Everything you always wanted to know about sex in prison, but were afraid to askPosted: March 23, 2015
Ex-prisoners describe their experience of sex behind bars
From practicalities to sexual identities to pornography to vulnerabilities, there is a lot more to sex in prison than you might think. Much is surrounded by myth, but we finally have some information to go on based on a new report.
The Commission, which is made up of eminent academics, former and serving prison governors, lawyers, former prisoners and health experts, interviewed 26 former prisoners during the summer of 2014.
Here are some of their surprising findings as well as many quotes from prisoners telling what sex in prison is really like.
There is a high tolerance for sex in prison
Generally, among the research participants in this study, there was a high degree of tolerance towards other prisoners participating in consensual sex. One former prisoner called Jem said:
“I think the general attitude, certainly among long-termers is, whatever people get up to, behind their door, is up to them. Sex, drugs, mobile phones – whatever gets you through the night. As long as it doesn’t impact on anyone else, you know, live and let live. Plus, you’ll keep your nose out of other people’s business, if you’ve got any sense.”
Interviewees who had not personally had sex in prison were sometimes aware of consensual sex taking place among other prisoners:
“On my wing, it was quite blatant. There was one spur especially, we called it “the married quarters” because there were so many gays there – or, at least, jail gays – and they were having a whale of time!“
Practical arrangements can prove difficult
One interviewee described the arrangement he had made with his cellmate: if “the [cell] door was shut during association, I should leave them alone for a while.”
Another described a less considerate cellmate who would bring a “known gay” prisoner in to their cell for sex and bluntly warn the interviewee:
“You can either fuck off down the gym or close your eyes and put your headphones on.”
He preferred the former option, and noted that as a result of his frequent trips to the gym, he “really bulked up – my missus wondered why I’d become such a gym bunny and I didn’t know how to tell her!”
“Prison gays” consider themselves to be heterosexual
Some men self-identify as heterosexual and often have wives or girlfriends on the outside, but have gay sex while in prison.
These men are often described as ‘prison gays’, ‘jail gays’, or ‘gay on the inside’. They rarely acknowledge the homosexual nature of what occurs and tend to ignore their gay partners after the act.
One heterosexual interviewee said he had consensual anal and oral sex with gay or bisexual prisoners “out of necessity”. He described how he had sometimes thought about former girlfriends or looked at straight porn while having sex.
Sex was executed “quickly” and “secretly”. He said he was not “friends” with the men with whom he had “dabbled” with in prison. Since leaving prison, he had resumed exclusively heterosexual relationships:
“I’m completely straight. What happened then was just about having my sexual needs met in a particular time and place, where I couldn’t get [heterosexual] sex.”
He said his sexual experiences had not challenged his core identity as a heterosexual.
Indebted and socially isolated prisoners are most vulnerable
Prisoners who became indebted to others – typically as a result of drug habits or gambling losses – and/or who had very limited financial resources would sometimes offer ‘sexual favours’ in lieu of payment.
Other prisoners who were socially isolated and lacked external financial support were targeted or ‘groomed’ for sex. Three separate prisoners described this situation:
- “This one guy, he would basically prostitute himself for heroin.”
- “At [my prison], the going rate for oral [sex] was a Mars Bar.”
- “You’d be amazed at what some cons will do to get their tobacco.”
Smoking is due to be banned in cells in all prison institutions by 2017. Some prisoners may take more desperate measures to ensure a continued supply.
Women are more open about sex in prison
Two female prisoners said that the formation of supportive, ‘close friendships’ and strong emotional bonds were commonplace among women prisoners, and sometimes became sexual. One called Paula said:
“I couldn’t believe how much kissing and cuddling was going on. It was a big, big shock, a big culture shock. Someone like me, never been in prison before, I didn’t know where to look half the time! … [But] also a lot of women are just looking for some support, just someone to have a little cuddle with really. They’re not all proper lesbians.”
In contrast to sexually active male prisoners who felt the need to be ‘discreet’, female prisoners were more overtly affectionate. They were more willing to be seen to be emotionally and socially reliant upon other women prisoners to ‘cope with’ their imprisonment.
Lifers and sex offenders seem to have more sex in prison
Anecdotal evidence suggests that more sex takes place among long-term prisoners and those in ‘sex offender only’ institutions. In other words, sex appears to happen more frequently in certain ‘types’ of prisons, and among certain ‘types’ of prisoners. One prisoner called Ron said:
“I was an orderly and one of my jobs was to clean up the exercise yard outside the lifers’ wing. There were often used condoms, a really surprising amount… chucked out of the [cell] windows. At [my prison], lifers could get away with all sorts, which the rest of us couldn’t. But I suppose you don’t really want to upset lifers if you can help it, do you?”
Prison officers know prisoners are having sex
Most interviewees thought that prison officers generally either knew or ‘strongly suspected’ if prisoners on their wing were having consensual sex. But guards either chose to exercise their discretion not to intervene or ignored the activity in order ‘to keep the peace’.
With so many other problems to deal with, consensual sexual activity is ‘the least of anyone’s problems’. One prisoner called Martin said:
“Everyone knew what was going on … The officers have got two eyes in their head, just as prisoners have; they see the same things, more sometimes … Staff will turn a blind eye, as long as you don’t push it.”
Another called Jason added:
“On that spur, you couldn’t not know. … Most officers just want a quiet life, and as long as [the men having sex] caused no trouble and weren’t too in your face with it, they just, you know, ignored it.”
Gay prisoners sometimes share cells
Two gay interviewees had been able to share a cell with their sexual partner. Neither had ever been questioned by prison officers about the nature of their relationship, which they attributed to a pragmatic ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ attitude:
“If they had known for sure, they might have felt they had to do something about it. So I don’t think they wanted to know. Put it this way, they were sensible enough never to barge in [to the cell] without warning!”
NOMS’ policy is that men who are known to be in a sexual relationship are not allowed to share a cell and will be separated.
Rape is under-reported, but it definitely happens
Very little is known about coercive sex in the prisons of England and Wales. Most interviewees either had no knowledge of sexual assaults or had learned about ‘only’ one or two instances during their prison careers:
- “It’s a prison myth. It doesn’t happen here”
- “I only heard of one young lad getting raped … It’s nothing like America where, as you know, rape is a major problem”
But in this research study, three male interviewees disclosed they had been raped in prison by prisoners.
William had been repeatedly raped and coerced into performing sexual acts by one prisoner over a prolonged period: “I belonged to this guy … I was totally powerless.”
In the years since his release from prison, he suffered from low self-esteem and struggled to form trusting and loving relationships:
“Quite simply, what happened ruined my life.” The research interview was the first time he had talked about his experiences: “I’ve wanted to talk about it for a long time, but the means were not there. Because nobody wants to know, nobody wants to hear about this horrendous, horrendous abuse.”
Bradley was serving a sentence for a sexual offence against a woman and was raped in the shower with an implement by a heterosexual prisoner. He was certain he was attacked because of his offence:
“I know because he told me. He said, ‘You’re a nonce [sexual offender]. See how you like it.’”
Aiden had been raped by five assailants in a cell and required medical treatment. He had committed a serious offence of violence when a teenager and was subsequently ‘starred up’ to move from a Young Offender’s Institution to an adult prison.
Some years later, he was still trying to understand why he was victimised but could think of “no obvious reason” other than his “young and thin” appearance:
“I guess I looked easy prey.” Being raped had led him to question his own sexuality and worry that he inadvertently “gave off gay vibes”.
None of the rapes suffered by interviewees were ‘officially’ reported and therefore none would have appeared in the assault statistics collated and published by the Ministry of Justice.
But the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman has noted that some:
‘abusive sexual behaviours are not always taken sufficiently seriously and the quality of internal investigations is variable.’
Access to condoms is variable
Some men requested, but were refused access to condoms because “they aren’t allowed in prison” (in fact, Prison Service Order 3845 allows for condoms to be prescribed to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases).
Sometimes condoms were handed out in public with the risk of inadvertently ‘outing’ the recipient to other prisoners:
“You’d have to queue up and ask for them in front of everyone else and I wasn’t prepared to do that.”
Other times condoms were rationed. One prisoner said: “if you asked for more [than two], questions were asked.”
Another prisoner was “shocked, to put it mildly” to be informed in reception that he was entitled to six condoms and a tube of lubricant, but:
“You had to return the used [condoms] in a bag to healthcare before you could get any more.”
Pornography and masturbation are accepted
The tacit acceptance by staff of both pornography and masturbation is reflected in this account of one interviewee’s first night in prison.
Feeling ‘overwhelmed and nervous’, he asked the night staff for a Bible. After some time, an officer returned and apologetically explained that he had not been able to locate a Bible, but could lend him instead a selection of pornographic magazines “to help you get to sleep.”
To whom these magazines belonged – prisoner or staff member – was unclear, “but that taught me a lot about night times in prison!”
Some quite enjoy sex in prison
One gay inmate called Craig said he was not offended by being ignored by his “straight” partners afterwards as he enjoyed the sex:
- “Oh my god, it was like I’d died and gone to heaven! As a gay man, prison was a fabulous sexual experience. I’ve never had so much sex. I was very popular and I loved it! He’d come in, not say a word, pull his cock out, I’d suck him off, and that was it – out the door again. Never said a word!”
- Interviewer: “And how did you feel about that?”
- “What do you mean?”
- Interviewer: “Well, did you feel, for example, you had been used sexually?”
- “No, not at all. We both got what we wanted.”
4 more reports from the Commission on Sex in Prison
Here are the Commission’s previous four reports:
- Consensual sex among men in prison
- Women in prison: coercive and consensual sex
- Coercive sex in prison
- Healthy sexual development of children in prison
We will have more about sex in prisons in the form of interviews we did at the conference.
In the meantime, please share any thoughts with us.