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Dossier : Sexualité et institutions pénales

Approaching Sexuality in Prisons

Gwenola Ricordeau et Régis Schlagdenhauffen
Traduction de Uri Ben Gall
Cet article est une traduction de :
Approcher la sexualité dans les institutions pénales [fr]

Texte intégral

  • 1 With the support of the Clersé, of the University of Lille 1 and of the Laboratory of Excellence “W (...)

1The idea to devote an issue of Champ Pénal/Penal Field to the theme of sexuality in prisons followed the conference entitled « Sexuality and Confinement in Europe1 », that took place at the University of Lille 1 on December 11 and 12, 2014. The conference was organized by the two coordinators of this issue whose respective works are situated at the intersections of studies on confinement and sexuality. A dozen participants presented findings that are often undervalued because of the absence of space for their dissemination and discussion. It is as though raising the issue of sexuality in these contexts means consigning oneself to the extreme margins, including in the academic world. It is similar to what happened to Claude Gueux, the short story by Victor Hugo (2004 [1834]) : generally, we tend to see only the prison, even though the sexual elements are there, although referred to in a manner that is veiled, by today’s standards.

2Despite being positioned at the margins of issues considered more central, research does exist and it is often conducted by young researchers. These studies emerge out of a field profoundly renewed by gender-oriented approaches, whether they have been applied to crime (especially Messerschmidt, 1993) or to prison. The increase in research related to masculinities in prison (Sabo et al., 2001 ; Jewkes, 2002, 2005 ; Bandyopadhyay, 2006 ; Evans, Wallace, 2008 ; Ricciardelli et al., 2015), but also the development of feminist (for example, Chesney-Lind, 2006) and queer (see Woods, 2014) approaches in criminology, have allowed for a renewal of the questions traditionally directed at the penal system.

3Research on sexuality in prisons is faced with classic methodological and deontological questions that are inherent to any research on sexuality on the one hand, and to research on prisons, on the other. When it comes to research on sexuality, we are very familiar with the difficulty of investigating practices that are generally subject to silencing. We also know that generally, prisons avoid opening themselves up to research. The difficulties associated with researching sexuality in prisons no doubt explain why much of the pioneering work done on the subject was conducted by the prisoners themselves and by prison medical personnel. Moreover, because of the types of repression that sexuality in prison generally provokes, research on this subject elicits specific deontological problems.

4But the wealth of possible approaches illustrates how these problems might be overcome. We will see that sexuality can be investigated from many perspectives: the institutional governance and treatment of sexuality, sexual practices and morality, sexual violence, sexual health as well as the representations of sexuality in prison (especially in cinema and literature).

5Although several of the nine contributions selected here were developed in North America (see also under the Readings section, our reviews of three recent works), we are also exploring the dynamics of this area of research within the Francophone context, without forgetting to review the manner in which sexuality was previously approached, including within this journal. Thanks to a better understanding of the limits of these different approaches, we choose to interpret the unknown areas and gaps in our knowledge as so many invitations to conduct new studies in this area.

I - Sexuality and the Penal Context

6The Mosaic Law and the formulation of prohibitions and punishments in relation to certain sexual acts (Leviticus 18.1-30) suggest that the connections between sexuality and the penal systems are ancient. Without searching back into Antiquity for our examples, we can refer to one specific and emblematic category of legal theology - the case of sodomy as defined in the Middle Ages. This term designated some acts and practices that did not follow the ordinary path. As noted by Julie Mazaleigue Labaste (2010), Beccaria, who had a great influence on penal reform in Europe, called for the de-criminalization of adultery, sodomy and bestiality as early as 1764. Until that point, those offenses were punishable by death. Under canon law, death at the stake was the preferred punishment. The condemned person, once reduced to ashes, was then deprived of any kind of burial (Billoré et al., 2012).

7With the advent of criminal anthropology and because of the penal reforms undertaken throughout the nineteenth century in Europe, sexuality and penal institutions are experiencing a new type of relationship. Sexual illegality - exhibitionism, rape with violence, sex and blood crime - is increasingly considered to be the effect as much of vice as of disease (Mazaleigue Labaste, 2010, 50). Socio-legal discourses, the effects of which we still know today, have led to the reorganization and the creation of various institutions. This is true of the modern prison, which was actually created over the course of the 19th century (Foucault, 1975). This also applies to the internment camps, concentration camps and detention centres created after the outbreak of the First World War (Farcy, 1995), as well as the institutions for the protection of youths and minors, including Supervised Education instituted in France during the inter-war period (Bourquin, Robin, 2007). These places of promiscuity, established “behind walls”, allowed for the institution of specific regimes of sexuality, of which a general history remains to be written.

II - The Organization of Sexuality in Penal institutions

8As early as the middle of the 19th century, the union of medicine and justice, namely through the forensic field, was embodied in moral concerns related to the protection and rehabilitation of prisoners.

9Doctors such as Alexandre Lacassagne collected the confessions of prisoners. The prison authorities worried about the propagation of homosexuality, which would lead to the corruption of prisoner’s mores; autobiographical narratives tell us about practices in both men’s and women’s quarters, revealing a hierarchy of sexualities, but also the problems that the institution had in limiting sexual activities within its walls.

10As shown by Jacques-Guy Petit (1990), in the beginning of the organization of prisons, in the 19th century, the sexual behavior of prisoners was of only slight concern to the authorities. It is only since 1845, when an interest in urban criminality developed, that an anxiety about the sexuality of prisoners emerged. This preoccupation served to justify the establishment of a regime of solitary confinement. Concerns regarding female prisoners are also deeply held: most prison authorities believe that the sexual passions of women are much more powerful than those of men (Petit, 1990, 507, our translation). At the heart of the debates are abuses of female prisoners by male guards. These abuses generally tended to disappear over the course of the century when these prisoners were supervised by nuns. In any case, public attention generally focused on homosexuality. Some claim that prisons facilitate its expansion whereas the goal should be to eliminate this “vice against Nature”. At the end of the 19th century, several experts, including Édouard Desprez (1868), recommended that small cabins be made available for sexual relations between prisoners and their visiting spouses.

11Regarding the current organization of sexuality in detention, Carole Cardon (2002) notes that sexuality resurfaced as a topic of reflection and polemic in the 1980s. This time, it has been marked by a political will to humanize prisons (Cardon, 2002). The resurfacing of the issue of sexuality in prison is notably seen in the report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (1993), which highlighted the degrading and humiliating conditions in which sexual relations occurred in French prisons. Despite certain changes - notably prisoners’ access to condoms, which is a form of recognition of the existence of sexual relations in prison - these relations remain prohibited and subject to punishment, except in the absence of certain arrangements, such as Family Life Units (UVF).

12Moreover, prison is one of the last bastions of gender segregation, even though a movement promoting gender integration has been growing since the 1970s within educational and medical-social institutions (Ricordeau, 2009a). The prison has become an exception in terms of non-integration. It is also de facto based on a binary and essentialist gender conception - a conception whose first victims are trans people, who are generally refused the possibility of living in a wing dedicated to people of their gender.

III - Sexual Practices in Male Institutions

  • 2 Note, however, the precursor work of Joseph F. Fishman (1935), as well as an article by Cindy Struc (...)

13Since the 1980s, social science research on the sexuality of prisoners has clearly been developing2. As reported by Christopher Hensley (2002) in Prison Sex, three books published between 1980 and 1982 documented the issue in North America for the first time. Those books were written by Daniel Lockwood (1980), Lovett Bowker (1980), and Wayne S. Wooden and Jay Parker (1982). If we add the pioneering work of Anthony Scacco (1975), the dominant perspective is that of incarcerated male sexuality explored through the prism of violence.

  • 3 For a synthesis of these theories, see Forsyth et al., 2002.

14Often considered from the perspectives of consent and power relations or their occasional sex-work dimensions (which shows certain prejudices associated with male homosexuality), homosexual practices in prison have attracted much attention from researchers. This is the case because non-mixed confinement appeared as a laboratory in which to test certain theories of homosexuality. It is not very surprising that John Gagnon and William Simon (1968), two precursors of sexuality studies, devoted an article to sexual practices between men in prison. Moreover, homosexual practices question a central concept of prison sociology, that of prisonization. The debates about prison homosexual practices, which have recurred since the birth of the institution, have revealed four interpretive models3: the theory of the subculture; the deprivation model; the importation model; and, more recently, the theory gender fluidity introduced by Karlene Faith (1993). The first three theories conceived of homosexual practices as being substitutes for heterosexual practices.

15Heterosexual practices have attracted less of researchers’ attentions than homosexual ones. Nevertheless, the development of research on the sexual relations of detained men revealed these practices, although they are difficult to capture, especially when they are, as in France, prohibited and occur covertly during visits in visiting rooms (Touraut, 2012; Ricordeau, 2012). However, some studies have made it possible to better document these practices in the context of family visits, such as the ones taking place in Family Life Units (UVF) in France (Lancelevée, 2011).

  • 4 Nevertheless, for France, see Ricordeau, 2005, 238-240.

16Finally, although sex-work is reported in many confinement systems, including concentration camps (Schlagdenhauffen, 2007), this is certainly among the least known/investigated of practices4, especially since the stigma of sex-work sexuality is added to the secrecy of the underground economy.

IV - Sexual Practices in Female Institutions

  • 5 For France in the 1930s, see Boucard (1930, 197, 206); Choisy (1930); Carco (1931).
  • 6 See especially Heffernan, 1972; Beer et al., 2007.

17Although the narratives and news reports on women's prisons rarely left the question of sexuality in the shadows5, it was not until the 1960s that the first scientific work on the subject appeared (eg, Giallombardo, 1966; Ward, Kassebaum, 1965). Framed quite differently than those dedicated to male sexuality in prison, they emphasized the place of sexuality in female social relationships (Moyer, 1978; Propper, 1982) within institutions for women, as well as the family model that generally structures6 affective and sexual relations among women.

18Research conducted on women in prison in the French-speaking world is relatively recent. With her doctoral thesis (2012), Myriam Joël-Lauf contributed decisively to the opening this field (Joël-Lauf, 2013, 2014). It should be noted that, as in the work on the sexuality of detained men, research has favored an approach through sexuality among women (also: Forsyth et al., 2002, and for a historical approach, Potter, 2004). We have small studies on heterosexual practices (on conjugal visits in Peru, Constant, 2013) or other intimate subjects such as menstruation (Smith, 2009).

  • 7 On the way norms related to femininity directly affect over-represented lesbians among those senten (...)

19Women occupy a special place in a carceral environment that has primarily been designed by men for men. Clearly far fewer than males, female prisoners are less often considered in research: they are a dark continent (Ricordeau, 2005). As the work of Coline Cardi (2007) shows, the maternal ideal is seen as the absolute point of reference. It is the case also regarding the definition of femininity7 in relation to which all female deviance is defined. Indeed, when penal institutions consider the fate of female prisoners, it is above all as future mothers. In some cases, it is a matter of avoiding pregnancy at any cost, in others it is about preserving the "unique" and wonderful bond that would unite the mother and her child.

V - Rape and Sexual Assaults

  • 8 However, see Tewksbury, 1989; Saum et al., 1995; Struckman-Johnson, Struckman-Johnson, 2000.

20Rape and sexual assault within penal institutions are still insufficiently documented8. This phenomenon is particularly difficult to quantify because of the usual under-reporting of these facts, to which is added the prison subculture which makes it even more difficult to denounce the abuses to which people might be subjected.

21Sexual violence is found to exist in female prisons, but there is less of it than in male detention. While this type of violence remains scarce among female prisoners, it is particularly difficult to document sexual violence committed by correctional staff.

  • 9 In the French context, one thinks of the evocative description by Le Floch-Prigent (Le Nouvel Obser (...)
  • 10 Its translation into French in the journal Esprit shows the impact of this text.
  • 11 For a perspective on these policies, especially of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, Jackson (...)
  • 1

22Sexual violence is somewhat better understood in relation to male detention, but there are still far more testimonies9 than scientific works. In the United States, the publication of the testimony of Alan Davis10 in 1968 led to the emergence of some works, including that of Stephen Donaldson (1990), but also to the creation of a policy11 against sexual assault. The studies undertaken showed how sexual assaults were connected with macho and homophobic values12. The racial dimension of sexual violence in US prisons has often been emphasized (Carroll, 1974, 182-186).

  • 13 Stauffer, 1991, 77, quoted in Sternweiler, 2000, 38.

23The deprivation model regarding homosexual behavior in places of confinement was relatively common under the Nazi regime and it was precisely for this reason that the concentration camp administration decided to place homosexuals in separate barracks. According to the historian Andreas Sternweiler, the segregation of homosexuals from 1938 onwards was prompted by the scandal caused by the International Red Cross representative Carl Burckhardt who, after visiting Esterwegen, Dachau and Lichtenburg camps in October 1935, was indignant about the mixing of the genders13.

VI - Sexual Health

24The "detotalisation" of the prison has helped to make the sexual health of persons detained in France an important issue (Cardon, 2002). This movement, which began in the 1980s, was contemporary with the development of the HIV / AIDS epidemic, which confronted penal institutions with new challenges, including the care and management of people with sexually transmitted diseases. Indeed, several studies, both French and foreign, showed that the prevalence of HIV infection and viral hepatitis was significantly higher in the prison population (Rotily et al., 2001) For example, in the United States, the prevalence of HIV / AIDS was four times higher in prison than in the general population (Krebs, Simmons, 2002).

  • 14 On Hepatitis C, Hagège, Ségéral, 2013.
  • 15 For an example of self-organization by female prisoners against HIV, Collectif, 1998.

25Research on the subject shows that, in general, infected prisoners are minimally or quite poorly cared for: not only do they remain victims of persistent prejudice from prison staff (Rotily, Weilandt, 2000), but it is generally the case that STI/STD14 infection is kept secret by the affected prisoners (Rotily et al., 2001). Moreover, in a prison context where sexuality is officially prohibited, access to prevention materials remains very limited. On the whole, the subject is essentially treated from a medical point of view, whereas the experience of the patients, particularly as related to forms of self-organization and struggle15, deserves to be better documented.

26One of the recurring questions posed by rape and sexual assaults in prison (as well as in other penal institutions) remains the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. As Tawandra L. Rowell (2010, 609 ff.) points out, this issue in prison should be considered in a gender-specific manner. Thus, sexual abuse, mostly unprotected, can have disastrous medical consequences for the victims, in addition to the psychological traumas that are caused.

VII - Hierarchies of the Sexes and Sexual Categories

27Research on prisons carried out since the 1970s has, especially in the United States, revealed categories and hierarchies within sex classes. The ethnographic study carried out in the 1930s by Joseph Fishman (1935) had already revealed a very clear opposition within the male prisons of New York between inmates considered passive (who for the most part had been arrested for homosexuality) and labeled fags, pansies or fairies, and the other men considered active, described as top men or wolves, who used and abused the former.

28Gresham Sykes (1958) corroborates Joseph Fishman's observations by distinguishing predators from prey, claiming that the perpetrators of rape thus assert their masculinity and supremacy within the prison hierarchy. According to Stephen Donaldson (2001), punks share common characteristics: they are usually young, middle-class and often slender. Gresham Sykes and George L. Kirkham (1971) had already said this and noted that the punks were at the bottom of the prison hierarchy. This situation evokes others (in particular the concentration camps) in which such categories and the associated hierarchy existed.

  • 16 Eigenberg, 1992; Propper, 1981 ; Van Wormer, 1984.
  • 17 In German, a Puppenjunge refers to a male doll and by extension, a young male prostitute; a Pipel o (...)

29According to Hermann Langbein (2011), an Austrian resistance member and communist interned in Auschwitz, male sexuality in the camp was primarily a result of aggressions caused by the sexual needs of the internees, as highlighted in the current sociological work on male prisons16. Many survivors testify that internees higher in the hierarchy used their status to have sexual relations with young prisoners, generally Polish or Jewish, designated as Puppenjunge, Pipels or else Youngsters17. The "protected" status they thus acquired actually made them both privileged and the objects of other prisoners’ jealousies. However, this seemingly privileged status was very precarious because the people concerned could lose their privileges if they revealed the sexual preferences of their dominating sexual partners.

30With regard to women in prison and the use of sexual categories in their case, Rose Giallombardo (1966, 282) notes the existence in the United States of hierarchies similar to those in male prisons. According to her, the women (or mommy) are distinguished from the butch or daddy, the latter protecting the former in exchange for emotional and social stability within the institution. Such labels, Rose Giallombardo emphasizes, accentuate the familial aspect of female homosexuality in prison (a typical feature of women's prisons).

VIII - The State of Research in France

31At the turn of the 1970s and 80s, a number of studies on sexuality in prisons appeared in France, very close in time to those appearing in the United States. We have to note that, among these pioneering works, two were produced by people who had themselves been prisoners. This was the case with “La Guillotine du sexe”, by Jacques Lesage de la Haye, published in 1978. The book, based on his doctoral thesis in psychology, was originally rejected by his publisher and was ultimately published at the author’s expense. According to him, deprivation of emotional and sexual relations in custody is a form of castration, in relation to which masturbation and homosexual relations, experienced in shame and secrecy, are escape valves. Following this study, a first research by questionnaires on the sexuality of men in French prisons was published by another former prisoner, Alain Monnereau (1984, 1986).

32Generally, as in the case of other countries, research on sexuality in prisons in France was initially of interest to doctors and psychologists. We can cite the doctoral thesis of F. Huard (1981) on the sexuality of women in prison, the article by Perrin (1985) or the book by Daniel Gonin (1991). The 1990s saw the emergence, in the French speaking world, of the first sociological research on sexuality in prisons. This is the case of the work of Daniel Welzer-Lang et al. (1996), Carole Cardon (1999), which was followed by research on the intimacies of prisoners from a legal point of view (Herzog-Evans, 2000). Their studies were followed by the thesis of Gwénola Ricordeau (2005), which was dedicated to conjugal ties and sexuality in prison. This work led to several articles dealing with homosexuality and sexual violence in male prisons (Ricordeau, 2004), the prevalence of the heterosexual norm in prison (Ricordeau, 2009a), as well as sexuality in female prisons (Ricordeau, 2009b). This last subject, which is generally ignored by the research (especially in the French research), was explored more recently by Myriam Joël-Lauf (2012, 2013, 2014). In this issue, the author offered a synthesis of her own work. Finally, in the francophone research world, a recent interest has developed in the field of sexology with regard to sexuality issues in prisons (Merotte, 2012; Ben Ammar et al., 2015).

33While administrative detention is not formally criminal, the similarity of its conditions to those of the criminal regime (Weber, 1996) justifies mentioning, at least briefly, the work carried out in administrative detention centers. Mathilde Darley (2012), for example, showed how sexuality could be a resource in the asylum seekers' journey. Nicolas Fisher (2010), in an ethnographic study, analyzed the management of sexual behaviors in an administrative detention center. His work showed that assaults, rape and prostitution occur in ways that differ from those experienced in prisons, including the exercise of forms of male domination over women because of the mixed nature of the institutions.

IX - The Topic of Sexuality in Champ Pénal/Penal Field

34Even before the publication of this issue, this journal has several times dealt with the relationship between sexuality and penal institutions, whether head-on or indirectly. Patrice Corriveau (2007) analyzed one of the major shifts in Western penal thought in relation to homosexuality. Supporting his analysis on the evolution of legislation in Quebec, he underlined a complete reversal in penal logic relating to the management of homoerotic mores. While the first Canadian Criminal Code reflected the dominance of religious discourse since the founding of the colony, from the 1950s, it was supplanted by a medical discourse that pathologized homoerotic behaviors. However, according to the author, it was precisely this pathologization of homosexuality through medical discourse that facilitated its subsequent "depathologization" and contributed to its decriminalization.

35Volume VIII of the journal (2011) contained several articles directly related to sexuality and penal institutions. Véronique Blanchard (2011) proposed a historical analysis of "violent girls" during the Thirty Glorious Years (1945-1975) by showing that one of the deepest fears of the residential institutions was that these girls would prostitute themselves: the young woman’s body is not threatening because it is endowed with strength, but because it could indulge in debauchery. The authorities stated that the sexual behavior of these young girls was the main reason for taking judicial measures against them and emphasized the differences in the treatments of the "immorality" of girls and boys, with the immorality of boys only really being seen as a problem when it involved homosexuality (Revenin, 2009). Cédric Le Bodic (2011) studied the violence of women. After stating that the authors participate in ontologizing sex differences using gender, he explored how Cesare Lombroso, in his famous study of criminal women, linked violence and female criminality to masculine traits. More recently, Lilian Mathieu (2015) devoted an article to the interpretation of the problem of prostitution, showing how the abolitionists and some feminist streams of thought came together to portray clients of prostitution as "everyday monsters", who should be considered and punished as such.

36Although the theme of sexuality has not been absent from the journal Champ Pénal / Penal Field, dedicating a special issue to sexuality and penal institutions is a relatively innovative choice in the Francophone scientific community. Not only does it contribute to the visibility of various studies done on this subject but also to their conversations with the entire academic world that is focused on penal institutions.

X - Presentation of the Issue

37In order to deepen earlier insights, the nine articles of this new issue explore the issue of sexuality in penal institutions according to different disciplinary approaches (history, sociology, anthropology and cinematographic studies in particular) and in several national spaces (Belgium, Brazil, the United States, France, Quebec and Switzerland). In addition to the comparative perspectives thus presented, the articles offer a variety of novel approaches to the subjects of incarcerated minors, the sexuality of women and the relationship between sexuality and violence.

38Marie Dumollard and Yaëlle Amsellem-Mainguy explore the relationships between young people and professionals in the Judicial Protection of Youth (PJJ), a contribution that is interesting in light of the article by Véronique Blanchard (2011) mentioned above. According to the authors, the open penal environment allows for different treatments of boys and girls sexualities - the boys are allowed to have a hyperactive, dominant and heterosexual sexual identity, while PJJ professionals expect the girls to be submissive and "serious". These different expectations, linked to certain gender stereotypes, create a complex game between young people and professionals.

39Adopting an intersectional approach, Sonja McKenzie, Emma Rubin and Cynthia Gómez study a population of black men with bisexual practices in US prisons. They describe how these men claimed to avoid sexual intercourse in prison in order to favor aggressive forms of masculinity that enable them to rise in the hierarchy of prisoners and to protect themselves from sexual violence. Not only does this article focus on a poorly studied population (people with bisexual practices), it also highlights how race influences both the experience of detention and sexuality.

40Rafael Godoi explores heterosexual sexuality by looking at visits to Brazilian prisons. The article highlights the degrading nature of the control procedures that women visiting their spouses must undergo. This is the same sense of humiliation affecting incarcerated men as a result of body searches carried out before and after their visits.

41Axelle François proposes a quantitative survey of people detained in Belgian prisons about their sexual practices and the meanings associated with them. The richness of the data gathered allows us to deepen and complete the analyses carried out so far essentially through qualitative studies.

42Two articles specifically deal with sexuality in female prisons. As Myriam Joël-Lauf observes in her study in France, women in prison are often confronted with a discourse that promotes forms of emancipation (presuming that, as a whole, they have undergone male domination). It would nevertheless be a relative emancipation, since they would never avoid the institutional control of their sexual behavior. Julie Beaulieu explores the treatment of incarcerated female sexuality in the Quebec television series Unité 9. She shows how a number of scenes, beginning with the "welcome search", are eroticized. This eroticization of female sociability in prison is also seen in the treatment of often sexually ambivalent female friendships.

43The historian Yves Collaud returns to a pedophilia case that occurred during the 1940s in a Swiss youth detention center. The case, which was silenced for many years, shows the lack of credibility given to children's complaints at a time when society was less aware of sexual violence against minors than it is today. This article contributes both to the historical knowledge on the sexual abuse of minors and also reveals how institutions of juvenile detention actually functioned at that time.

44In order to provide a more contemporary perspective on the issue of the management of sexual offenders, the anthropologist Sébastien Saetta proposes an ethnography of a specialized care facility (in France) dedicated to sexual offenders. The study shows, among other things, how this type of institution seeks to persuade people who are not inclined to accept such supervision, while inviting them to reflect on themselves and the acts they had committed.

45The stigmatization of sex offenders, generally referred to as “punks” (or “pointeurs” in French prison slang) in French prisons, is analyzed by Rachel Sarg through the prism of religion. Her research emphasizes that the normal masculinity-oriented hierarchy is doubled by a hierarchy of religions (mainly Islam and Christianity) present in French prisons. Thus, according to her, the virile men (who exhibit a heterosexual identity) are mostly young and Muslim. White men, older, generally Christian and labeled as “punks” are often opposed to the former. The stigma of nonce would allow us to better understand how norms of masculinity in prison can be understood through the combination of offense-based hierarchies and different forms of presentation of a virile self.

XI - Unexplored Areas Requiring Research

46While the contributions gathered in this issue reflects the dynamism of research efforts undertaken in studies on sexuality and penal systems, they also indicate paths yet to be discovered and themes yet to be investigated. This is all the more true in that our literature review has the major flaw of mostly avoiding the penal systems of non-Western countries.

  • 18 Nevertheless, on the police, see Burke, 1994; Miller et al., 2003. For an overview of all the actor (...)
  • 19 On the attitude of custodial staff regarding sexuality among prisoners, see Coehlo, Goncalves, 2010

47First of all, while research on punishment has focused on the sexuality of the people subjected to its power, the sexuality of its working personnel (the police, the prison personnel, etc.) has remained largely unexplored18. We are starting to see in-depth research on workers’ prejudices against sexual minorities (Bernstein, Kostelac, 2002; Freedman, 1996) and on relationships among male prisoners and female prison staff (Crewe, 2006; Malochet, 2007). However, sexuality between staff members and prisoners remains little investigated, apart from that relating to detainees themselves. Sexuality between detainees and prison staff is still poorly documented19 and one of the very few studies on this subject (Bensimon, 2016) adopts a pathologizing perspective by disqualifying it as a curiosity labeled "hybristophilia".

  • 20 On the integration of this theme into the curriculum of undergraduate courses in criminology, see F (...)

48In terms of populations studied, we have reported that research has thus far been more focused on men than women. We can also observe that since the seminal work by Robson, Sappho Goes to Law School (1998) there has been a growing interest in LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bi and Trans) and criminal justice20. If trans people are increasingly being researched (notably, Stanley, Smith, 2015), they remain little-studied from the standpoint of their sexuality, although many studies mention the cases of prostitution forced upon trans women incarcerated in male prisons.

49Moreover, the racial question, which has appeared in many American studies, has not yet, to our knowledge, been studied in France. Also, the way in which religious practices can be linked to sexual practices, a perspective opened in the article by Rachel Sarg, deserves to be studied more thoroughly.

  • 21 In addition to the famous example of Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978), we can think of recent p (...)
  • 22 See especially, Mayne, 2000; Walters, 2001.
  • 23 On cinematic representations of sexual violence in male prisons, see Eigenberg, Baro, 2003. On sexu (...)
  • 24 For a study on students’ beliefs about rape in prison, see King, Hanrahan, 2015.

50While sexuality and sexual violence are recurring themes in feature films21 that depict prison life, research on the filmographic treatment of incarcerated sexuality remains rare, despite the dynamism of cultural studies. While the manner in which prison can be fetishized and eroticized has been depicted in gay pornography (Mercer, 2004) and in “women in prison” movies (or "WIP films")22, "prison movies" are still a sub-genre that is insufficiently studied from the perspective of sexuality23. Such research could be part of a broader reflection on the social and media representations of incarcerated sexuality and sexual violence24 in prisons.

51The history of the relationship between the penal sphere and sexuality is still incomplete. Beyond a general movement for the decriminalization of sexual practices that has not yet been completed, there remain important memorialization issues around forms of repression (on deportation for acts of homosexuality under the Nazi regime, see in particular Schlagdenhauffen, 2011). More specifically, a history of sexuality in places of confinement remains to be written even if milestones have been laid (Rafter, 1985; Kunzel, 2008).

52Comparative approaches are still very rare. It is a vast project. Indeed, since prison environments are sexualized in various ways, sexuality is variously tolerated or suppressed, according to the types of institutions and environments (Ricordeau, Milhaud, 2012).

53In particular, there is a lack of comprehensive comparative work on penal systems (from galleys and prisons to detention camps and prison camps), which would make it possible to separate the specificities of the penal regime and the reclusion regime. Moreover, the multitude of US works referenced in this article testifies to the relative "backwardness" of French and more generally, Francophone research. It is all the more problematic in that the realities described in the United States are quite different from those we know in French prisons, which begs for rigorous comparative work.

54Another fruitful field of research concerns the links between the inside and the outside, that is to say the questions relating to the continuity of the prison experience (Chantraine, 2003). From the point of view of sexuality, prison is still generally thought of as a place of exceptional practices and where the values associated with sexuality would be more conservative than on the outside. But to prove it in a much more reliable way, it would also be necessary to evaluate how legislative developments (in particular, same-sex marriage rights) and changes in attitudes in general are reflected and translated into the prison context. What does it mean in practice to move towards greater recognition of a "right to intimacy" if it does not pertain to sexuality (an issue that can move the established borders)?

  • 25 On the non-mixing of genders in prison, see Pemberton, 2013.

55As the reader will have understood, through this special issue of Champ Pénal / Penal Field, we especially want to show that research on sexualities and penal institutions have as much to teach us about sexuality as about the penal sphere. The gender segregation25 of imprisoned populations serves, for us, an exemplary function within a heteronormative society in which gender still receives “bad press”.

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1 With the support of the Clersé, of the University of Lille 1 and of the Laboratory of Excellence “Writing a New History of Europe” (LabEx EHNE).

2 Note, however, the precursor work of Joseph F. Fishman (1935), as well as an article by Cindy Struckman-Johnson et al. (1976).

3 For a synthesis of these theories, see Forsyth et al., 2002.

4 Nevertheless, for France, see Ricordeau, 2005, 238-240.

5 For France in the 1930s, see Boucard (1930, 197, 206); Choisy (1930); Carco (1931).

6 See especially Heffernan, 1972; Beer et al., 2007.

7 On the way norms related to femininity directly affect over-represented lesbians among those sentenced to death in the United States, Farr, 2000.

8 However, see Tewksbury, 1989; Saum et al., 1995; Struckman-Johnson, Struckman-Johnson, 2000.

9 In the French context, one thinks of the evocative description by Le Floch-Prigent (Le Nouvel Observateur, January 23, 1997) of the « howls of prisoners raped at night ».

10 Its translation into French in the journal Esprit shows the impact of this text.

11 For a perspective on these policies, especially of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, Jackson, 2013.


Kimmel, 1994. On South Africa for example, Gear, 2007.

13 Stauffer, 1991, 77, quoted in Sternweiler, 2000, 38.

14 On Hepatitis C, Hagège, Ségéral, 2013.

15 For an example of self-organization by female prisoners against HIV, Collectif, 1998.

16 Eigenberg, 1992; Propper, 1981 ; Van Wormer, 1984.

17 In German, a Puppenjunge refers to a male doll and by extension, a young male prostitute; a Pipel or Piepel (the etymology is uncertain) refers in the language of the concentration camps to a young man destined to satisfy sexual needs. See Wiesel, 2007, 99; Levi, 1987; Kogon, 1946, 213-214.

18 Nevertheless, on the police, see Burke, 1994; Miller et al., 2003. For an overview of all the actors involved in penal justice, see Knight, Wilson, 2016, 113-145.

19 On the attitude of custodial staff regarding sexuality among prisoners, see Coehlo, Goncalves, 2010.

20 On the integration of this theme into the curriculum of undergraduate courses in criminology, see Fradella et al., 2009.

21 In addition to the famous example of Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978), we can think of recent popular films such as The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) and Animal factory (Steve Buscemi, 2000), as well as several television series (such as Oz and Prison Break).

22 See especially, Mayne, 2000; Walters, 2001.

23 On cinematic representations of sexual violence in male prisons, see Eigenberg, Baro, 2003. On sexuality among women in prison films, see Herman, 2003 and Beaulieu in this current issue.

24 For a study on students’ beliefs about rape in prison, see King, Hanrahan, 2015.

25 On the non-mixing of genders in prison, see Pemberton, 2013.

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Gwenola Ricordeau et Régis Schlagdenhauffen, « Approaching Sexuality in Prisons »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. XIII | 2016, mis en ligne le 29 avril 2017, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gwenola Ricordeau

Maîtresse de conférences en sociologie, Université Lille 1/ Clersé. Contact :

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Régis Schlagdenhauffen

Maître de conférences à l’EHESS. Contact :

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