Sexual Behavior in Prison Populations Understood Through the Framework of Rational Choice and Exchange Theory

By April N. Terry
2016, Vol. 8 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |


Rational choice and exchange theories have been used to explain many phenomena in the field of sociological research. Although some literature has used such theories to explain sexual offenses, no research has attempted to make the connection between rational choice and exchange theory as a way of explaining sexual behavior of inmates. The following paper attempts to use such theories to further understand explanations for sexual behavior of inmates. Although standards such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) seek to restrict sexual behavior amongst the incarcerated population, while providing a framework for policy at the administrative level, research still supports the idea that sexual behaviors occur within prison walls. Possible explanations for such behavior are further explored.

According to Gibson and Hensley (2013), researchers have formulated three models in attempting to explain the concept of prison sex: the important model, the deprivation model, and the social constructionist model. Around 1940, Clemmer introduced the deprivation model while theorizing that inmates were deprived of their normal heterosexual sexual identity. Sykes (1958) then furthered this theory by examining the different forms of deprivation; one such deprivation was heterosexual sexual activity. Sykes suggested that inmates would then create their own subculture to deal with the different deprivations.

Around 1962, Irwin and Cressey suggested the importation model in which inmates would import their own social values from the community into the prison subculture. The social constructionist theory defined sexuality as “cultural entities” which are constructed by social situations and values (Gibson & Hensley, 2013). However, few, if any, studies have examined the construction of the rational choice and exchange theories in their relevance to explaining inmate sexual behavior. Rational choice theories regard both individual values as well as structural elements when looking at the determinants of outcomes.

Inmates appear to weigh the costs and benefits associated with engaging in sexual relations with the primary motivations being increased access to commissary and/or other tangible goods in addition to companionship.

Such theory accounts for both social outcomes on the individual level of action as well as the social context (Hechter & Kanazawa, 1997). Many exchange theorists would suggest that social behavior is guided by one’s, “rational calculation of an exchange of rewards and costs” in their social interactions (Appelrouth & Edles, 2001, p. 121). This decision-making process is when/where one decides to enter or terminate a relationship with another person. Thus, individuals are strategic actors who use their resources to optimize their rewards. The weighing of the rewards is relevant in a variety of situations (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011). However, there is little to suggest whether such said theory is able to explain the sexual behavior, “consensual” and “non-consensual” of inmates.

Stemming back to the early 1900s, criminologists have been interested in the sexual behaviors of inmates. The research in this area ranges from coerced sexual behavior to consensual; juveniles to adults; and males as well as females. According to Erving Goffman (1969), inmates may have to adjust their sexual practices while incarcerated by engaging in illegal methods (tricks) in order to obtain certain forms of satisfaction (as cited by Merotte, 2012). Additionally, there is an increased risk for violent conduct because of homosexual behaviors in prisons as many are led by, or lead to, economic and/or sexual exploitation (Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011).

Fleisher and Krienert (2006) introduce the idea of a sexual behavior continuum ranging from voluntary sexual encounters to coercive sexual encounters. Warren, Jackson, Booker Loper, and Burnette (2010) then expanded on this work by creating different types of sexual encounters to include such types as: frequent consensual encounters, the less frequent bartered encounters, and the rare coercive encounters (e.g. primarily rape) (Fleisher & Krienert, 2006).

Although some sexual behaviors are self-reported as consensual, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to address issues of sexual behavior within prisons. Part of this stemmed from gained awareness of the administration and media attention about the violent nature of sex behind bars (Tewksbury & Conner, 2014). The Prison Rape Elimination Act included nine original members, eight of whom then worked independently from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In June of 2009, they presented a final report for proposed standards regarding sexual violence in prisons. The report was given to the President, Congress, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and other state and federal officials.

As a result, one year later the standards for detection, prevention, reduction, and punishment for sexual abuse were set forth (Barth, 2012). This also meant there was a “zero-tolerance” policy which called for thorough research and information gathering on the prevalence of sexual assault in prisons. DOJ made it a top priority to have the Bureau of Justice Statistics create an annual report disclosing information on the prison rape within the U.S. prison system. Although this data is collected (based on reported incidents), there are likely many unreported occurrences of sexual assault within prisons (National PREA). With that said, research also supports the idea that consensual sexual relations also occur in prisons.

Sexual Relations Among Adult Female Inmates

Both current and past research supports the idea that female inmates participate in dyads known as pseudofamilies which generally consist of same-sex couple relationships (Alarid, 2000; Einat & Chen, 2012). A study conducted by Giallombardo (1966) estimated that approximately 86% of the women interviewed had a homosexual experience during a period of incarceration. Findings are consistent with Einat and Chen’s (2012) suggestion that 85% of interviewees (female inmates) admitted to participating in same-sex sexual relationships at least one time while incarcerated. Giallombardo revealed that the reasons given for such participation included a need for friendship, confidence, and interdependence.

Although there is no direct literature to support the idea within prison walls, Blau (1964) makes an argument that when individuals share basic values, bonds and group solidarity arise. This form of solidarity occurs amongst individuals who have not even met, yet, unite based on the common values. Although inmates likely enter prisons with pre-established values, values likely shift during a stent of incarceration. As such, Blau’s argument fits with the idea that inmates bond together in group solidarity. One could make the argument that in opposition to the pains of imprisonment, inmates bond together to carry on sexual relationships as they would within the community (Blau, 1964); making sex in prisons an institutional reality (Tewksbury & Conner, 2014).

Inmates also reported participation in prison sexual behavior due to having access to institutional goods and services which would not been available otherwise (Giallombardo, 1966). Greer (2000) also found that the reported reasons for homosexual involvement in prison were due to game playing, economic manipulation, loneliness, and a need for affection. Although Coleman explains the concept of social capital through stories of families, the significance of social capital can apply to inmate behavior as well (Coleman, 1988), especially when referencing Greer’s (2000) work on the motivation being driven by companionship. Trust is not a word that one may use to describe relationships among inmates or prison in general. However, inmates do rely on social capital and a sense of trust when building relationships. As noted previously, the role of relationships may take on different forms when controlling for gender (e.g. females and pseudofamilies). Regardless of the form, inmates still rely on social capital even if the interaction(s) is based solely on gaining access to resources which could not otherwise be obtained (Coleman, 1988).

Although not all sexual behaviors within prisons are coerced/forced, in 1995, approximately 359,000 males and 5,000 female inmates were victims of sexual assault within the U.S. prison system (Alarid, 2005). According to Owen (1998), female inmates were involved in exploitative relationships with an underlying economic and/or emotional motive (Owen, 1998). Alarid (2000) found that the vast majority (75-80%) of females in jails and prisons have admitted to having engaged in homosexual behavior to include sexual favors. Alarid believes that women prisoners underreport sexual assault for a variety of reasons to include being desensitized to what coerced sex means; having a history of sexual assault or other demeaning relationships, or simply not recognizing or overlooking the fact that they were a victim of sexual assault. It is suggested that passive women may also submit to sexual behaviors not out of true desire but rather to fulfill the void of lacking interpersonal relationships.

However, the forced and/or coerced sexual relationships also exist which results in female inmates engaging in sexual relations with others (Alarid, 2005). Most studies report that same-sex sexual activities between female inmates are largely due to its larger functional role it serves in response to the conditions of incarceration. For example, these relationships supply inmates with emotional stability, attachment to others, and someone to confide in while incarceration. Since the creation of pseudofamilies does not appear to be present in the literature of male inmates, it seems likely that there are different motivations for male homosexual behavior during incarceration (Hensley & Tewksbury, 2002).

Sexual Relations Among Adult Male Inmates

The majority of research in the area of prison sex has dealt with sexual violence; little is known about “consensual” sexual activity between male inmates. With that said, prison sexual behavior is not supposed to be a tolerated prison behavior; engaging in said behaviors would violate prison policy and possibly result in a form of reprimand (e.g. disciplinary report). In a 1989 study, Tewskbury found that between 25% and 40% of male inmates had engaged in consensual sex while in prison. The inmates in the study considered themselves to be of heterosexual orientation.

It is interesting to note, Nacci and Kane (1983) found that inmates in higher-security prisons engaged in same sex sexual activity more than those males housed in lower-security prisons. In larger scale study completed by the national Institute of Justice, they found that of the 288 male inmates in the sample, nearly six percent had indicated that they participated in consensual sex while incarcerated. Some of the predictors for such behavior were some form of childhood abuse, violent behavior while incarcerated, gang membership, and overall impulsivity (Tewskbury & Conner, 2014).

Research does not support the idea that male inmates engage in pseudofamilies; however, the research does support the idea that prisons have sexual hierarchies. According to Dumond (1992), the hierarchical system creates structures of roles and activities of the actors involved in the sexual behaviors. Generally, the sexual acts engaged in by the male inmates then define their label, or role, within the hierarchy. In discussing exchange theory, Blau focused more on the roles of power and inequality and their role in social interaction (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011). Blau (1964) pulled part of his theoretical arguments from the work of Simmel as both explored the notion that exchange relations were present in all human interactions and were therefore, seen as the building blocks of social interaction.

As already noted, Blau focused on the role of power in social interaction. He wrote that if one individual were unable to receive a benefit from another source, and they were unable to offer a benefit to another individual, then they became dependent on the individual. A similar line of thinking applies to inmate relations and the role of sexual behavior. Furthermore, Blau would agree that the legitimate authority produces obedience in others which is less based on individual rationality and more focused on cultural norms and values (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011).

The prison subculture operates on a similar track with forms of “authority.” Some inmates enter the prison with a higher level of authority than others while some earn this placement within the prison hierarchy. This hierarchy must be obeyed as should the inmate code. The inmate code is a theoretical viewpoint of prison sociology. Most describe the inmate code as being a set of values and norms which are publicly displayed by inmates as a way to guide “appropriate” conduct, as idealized by the inmates. Broadly speaking, the inmate code states that inmate should not interfere with the interest of other inmates, they should never report another inmate, they should just focus on doing their time, they should not exploit or steal from other inmates, they should look tough rather than weak, and lastly, they should never side with prison officials (Crewe, 2007).

Wooden and Parker (1982) reported that those deemed to be submissive were not respected by others and therefore, they were used as commodities in order to satisfy one’s need whether that be sexual or economic. In order for inmates to survive prison, some speculate that they must reject the free society’s norms and instead, adopt the new set of norms within prison walls, even if that be sexual in nature (Hensley, Wright, Tewksbury, & Castle, 2003).

Homans (1958) wrote about conformers and deviants and how each type of member behaves according to norms. He described norms as the description of a behavior which is deemed to be valuable by an individual and then the individual conforms to it (in prison language, the inmate code). Prisons are known for having their own prison subculture which does differ from mainstream culture. Thus, norms and assigned values differ from community standards and prison standards. Just as in the community, in prison, if inmates or “deviants” choose not to conform, they lose social approval of the other inmates (Homans, 1958).

According to Man and Cronan (2001), the prison subculture is much like Goffman describes in his work on the Presentation of Self (1956). They suggest that specific roles exist both within the “free world” as well as behind prison walls which suggest masculinity and aggression. They believe that this is not random but rather resembles that of a scripted play in which all actors know their role and many play sexual roles. Based on this idea, inmates with certain personality characteristics, primarily those deemed weak, are then more vulnerable to the aggression (Man & Cronan, 2001; Tewksbury & West, 2000).

Wooden and Parker (1982), collected data on 56 incarcerated men who were housed in a unit within an urban county jail. They found that nearly one fourth (23.8%) of the entire sample engaged in sex for a profit while in protective custody. Profit referred to such things as commissary and favors. Additionally, they found that many bisexual/heterosexual inmates (25%) used sex as a form of protection from another inmate (Wooden & Parker, 1982). Barth (2012) asked male inmates about their self-identified sexual orientation prior to incarceration. He found that those who identified as homosexual and/or bisexual were the only ones who reported seeking other inmates for intimacy. However, the sample consisted of only eight inmates. When the inmates were asked to list reasons for seeking the homosexual contact, they reported, boredom, provocation, and a need to look for something new in life (Barth, 2012). Again, inmates act out a variety of roles as do members of the general public. However, there are differences between free members within the community and incarcerated inmates. While comparing within inmate populations, differences are noted to exist when looking at sexual behavior of juveniles.

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