Should prison inmates have the right to masturbate? I was interviewed about this on Public Radio last week. To prepare, I read up on the subject just a bit. And I was shocked.
It's actually against the law to touch yourself sexually—in private—if you're in jail. Sounds barbaric, doesn't it? OK, you're behind bars, your body is no longer your own. But if you're not allowed to masturbate, neither is your soul.
Worse, if there's any disagreement about whether you've done it, you automatically lose the argument. There are many cases in which guards either misinterpret prisoner activity and perceive masturbation, or some nutcase guard goes hunting and finds masturbation in every nook and cranny. Either way, prisoners are punished.
Of course, masturbation in prison is common. A 2001 study of one maximum-security joint found that all but one male inmate masturbated. Another study found that 2/3 of female inmates masturbated. Criminalizing something that everyone does makes selective enforcement inevitable. And there are documented cases of just that.
Prisons say they have to regulate masturbation because of security issues, which sounds completely bogus. It's the same argument society makes when it restricts the sexual expression of any group, such as teens, soldiers, and the elderly. But prisons are trying to control sex, not safety.
A new wrinkle in the prison masturbation scene is the increasing number of female guards. Because women are more likely to lack a criminal record, more likely to have some college education, and can oversee and pat-down both male and female inmates (male guards must work primarily with male prisoners), their numbers are steadily increasing.
Presumably, the percentage of nutty female guards is roughly the same as that of nutty male guards. Presumably, the one female guard who busted eight different Florida inmates for masturbation four years ago is an anomaly.
But the increasing number of female guards raises the legal question of "hostile work environment" that now bedevils every American organization—both governmental and for-profit. A legal doctrine and laws meant to protect women is now being used as a weapon to strip sexuality from every possible workplace interaction. To protect their delicate sensibilities (a myth that 1970s feminism worked tirelessly to challenge), women in cities across America are now claiming that classic nude sculpture, photo shows depicting childbirth, sex education brochures, and even co-workers' tiny silver vulva earrings create a workplace in which they just can't function.
So what we have now is some women wanting it both ways—equal rights, but with extra protection. If a person, male or female, can't work within earshot of offensive words, that person should probably not be a prison guard, bus driver, football coach, or high school teachers. And if Michaelangelo's nude David makes someone swoon, he or she should have the decency to get some help, rather than deprive their co-workers from the world's artistic patrimony.
I don't imagine that prisoners treat female guards any worse than they treat male guards. The expressions of the disrespect, envy, and manipulation may differ, but the intention—and the way a professional guard should experience the treatment—is the same. Of course, any given guard—male or female—can get unhinged by seeing or imagining a penis while they're at work. But the needs of these few under-prepared or under-skilled individuals should not be setting policy for the industry.
Finally, punishing guys for masturbating in prison is counterproductive. How do people feel after orgasm? Relaxed. Isn't that preferable to prisoners feeling rageful? I'd say inmate masturbation is the jailer's best friend.
Every guy in prison started masturbating as a child, and always for the same reason: to soothe himself. To comfort himself, to feel a sense of control in otherwise repressive circumstances. To validate his power and individuality.
These, too, are what we want in prisoner's lives. Better than the rage and humiliation that dominate prison life, and the brutality that naturally follows from it. Putting hundreds or thousands of men together, robbing them of their most basic rights and dignity, and expecting them to respond by being asexual for 10 years is simply ridiculous. Giving prisoners the chance to privately comfort themselves psychologically is in everyone's best interests. And giving prisoners a private, solo sexual outline would surely reduce the amount of coercive and dangerous sex that's rampant in every prison.
It's simply logical. But when it comes to sex, science isn't a strong suit of the correctional industry—any more than in any institution in the outside world.