… When You Pry It From My Cold, Dead Hands

A Facebook friend posted a link to this Slate article Free Willy: Should prison inmates have the right to masturbate?

I clicked over to it because it sounded funny. Not only did it turn out to be interesting, it touches on (you see what I did there?) a real point of human rights.

While you might think of masturbation as a sort of last refuge for the incarcerated—a truly inalienable freedom, given the happy proximity of the sex organs—that is not the case. In fact, a number of state prisons regard jerking off as a rule infraction.

The fight against the practice apparently has a long history:

In 1883, exasperated officials at a Pennsylvania penitentiary posted placards in every cell warning “addicted” wankers that their habit caused “speedy death” and begging them to “Stop, at once Stop!” Doctors at New York’s Elmira Reformatory took a more hands-on approach: They chloroformed masturbators and implanted metal rings through their foreskins.

But there are some new developments, understandable issues such as that of preventing a hostile work environment for female guards:

In many institutions, women are steadily replacing men because prisons prefer to hire guards without criminal records and with some education beyond high school—both of which favor female applicants. Female guards have another virtue: In most jurisdictions, they can legally oversee housing units for both male and female inmates, whereas men often are permitted to guard and conduct pat-searches only on other men. The result is that male inmates are accorded less privacy in which to masturbate than female inmates, says Brenda Smith, the law professor. “Women are in these environments, and they can look into the cell. They come by and the guy is masturbating and all of a sudden [the guards think] it’s about them. When in fact it isn’t. Then those guys get written up, when they didn’t even know she was coming.”

The article winds up:

In free society, at least, masturbation is evidently displacing something. There are only so many hours in the day, and the number of people who say they enjoy masturbation is rising. Studies of autoeroticism across societies—in Finland, in Estonia, in Russia, in France—indicate that masturbation trends among men and women of all ages are pointing up. Government authorities in parts of Britain and Spain are even getting aboard the autoerotic bandwagon, running pro-orgasm campaigns with slogans like “Pleasure is in your own hands.” According to Finnish sex researcher Osmo Kontula, two-thirds of masturbators use porn to liven up the process. “I’m not sure how popular it was in the Stone Age,” says Kontula, who has studied autoerotic behavior internationally and across generations. “[But] I can confirm that masturbation has increased significantly in recent decades. … It is also more popular than ever before.” The golden era of masturbation is at hand.

And yet in prisons, Stone Age attitudes toward self-stimulation, porn, and sexuality still rule the yard. Only two states, Vermont and Mississippi, offer inmates access to condoms, despite high prison rates of HIV and hepatitis. Correctional officials may wish inmates were sexually inert, but a more pragmatic attitude might yield better results. “If you allow for autoerotic behavior, if you allow for conjugal visits, if you allow for protected consensual sex, those things should reduce prison rape. They should also reduce, of course, sexually transmitted diseases,” says prison sex researcher Christopher Hensley. And what about the God-given right to masturbate? That’s one freedom inmates deserve.

If you have the time, the whole article is worth a read.

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