News & Resources: Voluntary Sexual Relations Among Prisoners

Skewing male and young, with time on their hands, and cut off from relationships and sexual outlets outside, prisoners frequently engage each other in sexual activity – which by necessity or choice is almost always same-sex. Prison rape and pressured sex remain major problems. But a great deal of voluntary sex among prisoners – sometimes involving staff – goes on as well. In the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, voluntary sexual relationships are officially forbidden, with those caught often facing severe discipline, such as long stints in solitary confinement. But prison administrators also respond with varying degrees of realism about sex among prisoners, in some cases, looking the other way at consensual relationships (as well, problematically, at forced sex). Some prisons even provide condoms and educational efforts to address sexually-transmitted infections. What are the alternatives to prohibition? The articles and anecdotes here discuss the issues involved and offer data on this hard-to-assess and variable phenomenon.

  • Qualitative Survey on Rape and Voluntary Sexual Activity in US Prisons –The results (2020) of a qualitative written survey submitted by 73 state and federal prisoners in the U.S. yield useful information about inmate attitudes and practices. About 30% of our sample report having been involved in consensual sex in prison. Most inmates are tolerant of such activity, as long as it is discreet, but limitations on privacy in the prison environment and elevated surveillance since the implementation of PREA make it less common in some facilities. Six of the 73 reported having been raped at least once during their confinement, but almost all inmates say that most sex is consensual. False accusations by inmates and consensual relationships between inmates and guards are significant problems. Most gay and bi-sexual inmates believe that a liberalized policy toward consensual sex in prison would lessen tensions and thus improve discipline, but many inmates worry about allowing it in general population due to the homophobic attitudes of some inmates.
  • The raw data from prisoners’ responses to this survey is here.

  • Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Policy and Prison Sex – A detailed literature review covering
    (I) Consensual Sex and the Prison Environment
    (II) Sexual Victimization (Includes BJS Reports / Rates of Nonconsensual Sexual Activity)
    (III) Prison Policies and Effect on LBGTQ Inmates – Post PREA
    (IV) Conjugal Visitation
    (V) Other Research

  • Transgender Prisoner Reveals Truth About Jail – The Sun (January 2019)

The Sun shed light on an unusual circumstance of a U.S. inmate who identifies as the only transgender male in an all-female institution. He has not yet gone through with reassignment surgery, resulting in his placement in the women’s prison. In a television series, the trans man tells all about the “sex-crazed women” inside these prisons. His account of what is going on behind bars exemplifies how the policies banning consensual sexual relations among prisoners do little to nothing to deter inmates from pursuing and participating in sexual relationships.

  • Allegations of Sexual Relations at Jail Unfounded – Reno Gazette Journal (October 2018)

A key aspect of the difficulty of prison life is the prohibition on sexual relationships. Prisoners cannot legally give consent and yet sexual interaction occurs within jail walls but is not largely reported. The incident reported here, about alleged consensual sex reported by a fellow prisoner allegedly seeking revenge and in turn getting attacked as a snitch – suggest some of the complicated dynamics at work.

  • Controlling Consensual Sex Among Prisoners – Journal of the American Bar Foundation (2016)

The decriminalization of homosexual relations in the U.S. has not reached prisoners, who are barred from engaging in consensual sexual relations. “[P]risons continue to regulate sex in much the same way they have been doing since the 19th century,” notes the author, sociologist Jay W. Borchert. “Nationwide, prisons bar consensual sex among prisoners, and those who violate this policy face severe punishment, including administrative segregation. Interviews with prison officials from twenty-three states uncover beliefs linking consensual sex with violence that places the overall security of the prison at risk. While supporting LGBT rights and the decriminalization of same-sex sex in society, officials insist that prisons are not suited for similar change. This article explains why prison officials have been so committed to this policy and argues that the time has come to reconsider prison regulation of consensual sex.”

  • Sexual Behavior in Prison Populations Understood – Inquiries (2016)

Besides satisfying physical urges, why would prisoners seek out sexual relationships with each other? The author of this article uses rational choice and exchange theories as explanations. “Inmates appear to weigh the costs and benefits associated with engaging in sexual relations with the primary motivations being increased access to commissary and/or other tangible goods in addition to companionship,” the authors argue. “Additionally, some inmates agree to sexual actions as a form of protection and group solidarity. The literature suggests that regardless of the combination of motives, inmates engage in rational decision making when weighing the pros and cons for exchanges involving sexual behaviors.”

  • California Prisons Aim to Keep Sex Safe, Albeit Illegal – National Public Radio (January 2015)

In a San Francisco county jail condoms are provided free of charge for inmates of the all-male facility. This is not an uncommon practice in prisons in this county, but across the state of California and the rest of the country it is against state law for prison inmates to engage in sexual relations. Yet sex still goes on and contributes to the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections. This report discusses efforts to come up with a plan to provide condoms in prisons across the state.

  • Coming Out of Concrete Closets, A Report on Black & Pink’s National LGBT Prisoner Survey (2014)

Black & Pink is a Boston-based group that serves LGBTQ inmates nationally and critiques the U.S. prison industrial complex. A survey of Black & Pink’s inmate correspondents offers one of the largest sample sizes available for this population. Among the key findings, some 70% of respondents had been sexually active while in prison and some 2/3rds have at one point been placed in solitary confinement as punishment for consensual sexual activity.

  • Gay Prisoners Who have Sex Behind Bars Face Harsh Discipline – UK DailyMail (September 2013)

Prisoners in the U.K., as in other countries, are a high-risk group for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In the U.K., safe-sex practices are not explicitly discussed in prisons, condoms are not provided, and prisoners who are sexually involved are separated and almost always disciplined. The problems resulting from these policies extend beyond prison walls. Once inmates are released they bring with them STI’s and disease that was contracted during their sentence.

  • Negotiating Sexual Experiences within the Confines of a Prison – Africa Regional Sexuality Resource Center

The Africa Regional Sexuality Resource Center (ARSRC) includes prisoners among the groups it researches and advocates for. In a featured article, ARSRC presents a different way of handling the reality of sex among prisoners. Inmates are encouraged to discuss issues of masculinity and femininity and how these factors contribute to the prevalence and quality of sexual activity within prisons. Notably, they find that non-consensual sex is infrequent in maximum security prisons.

  • HIV Transmission Among Male Inmates – U.S. Centers for Disease Control (April 2006)

This CDC report discusses occurrence of HIV transmission among male inmates of the Georgia prison system over 13 years. The report notes the role of consensual sex among inmates, as well as prison rape, as contributors to the spread of HIV among prisoners.

  • Howard League for Penal Reform

The Howard League for Penal Reform, founded in 1866, is a London-based charity serving the U.K. that aims to cut prison populations while reducing crime and fostering safer communities. In 2013 their Commission on Sex in Prison offers in-depth research and reporting on this phenomenon in the U.K.