By Tamara McLean | September 17, 2008
MORE than a third of female prisoners have sexual encounters behind bars, an Australian study reveals.
The nation's first telephone survey of inmates reveals high rates of sexual acts in female prisons and surprisingly low rates in male institutions.
"We found that 36 per cent of women are having sex or sexual contact in prison, which really is quite a lot of sex," said lead researcher Juliet Richters, a public health specialist at the University of NSW.
She said this was probably because there were fewer taboos around sex among women, and also because almost a third of female prisoners identify themselves as lesbian or bisexual.
"We don't know why that is but it might be that women with children are more likely to be given a non-jail form of punishment," Dr Richters said.
"But the picture among men is very different."
Just six per cent of more than 1000 NSW men interviewed said they had had sexual contact in jail, with five per cent of it deemed consensual.
Most said they did it for pleasure, with less than one per cent trading sex for food or tobacco.
"We found most men strongly disapproved of sex in prison and considered those who did it to be gay," she said.
"There's not a lot of sex because they're so concerned to protect their reputation as a heterosexual that they're really careful to avoid anything like that."
Interestingly, 30 per cent of men said before coming to jail they had feared sexual assault behind bars, but in reality it was very rare.
"We've shown that the whole belief that young and attractive people are likely to be raped in jail is a bit of a myth," Dr Richters said.
"It's pretty safe these days, especially with the modern prisons with things like showers in cells."
The study, released at a sexual heath conference in Perth today, also gives a rare glimpse of other aspects of prisoners' health and welfare. It showed that about 80 per cent smoke and more than half had injected drugs in their lifetime.
Half the men believed abortion was always wrong, and 23 per cent thought sex between women was unnatural.
A third of men and 27 per cent of women said they had been physically assaulted while in jail, a figure Dr Richters said was "probably a similar reflection of their life before jail".