… 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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  • HP

    Well, you know, it’s s slippery slope.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

    Wait, wait, I’m confused.

    Exactly WHY does the prison system discourage masturbation?

  • NickS

    Plumbing if they’re taking the secular approach, bible bashing via dubious “science” if they’re not…

  • stuartvo

    Because felons are supposed to suffer in prison. No pleasure at all is to be had. This is punishment, after all!

    Rehabilitation? Foolish bleeding-heart liberal fantasy. Once a criminal, always a criminal.

    Reducing recidivism rates? What better way than to make prison so horrible that no-one wants to go back?

    Reward systems to control behaviour in prison? What’s wrong with just using overbearing brutality? Beat them into submission!

    Basic human rights? Why, when these “people” are sub-human?

    Besides, it will never happen to me, I’m a middle-aged white male. Prison is for the other and I get my jollies from imagining them suffering, I don’t even need porn!

  • http://www.darwinharmless.com Darwin Harmless

    Masturbation is our only truly safe sex. It should be taught in schools. Preventing prisoners from wanking is simply stupid. It should also constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
    Maybe there was some justification back in the days when doctors were hysterical (with no evidence)about the practice. But we now know it is actually good for us. Trying to repress the sex drive leads to violence and perversion. Surely we have learned this by now.

  • http://becomingjulie.blogspot.com/ BecomingJulie

    But ….. one-person sex is the best kind, for some people! (I happen to be autosexual, as well as a beginning MTF trans so early on my Journey I would be almost certain to be placed in a men’s prison on assessment). When I have tried the two-person sort, the foreplay was always more interesting than the penetration.

    Seriously, how does this not fall under the heading of “cruel and unusual punishment”, as I believe is forbidden by your Eighth Amendment? (I’ll be kind and assume the reason why you had to amend your constitution to add such a prohibition is simply because the Founding Fathers never envisaged anybody trying it in the first place.)

    It’s also supremely arrogant of any woman prison officer to assume that a man engaged in the practice of grasping the joystick and taking a quick solo flight around his prison cell is even thinking about her, let alone that any harm to her could ensue if he was.

  • Kevin

    Reminds me of a survey that was taken somewhere…94% of the men surveyed admitted to masturbating. From which the authors concluded that 6% of the male population will lie about just about anything.

  • robb


    “…when they didn’t even know she was coming.”

    they should pay better attention…

  • carlie

    There are a lot of very serious problems in prisons, including rape. I am angry that even a single minute of time and effort is taken on this instead.

  • http://intelligenttheism.blogspot.com/ kreepykritter

    @BecomingJulie (#6) — No judgement, just a clarification. The first ten ‘amendments’ to the constitution were the originals, added for clarification, at the founding of the country. FYI. Americans can be backwards and slow, I’ll admit, but the Bill of Rights was pretty damned progressive for its time.

    Anyway… I think the initial cause here was the ‘Hysterical doctors’ mentioned @ #5. Now, I can see the argument being ALMOST valid if there are female guards making rounds. Even then… hell, make it a priviledge for good behavior. Instead of “You started that riot, two days in ‘The Hole’”, why not “Thank you for your help with new inmates, thirty minutes in the ‘Happy Shack’”? Not much different a concept than what is currently offered to people who become ‘Trustees’ and earn additional freedoms/priviledges.


    “…when they didn’t even know she was coming.”

    And since when is that unusual for a guy? I’d be impressed if he even cared. I bet she knew that THEY were coming though.

  • Etavargga

    “They come by and the guy is masturbating and all of a sudden [the guards think] it’s about them.”

    Well that’s crap. This “concern” assumes that a female guard would actually be bothered by a possibility that an inmate is thinking of them sexually, and what? Need to be protected from their possible feelings? I know it’s different for the exhibition cases – there, it’s flouting authority in a situation where maintaining order is important. But what is this paranoia that poor inmates might be written up for just doing a normal bodily function? I don’t see any evidence of this in the article.

  • michaelpowers

    Having been a “guest” of the state, I can tell you that, at least in minimum-security facilities, It’s relatively rare anymore.

    Why? A decided lack of privacy. One is never alone. Ever. Some of us would end up breaking some other rule, serious enough to get us tossed into the hole (solitary) for a month, just for some solitude. Not only for masturbation, but just for some bloody peace and quiet.

    Unfortunately, they caught on fairly quickly, and began substituting other forms of punishment.

    In retrospect, it was nothing like the brochure…

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