As a prison warden one of the prisons under my responsibility operated a large sex offender treatment program, where two-thirds of the prisoners were sex offenders. My association with this program caused me to develop an interest in the intersection between sex, political control, and punishment.
The general public thinks offenders are sent to prison for punishment, a belief not held by most corrections workers who know offenders are sent to prison as punishment not for punishment (despite what is presented by some media and popular entertainment). Yet, it’s hard to escape the reality that punishment is part of the fabric of prisons as it is in the fabric of our society.
Prisons make up a large part of the foundation on which modern societies are built, prisons embody the morality — -the values and rules of behavior — -propagated by social institutions such as schools, families, and churches, and enforced by civil institutions such as the police, courts, and the prisons themselves, acting in concert.
Western societies have been and remain heavily influenced by Christian morality and that morality is clearly operationalized in our prisons.
Though the beliefs about sex among Christian groups vary, there are general principles that have held through history organized by the Roman Catholic Church. The primary Christian sexual principle is that sex is bad, it is the Original Sin committed by Adam and Eve. This morality says sex is natural and necessary to the propagation of the species, but if we are to be different from animals, we must acknowledge that sex lurks in the shadows of our mind waiting to diminish the purity of our soul. To remain pure takes vigilance, which takes us to the next principle: Sex must be controlled. We must know when to have sex and when not to; we must know what sexual positions and acts are good and which are abhorrent; we must know with whom we can have sex and when the sexual act is an abomination. We must understand that sex for pleasure is dirty, and that those who renounce sex are pure and to be both admired and emulated. Even within marriage, sex is to be performed only to have children and never for pleasure or recreation
These Christian principles were absorbed by and imposed on Western societies and enforced mainly through fear and condemnation; only a short while ago medical authorities decried masturbation weakens your brain and your body, and homosexuality was branded repulsive and effeminate. These principles are the foundation of many political activities, such as characterizing book censoring as rooting out “pornography” (right-wing code for anything LGBTQ related) and forced childbirth as punishment for sexual promiscuity.
Least you think much has changed, here’s a true story about a consulting presentation I made. I was asked by the priest assigned to Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Jenison, Michigan to give a presentation on internet pornography. After my retirement, I was a founding partner in a consulting firm that advised government agencies on sex offender management and we developed a separate training program on internet pornography.
It seems that priests were experiencing an alarming growth in the number of parishioners confessing their addiction to internet pornography, and this priest wanted me to speak to a group of seminarians under his charge who were about to be ordained and take their places in confessionals. Specifically, they wanted to know their options when it came to assigning penance, having come to the conclusion that the usual fifty Hail Mary’s and one hundred Our Father’s weren’t hacking it.
I opened by explaining that people don’t just watch internet pornography; they watch it for a reason, which is to masturbate. I said the question is one of frequency; that is, at what point is a person watching so much pornography, and masturbating so often, that their behavior is interfering with his/her lives, i.e., family, work, and recreation. I said psychologists considered masturbation more than once daily to be abnormal so if the penitent in their confessional wasn’t pulling the pud more than once daily, the priest should not be concerned. Personally, I said, I thought once daily was a bit extreme but who was I to judge.
I was attempting to differentiate between “levels” of masturbation by linking frequency to problematic seriousness so that priests wouldn’t impose the same heavy penance on all masturbators, and to help priests know when a person’s actions become so habitual that psychological counseling may be in order.
I was born and raised a Catholic, and am now a recovered Catholic: I assumed the Church’s teaching on masturbation had somehow evolved. I was dead wrong. When I defined “normal” masturbation, the supervising priest immediately addressed the confused look of consternation gripping every pale-faced seminarian. “I want to assure you,” said the priest, “that the Church’s views on masturbation have not changed. There is no normal masturbation, and all masturbation is a sin.”
“What kind of sin?” I asked the priest.
“Why, mortal of course.”
This surprised me and I said, “But doesn’t the Church acknowledge different sinful levels?”
What I was getting at is the Church and many Protestant denominations recognize multiple levels of sin. Catholics usually know about venial sin and mortal sin, but what they often don’t know is there are many more, such as (from least to greatest severity):
Original Sin: Committed by Adam and Eve and passed on to all their descendants.
Concupiscence: Is both the tendency for humans to sin (inherited from Adam and Eve, and tied to Original Sin, though apparently baptism doesn’t remove it) and (as maintained by St. Augustine) sinful lust.
Lust: (I’m not sure how this differs from concupiscence).
I tried to describe a masturbatory continuum, and explore a hierarchy of frequency (from casual “normal” to addiction) associated with multiple types of intervention. Incidentally, I was going to propose that masturbation be categorized as concupiscence, putting it on the lighter end of the condemnation scale.
The priest was having none of it. I never got to the part in my presentation about the treatment options available for those addicted to porn, though I did say that no amount of praying would help such an addict. I felt sorry for those dozen seminarians doomed to a life of enforced celibacy and denied even the simple release of jerking off. Of course, we know that Catholic priests have for millennia found ways around their celibacy, and often those ways are not only an insult to their vows, but seriously damage their victims. Ironically, that priest who objected to my notion of “normal” masturbation later confessed to his congregation that he had a homosexual relationship and was leaving the parish.
Intrigued by my experience with those Catholic seminarians, and by the world-wide Catholic sex scandal, our consulting group arranged to visit a facility in the Ozark mountains, owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Church, that isolated and treated pedophile priests. What I discovered was very little treatment, and a whole lot of incarceration.
The sex offender management consulting firm I mentioned earlier was developing a clergy sex offender treatment program and wanted to talk with the priest charged with running the mountain facility. As we approach the building, we noticed that it was surrounded by water — not wetland type water or even a stream — but an honest to goodness Medieval moat with a single bridge access to the building. The building was a large, modern, single-floor design. The supervising priest said the building was new, having recently replaced an older structure that a resident priest-offender had burned to the ground. The facility could accommodate a dozen resident priests but only had one resident at the time of our visit. We were allowed to briefly talk with the resident and he said he could now finally be himself, with his blue short-shorts, matching tank top and blue polished fingernails. This resident was driven to a nearby town once a week for individual psychotherapy (a treatment approach of limited use with those sexually addicted, and likely damaging for transsexuals or those in drag); other than that, the facility was a well-appointed warehouse operation.
The supervising priest said he believed the major cause of clerical sexual offending was celibacy and the younger the person at the time of seminary entry, the greater the eventual psycho-sexual damage. Before we left the supervisor gave me a paper he had written about celibacy and its attendant damage. He said he had submitted the paper to the Vatican but was forbidden to publish…the Catholic Church steadfastly refusing any sociological studies of the effects of celibacy. He said we could use it to develop our treatment program, but not for anything else.
After having written our clergy sex offender treatment program, we met with myriad Catholic and Protestant and Jewish officials and could get none interested in our program. Not one.
Along with all their rules and regulations and condemnations, Christians made sex a judicial issue by enlisting civil authorities in its regulation. Yet, it has always been the case that the rules controlling sexual behavior have not been evenly applied across any society. The wealthy and powerful live by different sexual standards and levels of control than those without advantages. Whether nobleman, rich man, celebrity or priest, the privileged are held to more lenient and generous sexual standards; in compromising situations they are either given the benefit of the doubt, or their philandering is dismissed with, “Oh, you know they all do that. It’s just the way they are.”
The Christian belief that sex is inherently bad and must be controlled is borne most heavily by the poor and politically disenfranchised, and no group is poorer and more disenfranchised than convicted felons. People on public assistance are thought to be sexually promiscuous, to have children so they may collect more assistance, to have children out of wedlock, and to make their livings as sex workers. In addition to the sordid sexual stigmas associated with the poor, attempts have been made to punish the poor by taking away their children, cutting their benefits, forcing them to work without child care, institutionalizing them in prisons and mental facilities, and even sterilize them.
The greater the degree of social control imposed on a group, the stronger the demand for sexual abstinence. In the U.S., as in most Western countries, the group under the greatest social control are prisoners, so it should be no surprise that convicts are allowed virtually no sexual outlets.
Contemporary American imprisonment has been significantly influenced by Quaker religious groups. The modern penitentiary system was developed by Pennsylvania Quakers who melded Jeremy Bentham’s concept of maximum surveillance with Quaker ideas of solitary reflection, meditation, and abstinence — -what was expected of penitents in a penitentiary.
Like any religion, Quakers have varying attitudes toward sex. Historically, Quakers have tended to be more tolerant than other Christian denominations of sex outside of marriage and homosexual sex, as well as family planning and birth control. However, there are significant groups of Quakers, particularly those belonging to Evangelical movements, that are sexually intolerant, pushing beliefs such as abstinence outside of marriage, with marriage defined as a monogamous relationship only between one man and one woman. And it is the Christian evangelical groups representing all denominations that are most active in our prisons, bringing with them their sexual ethics.
The expectation is that convicts are not to have sex. Their imposed abstinence is seen as a natural part of their punishment because if your declared legally bad why should you be allowed to indulge in something that is fundamentally sinful? Sex in prison will make you more wretched and interfere with your rehabilitative penance, with masturbation being the most pernicious and frequent prisoner sexual activity.
It wasn’t always that way. The ancient Greeks thought the main function of sex was to participate in the Eternal by leaving descendants, and that boys too young to have sex with women still participated in the Eternal by masturbating (or having sex with other males); which was just dandy as long as they didn’t become weak from buffing the banana too often. To the Greeks, sex was to be enjoyed but regulated. Many ancient Greeks thought the bone marrow was the origin of both semen and the soul (though some thought semen formed in the brain, traveled down the spinal column, and entered the penis) and that ejaculation drained the body of precious growth-related fluids. Christians simply stripped out the enjoyment and kept the weakness, increased the regulation, and added condemnation.
Modern prisons do not allow convicts to participate in the Eternal. A prison where sex is allowed, is a prison declared to be “out of control.” Even masturbation is still punished: A prisoner caught masturbating receives a sexual misconduct, which can affect his parole eligibility. Our contemporary concern with sexual harassment has exacerbated prisoner sexual punishments since staff can file sexual harassment complaints when confronted by masturbating convicts, causing prison administrators to come down harder on miscreant convicts to avoid lawsuits. The result of all this condemnation is wise prisoners learn to hide their sexual adventures, and wise corrections officers learn to announce themselves before they enter a prisoner’s cell.
So, what do you think happens in an all-male society awash with testosterone but denied sexual outlets? Men in all male societies denied normal sexual outlets will first rape women, then children, then animals, and finally each other. Is it any wonder that prisoners and priests are involved in risky and often aberrant sexual behavior or that prisoners take every opportunity they get to participate in the Eternal?
Today we labor under social rules and mores categorizing sex as either licit or illicit, acceptable or unacceptable, legal or illegal, and worthy or unworthy of punishment. Our sexual behavior exists within a web of unwritten rules, laws, and judgements; it is why we are motivated to talk about it and yank into the light of examination, judgment, and often punishment. It is our society’s obsessed with things sexual.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volumes 1, Vintage, 1978.
Ibid, Volume 2, 1985.
Frederic Martel, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, Bloomsbury, 2019.
Donald Cozzens, Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crises in the Church, The Liturgical Press, 2002.
Michael D’Antonio, Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
Christian views on sin, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_sin
On the evils of masturbation, see: https://www.oudaily.com/masturbation-is-evil/article_d5ad530e-8c9d-5b59-8def-ce92bae60f5b.html