Michelle Caron-Pawlowsky

Article · Sex, Women & Prison : How do Inmates Experience Their Intraprison Sexuality?

8 September 2020
Alexandra Toupin (B.A. Sexologie), avec la collaboration de Jessika Beaumont (B.A. Sexologie), Christina Gagnon et Arielle Latulipe (étudiantes en sexologie à l’UQAM)

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☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Lauren Amelie Nathan


This text is based on an article published in the conference summary of the 7th edition of the Journée étudiante annuelle de la recherche en sexologie (JEARS). To consult the entirety of the conference proceedings and learn more about JEARS, please click here.


In the wake of the growing popularity of television shows such as Orange is the New Black (Kohan, 2013-2019) and Unité 9 (Trottier, 2012-2019), a newfound interest in the situation of incarcerated1 women2 has developed (Cano, 2016; Cousineau & Frigon; Schwan, 2016).

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Between 1987 and 2012, the female population in Canada saw one of the highest rates of growth in incarceration, even surpassing the male population (Forouzan et al., 2012). Yet female inmates are still under-represented in scientific research (Forouzan et al., 2012; Henry, 2016; Quebec Ministry of Public Security, 2011) and this rarity is even more considerable when it comes to the matter of their sexuality (Quebec Ministry of Public Security, 2011; Ricordeau, 2009). Contrary to research that “exposes the sexual distress of [...] detained men”, we consider that “women prisoners are often completely overlooked in these debates about sexual frustration. They are indeed attributed fewer sexual needs and desires.”(Lancelevée, 2011, paragr. 10, translated from French).

However, several research studies indicate that the sexual health of incarcerated women is of great concern, particularly due to the higher rate of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs) within this population compared to the non incarcerated population (Government of Canada, 2013), the difficulty having a satisfying sex life (Maeve, 1999) and the existence of intraprison  sexual victimization (Fowler et al., 2009), to name a few concerns.

However, sexual health, a multidimensional concept that emphasizes the importance of a positive approach to sexuality, constitutes a fundamental human right (World Health Organisation, 2006).

The issues linked to sexual health do not only affect the diagnosed person, but also their entourage, society, and intimate partners (e.g. when the person has an STBBI and passes it on to their sexual partners). Those issues can also indicate a more serious health problem (e.g. a loss of sexual desire caused by a pituitary tumor) (Pan American Health Organization, 2000). This article depicts substantial sexological knowledge relating to the emotional and sexual experiences of incarcerated women, and also proposes a reconsideration of current sexual health measures within prisons, as female sexual health is an essential component to global health of incarcerated women.

Constrained Emotional Relationships

Sexuality is a central aspect of a person's life and it is not limited by genitality or one's sexual activities. It is a concept that includes the ensemble of various identifying aspects, affective and relational, in which pleasure and creativity occupy an important role (World Association for Sexual Health, 2007). When incarcerated, sexuality exists primarily in the form of emotion, meaning it is coupled and influenced by feelings (Gibson & Hensley, 2013). Be it a response to the need of affective, psychological or emotional comfort, inmates often engage in homosexual relations (Gibson & Hensely, 2013). Even if homosexuality is lived in prison, it does not systematically define the inmate’s sexual orientation when on the outside. Homosexuality, when incarcerated, is considered mainly circumstancial, since with the exception of the prison personnel, who are not necesserarily women but with whom all sexual acts are forbidden, the only people available to participate in any form of sexuality with inmates are those of the same gender (Gibson & Hensley, 2013).

Thus, many inmates report that their homosexuality in prison is not representative of their overall sexual orientation.

The majority of women return to their pre-incarcerated sexual orientation upon their release from prison (Ricodeau, 2009).

Demonstrations of affection and sexual activities between inmates are limited by several aspects: strict regulations (constant surveillance, controlled schedule), environmental constraints (lack of intimate, private and secure space adapted for sexual activity), intolerance from certain members of prison personnel, as well as the time it takes for the inmates to adapt to their new correctional environment and recognize this new environment as compatible with sexuality (Joël-Lauf, 2009).

In order to reduce the stigmatization of relationships (emotional and sexual) between inmates, it seems essential to steer away from the hetero-normative framework. Instead, it is critical to consider the fluidity of sexual identity and to recognize that the reasons behind homosexual engagement are varied and multifaceted (Forsyth et al., 2002). To this end, practitioners and professionals are encouraged to adopt an attitude geared towards listening, rather than an expert position when interacting with inmates (Forsyth et al., 2002). Such an attitude promotes the sense of being heard and respected, which would allow for the inmates to feel more at ease and able to confide in professionals as needed (Forsyth et al., 2002). In fact, established trust and the spirit of collaboration between inmates and practitioners or professionals are essential to allow inmates to make use of the care and services that are provided to them and benefit their sexual health (e.g. gynaecological exams, screening tests, distribution of condoms and dental dams, etc.; Aakjaer & Brandt, 2012).

At the structural level, it would be beneficial for detention centres to offer training to their practitioners in order for them to learn how to discuss emotional relations with inmates in a confidential manner. In addition, these institutions could set up groups of professionals who would discuss the possibility of relaxing certain rules to allow inmates to experience emotional relationships in a safe context, without having to hide it.

Consensual Sexual Activities Exist

The official recognition of the existence of sexuality in prison has been avoided for political and social reasons for more than a century (Fleisher & Frienert, 2009). However, consensual sexual relations between inmates do exist. According to a study published in 2014, 96% of inmates interviewed felt that couples in prison closely resembled couples outside of prison, including consensual sexuality (Krienert et al., 2014). Other researchers have also suggested that the longer individuals are incarcerated, the more likely they are to be interested in or even prefer homosexual sexual activities. This is probably due to the sexual segregation of detention institutions and the greater access to sexual experiences between same gender partners than between partners of different genders (Garland et al., 2005)

The majority of inmates are therefore sexually active during their incarceration and the majority of their lived sexual activities are consensual (Krienert et al., 2014)

Since sexual contact represents a basic need for inmates (Comfort et al., 2005) and remains within their fundamental rights (World Health Organisation, 2006), Krienert and colleagues (2014) suggest that physical spaces be reserved to assure the intimacy of inmates and the actualization of their sexual relations within a secure context. It would be equally judicious to promote the prison staff's education and sensitivity towards respecting the right to sexual intimacy of the inmates. In addition, future research on women's sexuality in prison should focus on the positive and negative effects of different sexual behaviours. The knowledge that this research will generate could be used to improve prison policies and regulations and to encourage evidence-based practice in which sexual rights are respected.

STBBI: An Area of Considerable Concern

A study that interviewed male and female prisoners exposed participants' concerns about prisoner-to-prisoner transmission of STBBIs and STBBI testing (Krienert et al., 2014). They repeatedly mentioned their frustration with the lack of STBBI protection and preventative measures available in prison, as well as their fear of retribution given a positive result. The lack of protection and prevention of STBBIs available in prison is of particular concern because inmates are a higher-risk population for STBBI transmission than the non-inmate population (Government of Canada, 2013). In fact, it is estimated that the Canadian federal incarcerated population has a level of HIV from 7 to 10 times higher, as well as Hepatitis C from 30 to 40 times higher than seen in the general public (Government of Canada, 2013). In addition, some inmates use unsafe practices to prevent STBBI and pregnancy (e.g. homemade condoms, or the use of bleach to rinse genitals after sexual contact; Krienert et al., 2014). These behaviours are, however, described by prisoners as the only means of ensuring their bodily integrity (Krienert et al., 2014). This demonstrates that they are often little or completely misinformed on what constitutes safe sexual behavior and that they rely on myths surrounding risky sexual practices (Krienert et al., 2014). In light of these various concerns, it is suggested that prison establishments put into place programs thats would distribute free condoms and dental dams, promote access to confidential and respectful STBBI testing, and implement sessions on sexual education in order to promote safe, positive and consensual sexual behaviours (Krienert et al., 2014). Furthermore, future research should focus on updating the prevalences and incidences of STBBIs among prisoners, as well as analysing their intraprison sexual health needs (Krienert et al., 2014). It also seems advisable that prison staff be made aware of the legitimacy of prisoners' sexuality, so as not to contribute to the stigmatisation of safe sexual behaviour (e.g. confiscation of condoms and dental dams, voluntary or involuntary non-respect of sexual intimacy, etc.).

Sexual Violence: Inmates are not Spared

Every year in the United States, more than 80,000 inmates, mostly women, are sexually assaulted during their time imprisoned (Kubiak et al., 2017). The demographic most at risk for sexual violence are racialized women from a sexual or gender minority (Arkles, 2010). Despite this, there is virtually no data addressing these particular experiences in relation to their sexual victimization while incarcerated.

A study in the United States questioned maximum security inmates and revealed that 32% of these women reported experiences of sexual violence (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2002). The study also looked at the consequences of sexual assault on inmates: most survivors of assault felt higher levels of stress and symptoms of depression, had greater difficulty trusting others, appreciated proximity to others less, and reported having more nightmares than prior to their assault.

Other studies have examined the involvement of correctional officers in sexual assaults on inmates. These studies indicate that even if most of these officers do not directly take part in these assaults, some participate indirectly (Coelho & Goncalves, 2010), for example being indifferent to conditions may increase the risk of sexual victimization (i.e., sexism, cissexism, racism, etc.; Baćak et al., 2018). If correctional officers show indifference towards these risk factors, they indirectly contribute to the continuance of an unsafe environment for the inmates.
Studies also tend to demonstrate the existence of sexual assaults perpetrated by prison personnel onto inmates.

According to Kubiak and colleagues (2017), more than half of sexual assaults on inmates are perpetrated by prison personnel, which would limit denunciations against them.

If so few sexual assaults (20 to 35%)  are reported to the police within the general population, (Planty et al.,  2013; Sinozich & Langton, 2014), the statistics for reporting sexual assault for inmates are even smaller, especially if the perpetrator is a member of the prisons staff (Kubiak et al., 2017). These observations sadly echo the news of recent months.

Studies have also shown that having lived multiple assaults by the same prison staff member, having a prison sentence of 12 years or more, a fear of not being believed (Culley, 2012; Kubiak et al., 2005), the cumbersome administrative procedures and the burden of proof borne by complainants, are all factors that inhibit reporting sexual assaults by female inmates (Michigan Department of Corrections, 2013).

It is thus essential that detention centres address the problem of sexual victimization amongst inmates, through education, prevention, and treatment programs developed for women who have experienced sexual trauma during their incarceration or for practitioners who may work with and support them (Pardue et al. 2011). Moreover, it is important that medical help as well as accessible and respectful psychological or sexological follow-ups be offered to inmates who have been victims of sexual violence, given the phsycical and psychological consequences they may experience after a sexual assault (Pardue et al., 2011). It is equally recommended that establishments put into place and apply politics of zero tolerance when it comes to sexual violence and sexual harassment towards inmates (Pardue et al., 2011). As a preventative measure, a psychological evaluation of future employees could be integrated into the hiring process in order to identify people who may be at risk of committing, ignoring or encouraging sexual aggression towards inmates. (Pardue et al., 2011). The most important elements that should be assessed in such evaluations are: hostile attitudes towards women and survivors of sexual assault (e.g. putting the blame for sexual assault onto the victims), negative stereotypes towards women and survivors of sexual assault (e.g. beliefs that women are inherently weak), disruptive behaviours (e.g. tendency to use intimidation or aggressivity) and hypermasculinity (e.g. adhering to the idea that men are naturally dominant and that it is normal that they seek to impose themselves onto women; Kraska & Kappeler, 2006). All of these attributes are recognized as contributing to the problem of sexual assault in prisons. Hiring more women in prisons would also constitute a measure towards reducing the sexual victimization of inmates (Pardie et al., 2011). In addition, Maier (2008) argues that the services of specialized lawyers should be offered free of charge and without any delay to victims in order to prevent victim-blaming, as well as revictimization.

When it comes to future research, it should focus on the sexual experiences of racialized inmates and people of diverse sexuality and gender, under an intersectional light, considering their over representation amongst survivors of intraprison sexual assault.

Even if the reality of inmates varies depending on the type of detention centre or different countries’ legal and penale particularities, the results of the studies presented in this article present a clear conclusion: inmate sexuality exists and to refuse to acknowledge it only creates more problems than it solves.

While it is clear that there is still a long way to go before reaching an acceptable level of consideration for the importance of sexuality in people's lives3, it should not be forgotten that this is equally applicable to the sexuality of those who are incarcerated.

Therefore, in respect to sexual rights and with the goal of promoting better sexual health, inmates should be able to express their sexuality while incarcerated in a safe and healthy manner. Individual and structural solutions are necessary to allow for such a context, which involves the development of educational workshops on sexuality for prison staff as well as the inmates, the creation and access to intimate, safe spaces for the inmates, free access to sexual health care, the implementation of campaigns geared towards STBBI and sexual assault prevention, and the loosening or the modification of the politics and regulations of detention centres to allow inmates the right to sexual activity. In any case, if the implementation of some of these solutions seems unimaginable in some places, the fact remains that figures of authority (e.g. detention facility management, Ministry of Public Security, etc.) require a serious discussion on the intraprison sexuality of incarcerated women.

1 The terms “prison” and “detention centre” are used interchangeably in this text, despite normally designating different establishments. Prisons fall under provincial jurisdiction whereas penitentiaries generally fall under federal jurisdiction.

2 In this text, the term “woman” is used. For the authors, this term defines a person that identifies with the female gender, that considers themselves feminine, be it physically, mentally or emotionally. This suggests an identity that goes beyond notions of biological sex or gender assigned at birth. Nonetheless, it is important to note that most studies on incarcerated populations use a gender binary classification, meaning that participants are classified either as men or as women. In fact, these detention facilities are generally organized in a manner that promotes sexual segregation. In other words, most of the time, a person sentenced, will either be sent to a prison for men or a prison for women, primarily on the basis of gender assigned at a civilian level (i.e., as listed in their official documents). The same is true for non-binary and gender non-conforming people, that are sent to establishments for men or for women, according to criteria that does not adhere to their intrinsic identity. Therefore, the term “woman” and she/her pronouns will be privileged in this text. It is important to remember that we do not only find women in prisons for women.

3 In recent months we have been witness to an alarming number of issues caused by a lack of recognition and of the importance of sexuality in the lives of human beings. Last June we learned that the Trump administration was abolishing regulations protecting the health and wellness of trans people. The Hungarian government has approved a bill that would prevent people from changing their gender on their legal documents. Poland has proposed to make abortion illegal and to criminalise sexual education in schools.  New Brunswick has continued to have problems with access to abortion services. There still doesn't seem to be a real plan of action considering the disappearances and murder of indigenous women, and it seems that the situation is only getting worse. In Quebec, the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to step backwards in terms of sexual education material in school settings. The UN revealed that on average,  90% of the global population maintains prejudices towards persons of the female gender. These events, infinitely too common and regrettable, continue to remind us of the value of sexuality and  the damages that indifference can have on the issues it arouses.


To cite this article : 

Toupin, A., Beaumont, J., Gagnon, C.,& Latulipe, A. (2020, September 8). Sex, Women & Prison : How do Inmates Experience Their Intraprison Sexuality? Les 3 sex*. https://les3sex.com/en/news/1350/chronique-sexe-femmes-et-prison-comment-les-detenues-vivent-elles-leur-sexualite-intracarcerale-

prisons, women, incarceration, sexual health, violence, distress, inmates, sexual satisfaction, recommendations, prison, stigma, relationships, STBBI, victimization, bullying, aggression, sexual rights


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