What “Wentworth” and “OITNB” get right about lesbian relationships in prison

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It’s funny to think of, but as Wentworth star Danielle Cormack pointed out in her interview with us last month, “women in prison” shows are a genre just like cop shows, medical shows, or “young urban professionals grappling with perceived existential crises in a comedic way” shows.

One of the unusual hallmarks of women’s prison shows is that there is almost always a lesbian couple on the show, and often one or two other single lesbians floating around as well. In fact, this genre is very likely the only TV genre in which the lesbian couple very often becomes the primary couple in the show (for example, Helen and Nikki on seasons 1-3 of Bad Girls or Piper and Alex of season 1 of Orange is the New Black, to name just two of many). This “glut” of lesbians—that is, compared to the usual one-off or minor pairings found in regular genres—seems almost decadent, like the genre is pandering to the queer female audience it knows makes up a key viewership. Or is it? 

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To put it another way: I’m beyond over the moon about Bea and Allie on Wentworth, but would that pairing ever really occur in the real world? How many lesbian relationships really do happen in prison, and what percentage of women in those relationships are, as Bea calls them, “gate gays,” also referred to as LURDs (Lesbian Until Release Date)—straight women who engage in lesbian relationships only while incarcerated?

The answers are absolutely many, and probably more study is required. Research from the 1970s and 80s indicates that at the time approximately 25% of incarcerated women reported being in a lesbian relationship. Subsequent research suggests that 30-60% of women in prison are in a lesbian relationship…and that’s a conservative estimate because many women don’t self-report. 

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Four theories exist for this high prevalence of lesbian relationships. The gender fluidity theory, per her conversation with Bridget in episode 8 of Season 4, may best describe Bea:

“Whatever their personal preferences and habits on the outside…women in prison not uncommonly learn to give and receive intimacy with one another…Imprisoned women don’t turn to one another because they feel deprived in the absence of men and use other women as a substitute…[rather,] previously heterosexual women discover that they are attracted to women in their own right.” (K. Faith’s Unruly Women from Press Gang Publishers, 1993.).

To be fair to the academic literature, this might be one of the less common reasons women in prison develop lesbian relationships. Historically, sociologists have concluded that most women turn to same-sex relationships in prison because they feel an emotional void from being away from their family, or do so out of economic motivation (in essence, preying on another’s emotional deprivation to wheedle cantina perks). In recent years, a fourth, much more anecdotal theory has emerged: lesbianism as a trendy fad. A prison manager at Bandyup Prison in Western Australia reports that some straight women in her prison become involved in relationships because it’s cool, part of the modern prison culture. For all three of these latter theories, most of the women would therefore only be situationally queer—gate gays, although these theories do not seem to factor in studies of the surprisingly high degree of sexual fluidity among women.

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How prisons respond to lesbian relationships among the inmates varies by location, since there are almost never any rules, regulations, policies, protocol or any other guidelines to instruct staff on how to handle the issue. At a Louisiana prison in 2000, the penalty for being caught in a “lesbian moment” such as a hug or kiss was 90 days in the maximum security cellblock. Prison show fans will recognize this as “the hole” and might wonder if Officer Healy of Orange is the New Black Season 1 worked at that particular prison. 

A Canadian prison employee reported that at her or his prison, staff took individual approaches based on their comfort level with expressions of intimacy, with some intervening when women hugged or held hands and others not. In Bandyup Prison, lesbian relationships have historically been ignored or tolerated, and overcrowding is so bad that the prison administration is happy to “bunk” a couple together because it reduces the risk of social conflict between to stranger cellmates—reminiscent of Bea getting Allie moved into Cell block H in episode 10 of Wentworth Season 4.

Finally, what about Franky and Bridget? Is it possible for prisoners to have relations with prison staff? Again, yes. According to a 2008 survey of former prisoners in the US prison system, approximately five percent of respondents reported having been consensually sexually involved with staff (this wasn’t broken out between men and women or by sexual orientation, so the exact percentage for queer women is unclear).

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It looks like Wentworth and its ilk are not only dead on in terms of depicting the drivers and conditions of prison relationships, but could stand to double the number of same-sex pairings to be more accurate. 

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