Living in a woman’s body: I left prison, but can’t forget how it feels when desire is criminalised

A prison rights activist who spent decades in jail remembers the longing and fury she felt when sex and touch were suppressed

I am in the heady throes of a new relationship. That buoyant, lusty state that’s so electrified we sometimes mistake it for love. We are illegally in her cell, on her bed, mostly naked, so deep into our lovemaking that we are deaf to the guard’s keys jingling down the long corridor. By the time we realise, she is at the doorway, snatching down the curtain. We are scrambling to put on our clothes and sit up in some semblance of propriety. Sweaty, embarrassed, scared.

“Give me your IDs,” she says, sternly. We hand them to her, knowing she is going to write us up for numerous charges that will lead to our being separated into different housing units, possibly removed from our jobs. “Get dressed, go to your rooms and stay there,” she says.

As she leaves, I say: “Let me go talk to her.” My partner is new to prison, but I have been here for over a decade. I know my way around. As I walk towards the officer’s station, I try to strike a balance between being contrite for breaking a rule and putting the guard in an awkward position, while remaining unashamed of my intimacy. I think back to my pre-prison years of coming out and fighting for gay liberation to help me keep my cool. I suspect that this guard is also a lesbian. I look her straight in her eye as I barter for our freedom. Finally, she gives me back our IDs and I promise her two weeks of cleaning tasks.

I go back to my partner’s room to give her her ID and crow. I am giddy with relief. She is not. She is embarrassed and stressed. She is traumatised, and this trauma reverberates with so many prior traumas. As her fear morphs into anger, she snarls at me. It is a moment that does not last long, but will be repeated many times during our relationship, triggered by the distorted circumstances of sexual repression that define our lives inside.

I want to talk about sex in women’s prisons. Not about sexual abuse. Not sex for the sake of mass audiences’ titillation. Not a sociologist’s study of ersatz family configurations in women’s prisons. I want to talk about how sex, sexuality and touch are human needs and human rights, denied and distorted, criminalised and repressed when we enter the prison system. I want to talk about what that does to those of us who spend our prime years inside; what that does to women whose experience of trauma paved their roads to harm, self-harm and prison itself.

Even now, out of prison for almost three years, I feel dizzy as I write this piece. Four decades of forbidden lovemaking, closet quickies and silent, suppressed orgasms; of being forbidden to dance in my partner’s arms or hold hands while we walk down the hill to work. Four decades of longing and hiding, and always having to listen out. Of pat frisks and strip searches and squatting and coughing and spreading my butt cheeks, of urinating in front of uniformed strangers; of being threatened with misbehaviour reports for hugging a youngster in tears or in celebration; of only being allowed 15 minutes of a “privacy curtain” to undress in the non-privacy of my own cell. My neck and shoulders ache as adrenaline rushes through my body. Past and present collapse. I feel a giant lump in my throat of suppressed desire and unspoken fury, of woman love and woman rage, of the decades-long cry of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, demanding a voice that reverberates inside and out.

Judith Clark is a political activist

Judith Clark

The GuardianTramp

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