James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sexual Intimacy in US Prisons

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world. According to the United States Deparment of Justice statistics, in 2009 there were 748 inmates for every 100,000 residents. Although in rare instances sexual contact occurs between males and females, the overwhelming majority of sexual contact in prison is between people of the same gender.

In Regina Kunzel's book, "Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality," she rejects the often asked question, "do prisons simply collect "perverts" or help produce them?" by substituting the theory that sexual expression behind bars is not an issue of identity. Kunzel stresses the difficulties for those prisoners exhibiting "gender non-conformity" and points out that power, pleasure and random circumstance are more responsible for the normative shift of behavior in a single-sex environment than any theories regarding whether or not an inmate identifies as gay.

Silja J.A. Talvi presents a less academic take on prisons in her book, Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System. Talvi's background as an investigative journalist, editor and activist is evident in this work. By referencing the actual experiences of women inmates she presents examples of sex between women that runs the gamut between furtive encounters to stable partnerships. In addition she deals with other inmate issues such as medical care, mental health, abuse and the specific situations of women who kill. This book encompasses both defeat and resistance, it reads as a compilation of survival strategies utilized by women who feel themselves to be "a nearly invisible group that has been dehumanized, forgotten."

Click here for more information about the Women Behind Bars Prison Project that Silja Talvi founded.

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