A narrow, outdated understanding of sexuality in prisons is causing serious psychological harm to male inmates, according to psychology research from the University of Alberta.
“Sexual identity—and the manner by which identity or identities are shaped and reshaped within prisons’ cultures—appears to be a very significant and far-reaching aspect of imprisonment,” said James Horley, a retired psychology professor, now adjunct, at Augustana campus and a therapist with decades of experience treating inmates in Canadian prisons as well as released offenders in community settings.
In a literature review called “Sexuality and Sexual Health in Prisons,” published in the journal Sexuality and Culture, Horley argues sexual behaviour in western prisons, typically a taboo topic, has been “largely ignored by social scientists.”
Sexual assault has been linked to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and recidivism, he said, “and even the fear of assault can impact prison violence and prisoner health.”
The reluctance to talk about it, both within prisons and among administrators, is only making things worse, he said, adding that his own experience treating inmates and ex-cons confirms his research, which he has also pursued in two previous books—Experience, Meaning, and Identity in Sexuality (2016) and Sexual Offenders: Personal Construct Theory and Deviant Sexual Behaviour (2008).
“It was tough to deal with a lot of these guys on a day-to-day basis, because some of them were traumatized, and they just didn’t want to talk about it—especially the young guys who had been sexually assaulted by older cons.
“They’ve got these mental health issues that they’re taking back to their communities,” furthering cycles of abuse, he said.
Beyond the repercussions of sexual assault, the more common phenomenon of consenting sexual behaviour in prison is poorly understood, said Horley, especially among those with long sentences.
Prison officials and policy-makers still see human sexuality as heteronormative and fixed, rather than fluid and often dictated by circumstance, he said. Psychologists explain prison relationships in terms of “situational homosexuality” to avoid labelling them as lesbian or gay.
“In my experience in prisons, some of the ‘straightest’ men were the most active sexually,” Horley said.
“It’s not like the portrayal of sex you see in a Hollywood movie, and not always about sexual assault. It’s about consenting sex, but that makes people uncomfortable because they can’t explain it.
“The warmth of a soft caress in an intimate embrace might humanize an otherwise harsh or inhuman circumstance, and it can produce a close and comforting bond between two people who might otherwise be alone in their separate struggles to survive behind bars.”
Horley said prison trysts can also provide a degree of protection should conflicts arise with other inmates.
To maintain their heterosexual identities, however, many will refer to their sexual partners using female pronouns.
“They would talk about their ‘queen,’ about ‘she’ or ‘her,’ or a woman satisfying their needs,” said Horley. “And that didn’t make them gay, as far as they were concerned.”
Horley urged dispensing with the gay-straight binary in coming to terms with sexual behaviour in prisons, in favour of a view “governed by psychosocial conditions rather than locked into place by biology.”
The biological view “is neither supported by research nor helpful in addressing the sexual issues facing many individuals, especially those incarcerated in prisons throughout the world.”
Increased access to conjugal visits could help reduce psychological distress, he said, as could the advent of “soft” prisons, such as those common in Scandinavia, with greater community integration and more tolerance for “non-harmful behaviours including sexual ones.”
“We need to smarten up and realize this is going to cost us a lot more in the long run in terms of health care when offenders are released into communities,” he said.
And because it’s difficult to know just how sexual experience will affect someone’s mental health, consenting or not, “community-based mental health services for offenders need to be broad and open-ended in order to address issues as they arise.”