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Sexual Revelations of Male Inmates: Negotiating Sexual Experiences within the Confines of a Prison

Research and Capacity Building for the Promotion of Sexual Health and Well-Being in the West Africa Region
© Sharing Beds. Mikhael Subotzky/BBC News 2005


Since 2004 the Themba HIV & AIDS Organisation (a non-profit public benefit organisation in South Africa) has been working in prisons (also called correctional centres). This work has involved equipping peer educators, all inmates, with the skills and knowledge necessary to educate other inmates about HIV, AIDS, sexually transmitted illnesses, Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT), relationships, and dominant cultural norms and traditions which pressurise people into risky sexual behaviours. The training is intended to prevent new infections by equipping the participants with skills to understand their life choices, rethink what they have been taught about the HI-virus, sex, and gender, adopt new “sexual scripts” and negotiate safer sexual practices. It also focuses on treatment and care of people infected with HIV.

Although some organisations still adopt what Paulo Freire calls “the banking concept of education”, Themba avoids this approach. The organisation does not assume that its trainers have the knowledge that must be transmitted to the inmates. That is not to say that the trainers are not knowledgeable; however, like Freire, Themba believes that the best way to reduce the spread of HIV in communities, including correctional centres, is to facilitate real learning. Thus, Themba makes use of an interactive theatre methodology that the organisation developed and continues to refine. The Interactive Themba Theatre (ITT) methodology is informed by a range of interactive theatre techniques including Forum Theatre, dramatherapy, psychodrama, theatre games, improvisation, formal teaching methods, play devising, play directing and performance skills.1

In addition, the organisation does not assume that it can ignore the issue of sex in prison, and only focus on preparing inmates for their lives after being released from prison. While it is true that thousands of prisoners, including those infected with HIV, are released to their communities each year, and that these people need to know how not to spread illness and disease in their communities, HIV transmission within prison also needs to be addressed. Because the prison constitutes a new space discreet from traditional society, inmates are able to “explore” same-sex desire and pleasure. “Although only a small portion of prisoners who participate in homosexual activity inside the prison are homosexuals outside of prison”,2 many inmates are involved in sexual activities with each other. As we know, sex between men often involves anal sex which puts them at high risk of HIV transmission and other STIs and so “ignoring prison sexuality has serious consequences for inmates”.3 Unless peer education programmes address prison sexuality the peer educators may not have had the opportunity to discuss with others how to engage with victims or perpetrators of sexual violence, especially in relation to the threat posed by HIV. Unfortunately “the people who are more likely to be incarcerated are also those who are more likely to be HIV positive”4 and so sexual violence, and unsafe consensual sex, within the crowded confines of a prison is extremely dangerous.

Thus, the trainers also ensure that they dialogue with the inmates involved in the peer education programme, and that these inmates are actively involved in discussions about the issues and their own lived experiences even within the prisons. These discussions are intended to enable the trainers and the peer educators to have a more informed understanding of how masculinities (and femininities) are constructed and maintained in the confines of a prison, which inmates are most at risk of sexual assault, how homophobia contributes to prison-based sexual violence, and what the peer educators can do to help reduce the spread of HIV. Of course, men tend not to want to talk about their involvement in homosexual or masturbatory activities as these are considered taboo. Thus, Themba trainers have found unwillingness on the part of the inmates to talk about their own sexual practices within the prison. Nevertheless, it is essential that the trainers have some understanding of how “social class, race, gender, culture, religion, and sexuality, intersect and impact differently on the behaviours, identities, and views”5 of the inmates who live in very different contexts from their own.

As part of a recent training programme offered to peer educators from the maximum security section of a male prison in Gauteng, South Africa, Themba’s training manager explored with seven black inmates the question of whether or not there are safe spaces within the prison where sexual expression is safe and affirming.

In keeping with research findings,6 the discussion revealed that there is sexual violence within the prison, and that inmates, especially those awaiting trial, are vulnerable to being sexually assaulted by some members of gangs in the prison. According to these peer educators, reasons for inmates engaging in sex include:

  • Needing to be part of a gang and because of the peer pressures of being part of the gang; gang members may need to “prove” masculine status by raping another man;

  • Not having support from the family and seeking a sense of belonging;

  • Trading sex cigarettes and drugs;

  • Trading sex for money; there are rumours of inmates who are commercial sex workers in the centres;

  • Engaging in sex to relieve stress and the burden of the prison sentence;

  • The myth that if one does not have sex for a long time, he will become mad;

  • The absence of women.

But what stands out in from this discussion is that the respondents maintain that non-consensual sex is not common to inmates who have been in the maximum security centre for a long time. Not one of the participants admitted to ever having witnessed another inmate in maximum security being sexually assaulted by a fellow inmate. It would seem that within the maximum security section of the prison, inmates are able to participate in sexual activities that are consensual rather than coerced. Furthermore, the sex, although engaged in secretively, is not entirely unsafe as the hospital provides condoms.

The discussion also revealed that within the prison, safer spaces for positive sexual expression included the showers, cells, toilets, and underneath beds. Some of the inmates indicated that they masturbated not simply to relieve tension but because it is enjoyable. Some indicated that for them sexual expression, which might include masturbation, was an expression of freedom and rebellion. By choosing to engage in sexual activities that were not allowed, they felt empowered.

Some of the participants indicated that they had heard of inmates who are in “marriage relationships” where one of the inmates is considered “the man” and the other “the wife”. Although the man who plays the “woman’s role” may have become involved in the relationship so as to be protected from other inmates, the participants felt that “she” still did have power as she could use sex as a bargaining chip to get what she wanted. These “marriages”, which are constructed by members of gangs, reflect and perpetuate sexist discourses and “are organised so as to distance the sex that happens within them from notions of homosexuality”.7

Some of the participants indicated that they had heard about consensual sex taking place in certain cells at night, with inmates sharing beds with their partners and as equals. Their comments, however, did not indicate if these men might be involved in loving relationships with each other. According to Gear (2005), this form of sexual expression, called ushintsha ipondo, is outlawed by the gangs because the men involved take turns to penetrate and receive, which challenges the dominant ideology that inmates must be either “men” (penetrators) or “women” (penetrated).

What is interesting about the comments made during the discussion is that they confirm that “desire for sexual intimacy and sexual expression is powerful and survives imprisonment.”8 Although some men may express this desire through sexual assault and violence, the discussion suggests that the prison, as a confined space, does not necessarily prevent certain inmates from engaging in safe and positive sexuality. “In their negotiations of sex and gender, prisoners [do] exaggerate, adapt and break the rules, sometimes… subverting them”9 These inmates have found, perhaps (re)produced, safe spaces in which they can challenge gender and sexuality boundaries. Thus, recognising that prison institutional cultures do create possibilities for new kinds of sexual relationships and identities to be negotiated, organisations like Themba HIV & AIDS can ensure that the peer educators are enabled to educate inmates about safer sex and healthy relationships even within the prison, and how to target and change particular risk behaviours, including unprotected anal sex, which spread the HI-virus. Putting aside homophobic and heterosexist thoughts, prison officials need to be cognizant of same-sex sexual activities within the prison, and support health education programmes that are able to educate peer educators about these complex and controversial issues in ways which support the health and well-being of the inmates and, as a result, the communities to which most are released.

Mr Eric M. RICHARDSON is the Managing Director for Themba HIV & AIDS Organisation – Interactive Theatre & Training.

1 The organisation recently won an award for most innovative project in South Africa.
2 Goyer, K.C. (2003). HIV/Aids in Prisons: Problems, Policies and Potential. <www.iss.co.za/Pubs/Monographs/No79/Intro.html>
3 Hensley, C., Koscheski, M. & Tewksbury, R. 2005. Examining the Characteristics of Male Sexual Assault Targets in a Southern Maximum-Security Prison. Journal of Interpersonal violence, vol. 20, no. 6, p. 668.
4 Goyer, ibid.
5 Richardson, E.M. 2006. Researching LGB Youth in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, Vol. 3, Nos. 2/3, p. 135. 6 Gear, S. 2005. Rules of Engagement: Structuring sex and damage in men’s prisons and beyond. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 7 (3), 195-208.
7 Gear, ibid.
8 Smith, B.V. 2006. Analyzing Prison Sex: Reconciling Self-Expression with Safety. Human Rights Brief 17. Westlaw 13, number 3.
9 Gear, ibid , 196.