In South African prisons, different kinds of sexual interactions and relationships take place between men. The majority of these are abusive, exploitative, and involve rape and various degrees of coercion. Newcomers to prison are especially vulnerable because they are unfamiliar with the "rules" of inmate culture and are easily manipulated. Seasoned inmates regard them as sources of material goods including sex, and as potential gang members. Often, a newcomer accepts goods and services such as protection, food or cigarettes from another inmate without realizing that sex will be expected from him as payment for the unknowingly created "debt". Rape frequently follows as a consequence.
A qualitative study by the South African Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) showed that the trickery frequently used to subordinate inmates relies on the exchange value that is attributed to sex.1 Because sex is embedded in the prison economy, those who are poor tend to be amongst the more vulnerable. Prisoners who do not get visitors (an important source of commodities and money) are often economically needy. As one respondent put it, "money makes prison go round" and prisoners' basic rights – food rations, blankets, beds – become embroiled in this economy.
The risks of rape are higher among those who are physically weak, not prepared to use violence or who are perceived to have committed a "sissy crime" (often those that do not involve violence or weapons). Having "good looks" also increases the likelihood of being targeted. However, there are no absolute prerequisites for sexual violation. Both poverty and fear, for example, can be created by fellow inmates to ensure anyone's compliance.
Beyond the trauma of unwanted sex, rape is understood to demolish the victim's manhood and turn him into a "woman". This is linked to the way in which dominant inmate culture perceives gender to be connected to certain sex roles: men penetrate and women are penetrated. Rape and coercion are, as a result, used to brutally impose a feminized identity on a portion of the male prisoner population.
"Women" are generally stigmatized as inferior and become the sexual property of inmates identified as "men": prison "womanhood" usually means being the constant target of harassment and abuse. In the words of one young inmate: "We are all criminals in here and if I say you are a criminal that means that I respect you. But if you have had sex done to you, even the criminal in you is now gone and you are now a woman… There is nothing we can do for you. Some people just look and some want to sleep with you and when you walk past people, they want to touch or threaten to rape you."
An initial rape often sees victims being taken by the perpetrators as prison "wives" or wyfies (in Afrikaans-influenced prison slang) in long-term coercive relationships known as "prison marriages". The "husband" provides material goods and consumables for his wyfie, who is required to do domestic tasks and be constantly sexually available to him. While such relationships contain differing levels of coercion and evolve differently over time, it is generally agreed that the majority of wyfies despise their positions, remaining in them only because of fear.
Particularly oppressive notions of gender are at the centre of much of the sex happening in prison. To be naïve, trusting, poor, and not prepared to use violence are qualities associated with inferiority and womanliness. Manliness is equated with the use of violence and the ability to endure certain forms of it, deviousness, and participation in the prison economy (through smuggling and theft). Power lies with men. The centrality of violence to manhood is highlighted in the typical requirement that wyfies seeking promotion to manhood perform a specific violent deed in order to prove worthiness of manhood.
Homophobia and alternative sexual relations
A Stop Prison Rape activist once said that in American prisons an inmate "could be fucking his cellmate every night, but will truthfully, as far as he is concerned deny that he has had a homosexual experience in prison". It is much the same in South African prisons where the most common and sanctioned forms of sexual interaction (in marriages and the like) tend not to be connected to notions of homosexuality by many of the people involved.
Indeed, some other types of sexual interaction are considered deviant precisely because they are associated with homosexuality. Ushintsha ipondo – literally meaning to "exchange a pound" – is reportedly common but also a punishable offence according to the inmate code. It is characterized by consensual sex and often spoken of as "doing each other favours" (regularly, it involves people who are simultaneously other prisoners wyfies). In these relationships, neither partner is considered to be inferior/superior, and both take turns to penetrate and receive. By doing so they are disrupting the system that demands that penetration is only for "men" and receiving only for "women", and cannot therefore be divided into genders on the basis of a restricted sex role. This blurring of gender leads to its association with homosexuality and the threat it poses to the sexual status quo behind bars.
Institutionalization of forced sex
A potentially vast range of circumstances surround prison sex. For instance, sex interactions contained in relationships defined by love feelings between partners are also reported, although less commonly. It is rape, coercion, and exploitation that have the strongest hold, and while the boundaries in prison between consent and coercion are particularly blurred, blatantly forced sex frequently escapes being viewed as such, but is rather considered normal and acceptable. Sexual abuse is embedded within inmate culture, and is most visible in the rules, rituals, and ranks employed by powerful prison gangs to organize sex along the destructive lines of "marriage". At another level, such practices are also endorsed by the lack of attention they receive from prison officials.
Important to recognize however, is that the ways that people outside of prison relate to each other play a fundamental part in these damaging prison processes. Popular beliefs around gender, for example, are behind the inferior way in which "prison women" are viewed, the entitlement of men to sex from them, and the powerful perception that victims of forced sex in prison, like those outside, are to blame for what has happened to them. The myth that, "real men do not get raped" has a grip in the outside world as well. Explanations from prisoners highlight the connections with broader society: "Wyfies are treated just like women outside", said one. Or, in the words of another, "You can't rape your wife".
Damaging and damaged identities
Particularly destructive notions of what it means to be a man or woman are intensified and entrenched in prison. Intolerances are fuelled, abusive and dangerous behaviours learnt and trauma caused. Prison is likely to provide young inmates with some of their most decisive views on sexuality and gender, ones on which they will base future relationships. Further, sexual violence has severe consequences for the spread of HIV and STIs and the health of prisoners. Amidst high crime levels, punitive public attitudes prevail and the health and well-being of inmates are not of popular concern. If the realities of life behind bars continue to be ignored, many men exposed to life in prison will be condemned to living out damaging and damaged identities.
But while the area is starved of the attention it so urgently requires, a sprinkling of individuals and groups have made a vital start: like the successful committee of inmates and staff in one KwaZulu-Natal prison that works to manage and prevent HIV/AIDS there, or another, set up in the notorious Cape Pollsmoor prison, to support victims of prison rape; or the drama performances by a Gauteng NGO that challenge the oppressive and gendered inmate power relations at the same time as they raise awareness of HIV risk. The learnings and experiences provided in initiatives like these need to be shared and drawn on to focus a broad and concerted strategy to prevent the violence and safe-guard prisoners' health.
Sasha Gear, Researcher Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation; PO Box 30778, Braamfontein, South Africa, 2017; tel.: +27-11-403.56.50 ext 141, fax: +27-11-339.67.85, e-mail: