Annals of Heartlessness (12): The Right to Masturbate

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annals of heartlessness / law / privacy
Gustav Klimt's Woman seated with thighs apart (1916)

Gustav Klimt's Woman seated with thighs apart (1916)


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. … [Such restrictions are “well-entrenched” in the correctional environment [in the U.S.]. (source)

And probably elsewhere as well. The rules apply even when there’s no indecent exposure. In the 19th century, some U.S. prison officials even

chloroformed masturbators and implanted metal rings through their foreskins. (source)

These days, prison officials often turn a blind eye and don’t enforce the rules. But sometimes

prisoners do … get in trouble for engaging in autoerotic behavior. Early on the morning of May 16, 2000, in South Carolina’s Lieber Correctional Institution, Officer Patricia Sinkler saw inmate Freddie Williams “in the front entrance of the shower, curtains open, with his left hand propped up against the wall, turned sideways, making back and forth movements with his right hand on his penis,” according to a court document. Sinkler filed a disciplinary report recommending that Williams be charged with sexual misconduct, and he was brought before a hearing officer and convicted. Williams appealed multiple times, insisting he had not intentionally exposed himself; the officer had simply walked past when he was going at it. He lost and had to relinquish 240 good-time credits.

masturbationA similar case occurred in Florida in 2006: Broward County inmate Terry Lee Alexander was sitting alone on his bunk masturbating when a female deputy who was monitoring him from a central control room more than 100 feet away took exception to Alexander’s “blatant” exertions and wrote him up. Alexander was charged and convicted of exposure, with the jury determining that a cell is “a limited access public place.” The same deputy had also filed reports on seven other locked-up masturbators. When Alexander’s attorney asked the deputy in court if she had considered calling a SWAT team to halt his client’s activity, she replied, “I wish I had.” (source)

Whether all this means that prisoners – or the population in general – should have a legal right to masturbate, is another matter. Probably not I guess. Not every prohibition on government intrusion should necessarily be translated into a right. The right to privacy should be sufficient to protect the act of masturbation and a specific right to masturbate is superfluous. And yes, inmates shouldn’t lose their right to privacy just because they’re in prison, even if some limitations of that right are inevitable in their case.


(source unknown)

Especially for the general population, a right to masturbate is utterly superfluous, since people normally enjoy enough privacy beyond the prison walls in order to be able to masturbate without government intrusion. Prisoners, however, may not always be granted enough privacy, as the cases cited above make clear. But instead of claiming a right to masturbate, inmates should insist on their right to privacy.

What about the right to be able to consume pornography? Again either for prisoners only or for the general population. For the latter, this right is covered by free speech. For the former, such a right would entail the additional right to be given pornography, as prisoners can’t go about procuring it themselves in the free speech marketplace. A prisoners’ right to pornography is not covered by free speech. However, I doubt it would be a good thing to have it. It may be good policy if prisons make porn available, but that doesn’t mean prisoners have a right to be given porn. Which doesn’t mean that prison officials have a right to take pornography away from prisoners once they have it. People don’t lose all their rights when they are incarcerated. And that includes private property.

In any case, taking away prisoners’ porn or their right to masturbate is likely to be counterproductive, as it will create unrest and lead to an increasing number of sexual predation cases among prisoners.

More on porn and masturbation. More in the annals of heartlessness.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Ethics of Human Rights (81): Changing Morality | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

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