Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Sexuality in Women's Prisons

This month The Differential Association convened to discuss two articles on the issue of same-sex relationships in women’s prisons. In the first article, Pardue, Arrigo and Murphy attempt to create a taxonomy of relationship types and sexual behaviour in women’s prisons. This takes the form of a comprehensive review of the existing literature followed by recommendations. The practical benefits of this are foremost in their minds as they urge the development of a pro-active programme of sexual exploitation/victimisation preventions. The innovation of such a typology is also a useful heuristic tool for further prison researchers. The real-world application of their investigation can meaningfully contribute towards creating a safer prison environment.

Drawing on existing theorists, they state that prison sexuality is shaped by mainstream culture and layered with prison subcultures. In this model, factors intrinsic to the individual interact with factors specific to incarceration.  One imports one’s sexual identity, while it is also possible to export sexual behaviours and norms from prison on release. There is therefore a permeable boundary, represented by the walls of the prison, in which attitudes to sex are those of both the outside and the inside.

Pardue et al argue that so far, the study of sexuality in prison has been marginalised, or portrayed negatively, and that researchers working in the area have been the subject of scepticism.

Their continuum of prison sexuality reads: suppressed sexuality, autoeroticism, true homosexuality, situational homosexuality, sexual violence. Research indicates that the variety of sexual behaviours in women’s prisons is diverse, this continuum attempts to encompass all such diversities.

Suppressed sexuality, which the DA found an interesting conceptualisation, and one little considered in the context of prison sexuality, is an adaptive response to incarceration. It is categorised as the first on the continuum classification, which is correlated with a continuum of potential for aggression. While there is little research on suppressed sexuality in prison, research does exist on non-sexual relationships within prison, such as pseudofamilies and kinships which provide emotional, rather than sexual, support.

The category of autoeroticism, second on their continuum, has traditionally been a subject of moral and regulatory concern within institutions, and especially as related to women and girls. Masturbation was for decades considered an unnatural vice, and indicative of moral degeneracy or mental incompetence. Pardue et al argue from the literature that it remains a stigmatised subject within prisons.

The category of homosexuality is divided into true and situational, and the authors highlight the stigma associated with such sexuality, emanating from outside the prison as well as from within. They write that same-sex female relationships received little academic attention until the 1960s and 1970s, yet the concerns about ‘particular friendships’ between women had been a recurring feature of prison records from the nineteenth-century.

The literature has suggested that women entering prison who self-identify as homosexual are better able to adapt to prison-life and labels such as prisoner through the learned behaviour of adapting to cope with abuse and victimisation of their sexuality on the outside. The literature is also sceptical of the usefulness of a binary straight/gay categorisation (Severance, 2004), as identity is a constitutive feature which can be reshaped and fluid. Many prisoners’ first same-sex encounters occurred while in prison; these figures suggest that such activity should be thoroughly understood as another element of adapting to prison, along with the related trauma and issues some may experience. Sexuality is a heavily weighted subject, with corresponding issues of stigma, emotional response and vulnerability.

Pardue et al argue that sexual violence, the final category of their continuum, had not been studied prior to 1996. There are many potential opportunities for such violence in a prison environment; for example, persons in prison live with deprivations, which can lead to an underground bartering economy. Harmful behaviours can also occur in the daily running of prisons, through strip-searching for example. The authors divide sexual violence into the sub-categories manipulation, compliance and coercion and argue that the issues are again diverse depending on the statuses of the persons involved. For example, if one participant is a prison guard this raises pertinent issues of security, exploitation and institutional abuse. Examples of research focused on sexual violence include Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (2006) who studied men and women in prison and found that 75% men and 57% had experienced sexual coercion more than once on at least one occasion. Blackburn, Mullings and Marquart (2008) found sexual victimisation rates were higher in the female prison population than in general population. Consideration of such issues of institutional abuse, exploitation and vulnerability are central to the safe running of prisoner regimes.

The authors highlight the key role of prison officers in addressing the problem of sexual violence in prisons, advising that appropriate education and training is critical in improving prevention and detection. Pardue et al observe that a benign approach taken by prison authorities to this issue could contribute to sustaining the harm. They also acknowledge that prison staff can become implicated or involved in the sexual coercion of female inmates.

Pardue et al argue for innovative, empirically-led research and are keen to see their typology tested and revised with the hope it could feed into policy. For example, women leaving prison should be given counselling akin to post-trauma counselling, both perpetrator and victim should receive psychological and medical assistance following incidents of sexual violence, and the employment of more female staff as well as psychometric testing of potential staff.

Issues which arise in relation to sexual violence in prison include, are the women ‘free’ to report assaults? What are the implications of reporting? Prison has limited health services, the authors argue for the introduction of nursing care, with nurses trained in sexual assault awareness to minimise the risk of secondary victimisation. They cite Haney (2006), who has argued that sexual violence against persons who are imprisoned is a human rights issue.

The continuum of sexual behaviour is also characterised by a corresponding potential for aggression. For example, suppressed sexuality had the lowest risk of aggression while, obviously, sexual violence was at the top end. Some members of the DA found the specific choice of word, ‘aggression’ interesting, and perhaps misleading. In this conceptualisation true homosexuality is less ‘aggressive’ than situational homosexuality. The latter is judged to have more potential for volatile conduct, and may lead to oppression, and the flourishing of a pariah economy. The terminology here is somewhat misleading and may serve to stigmatise gay women and those who begin homosexual relationships while imprisoned, this unconscious reliance on negative stereotyping of gay women as masculine should be avoided.

Tomer Einat and Gila Chen studied perceptions of same-sex relationships in Israel’s only women’s prison, they found that there is tension between the prevalence of such relationships and the negative attitudes towards them, that relationships between shorter-term prisoners were more likely to be based on economic exploitation, and that most Jewish and Muslim women participate in such relationships despite expressing negative attitudes towards them. Einat and Chen found that the prison lacked pseudofamily structures, something they found unexpected considering the literature.

Einat and Chen, in their conclusion, argue that Israeli women prisoners could be experiencing a masculinsation and/or liberation process, becoming more like male inmates and freeing themselves from the constraints of gender. This line of reasoning is somewhat specious; they are equating homosexuality with masculinity. Further, their conception of liberation from gender is tantamount to increasing masculinity. The evidence which leads them to this unconvincing conclusion seems to instead point towards troubling exploitative sexual relationships within the prison they studied. The DA noted the huge differential in the weekly sums prisoners could earn through prison-work, arguably this creates economic disparities which are then resolved in the informal prison economy. Such a differential payment system would appear to be a possible recommendation for reform.

The authors speculate that attitudes will become more positive to such relationships, drawing on evidence that longer-term prisoners conceptualise the relationships in a more understanding manner, this overlooks the fact that the negative attitudes mostly come from short-term prisoners.

Finally, the brief treatment of Muslim/Jewish divide would have provided a very interesting element had it been expanded. The authors concluded, on seemingly little evidence, that the attitudes of women of both religions were not fundamentally different. A fuller exploration of this would have been welcome.

An examination of Einat and Gila’s methodology highlighted some shortcomings. The authors claimed participants were randomly chosen from a participant list compiled by a member of prison staff. More detail on the method of randomisation used, and how the initial list was compiled is required. Selection bias may have occurred during the identification of prospective participants.

The phenomenological approach used throughout interviewing was not continued during data analysis. The use of content analysis to analyse transcripts did not provide an in-depth interpretative approach, required to understand such complex prison experiences. Although two researchers were involved in this study, it appears that peer-reviewing of themes was not completed. Authors also failed to highlight the limitations of using such an experiential form of interviewing, including the difficulty of understanding other people's perceptions, as well as the bias caused by a researcher’s own conceptions.

A systematic approach to data analysis was taken by counting the frequency with which themes and words were used by participants. Word counting may not explore sufficiently the meaning of particular words used by participants, and can lack rigour. Only one respondent spoke about ‘fear’ however, authors presented it as a major theme due to the value they attributed to this experience. It appears researchers’ own conceptions obstructed objective qualitative analysis. Themes highlighting participants’ motivations for partaking in same-sex relationships, along with attitudes towards same-sex relationships during incarceration were presented. Authors provided scant interpretation of themes, and presented respondents’ excerpts without credible interpretation, comparison or analysis.

There is a rich vein of cultural representations of women’s imprisonment, ranging from the ground-breaking television show ‘Orange is the New Black’ to sexploitation films of the 1970s and soap-opera-like dramas such as 'Prisoner Cell Block H' and 'Bad Girls'. Many of these representations provide heavily sexualised characterisation. These cultural manifestations borrow from prison terminology, utilising concepts such as butch and femme. However, as shown in the two articles herein, the active role of research aims to examine lived experiences of women prisoners to present the complexity of sexuality within women’s prisons rather than two-dimensional ciphers.

Most interestingly, this month's discussion quickly moved from a consideration of the two selected articles to a broader (and rapidly spiralling!) debate about the sexualisation of women in the media, both as perpetrators and as victims of crime; in light of the tendency towards such objectification research on women in prison presents a means of acknowledging the subjectivity and integrity of such persons. While DA members, at times, did not remain entirely convinced by the approaches taken in both articles, the thought-provoking and insightful discussion prompted by their subject matter was welcomed and valued by all.

This blog was written by Lynsey Black, Kate O’Hara and Colette Barry.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors’ alone.

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