their pent up sexual aggression, which reduces the likelihood of sexually assaulting another inmate.
Correctional facilities have strict policies against homosexual behavior. The need for sexual gratification is a basic human need. The need for sexual gratification, coupled with the fact that an inmate’s choices are limited, creates a situation where homosexual behavior may be a natural outcome. Consensual same-sex relationships may help reduce sexual assault in prison, especially in male prisons. Male prisoners also report that allowing them a sexual outlet reduces the likelihood that they will physically assault staff or other prisoners. Likewise, female prisoners report that they feel less anxious and/or aggressive after having sex. However, Angela Pardue and her colleagues note that homosexual behavior in women’s prisons often increases the likelihood of violence because homosexuality may lead to both the economic and sexual exploitation of prisoners. For example, more experienced inmates may pressure less experienced inmates into homosexual behavior in exchange for protection or commissary.
Participating in homosexual behavior may potentially expose the participants to STIs. Several prisons and jails throughout the United States issue inmates condoms as part of their orientation to prison. Many prison administrators concede that homosexual behavior is a logical consequence of incarceration, and the use of condoms is necessary to prevent the spread of STIs. Those who oppose this practice suggest that condom distribution will lead to increased sexual behavior including sexual assault. They also fear condom use will lead to an increase in drug use (i.e., inmates will use the condoms to hide drugs anally) or will disrupt prison operations. Research indicates that these fears are unfounded and that access to condoms does not interrupt the prison routine, represents no threat to security or operations, does not lead to an increase in sexual activity or drug use, and is accepted by most prisoners and staff once it is introduced.
Prison sexuality may lead to sexual violence. There are three major forms of sexual violence that have been identified in female correctional facilities: (1) manipulation, (2) compliance, and (3) coercion. Manipulation refers to using sex as a bartering tool in which sexual favors are performed in exchange for goods or services. Compliance occurs when a female prisoner reluctantly but submissively participates in sexual behavior because of some real or perceived threat. Sexual coercion ranges from implicit to explicit pressure to engage in sexual behaviors. These forms of sexual violence can be committed by a prisoner against a staff member, a prisoner against another prisoner, and a staff member against a prisoner.
Some prison administrators have policies that permit conjugal visits between legal spouses. Six states allow conjugal visits: California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, and Washington. Conjugal visits are available in both male and female prisons. These visits may serve two purposes—controlling homosexual behavior and the preservation of the family. Inmates who have conjugal visits are less likely to participate in same-sex relationships. Prison administrators who permit conjugal visits believe this is also the first step in preserving and/or re-establishing family bonds. As a result, prisons no longer call them conjugal visits but instead use the term extended family visits. Increasing the family bond also increases the odds that inmates will stay out of prison.
- Hensley, Christopher. Prison Sex: Practice and Policy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002.
- Jürgens, Ralf. “Effectiveness of Interventions to Manage HIV in Prisons Provisions of Condoms and Other Measures to Decrease Sexual Transmission.” World Health Organization. (2007) http://www.who.int/hiv/idu/Prisons_condoms.pdf (Accessed October 2013).
- Pardue, Angela, Bruce A. Arrigo, and Daniel S. Murphy. “Sex and Sexuality in Women’s Prisons: A Preliminary Typological Investigation.” Prison Journal, v.91 (2011).
- Whitehead, John T., Kimberly D. Dodson, and Bradley D. Edwards. Corrections: Exploring Crime, Punishment, and Justice in America. Waltham, MA: Anderson, 2013.
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