Sexual release is a basic human need but it has always been subject to social norms, law and morality. In Thai prisons, regulations place even the internal needs of inmates under the state’s vigorous control. But the state can never fully control the force of human desire.
Sexual activities happen in the everyday reality of prison life, though consensual sexual activities are largely limited to partners of the same sex. Sexual activities in prisons occur both among lovers and as pragmatic commerce.
According to the Department of Corrections Thailand’s prisons house some 269,745 inmates whose gender does not correspond to their biological sex as of 24 December 2015.
These are stories that ‘outsiders’ may have never heard.
Behind-bars marriage and ‘love hotel’ brothels
Am is an ex-inmate who identifies as sex and gender diverse (SGD). She was imprisoned in 2014. She recounts that she was treated generally well by wardens and other inmates.
“The boss (wardens) banned male prisoners from harassing katoey (transwomen) inmates. Sexual harassment was not an issue because men obeyed the rule.” –
Am’s prison had many SGD inmates, making it common to see partnering and wedding ceremonies behind bars.
When couples decided to marry, a warden could issue a marriage certificate valid only in the prison.
Once married, the couple was forbidden to commit adultery. If this rule was violated, the guilty party would be punished by being splashed with sewage or submerged in a sewage container for some time.
Yong, an inmate in a northern prison for over 3 years, recounts similar experiences of in-jail wedding ceremonies.
Wardens were invited to chair a simple ceremony to announce the coming together of a couple.
At the end of the ceremony, the couple would host a small reception with food from the Prison Welfare Shop for their peers. –
Yong added that some influential inmates — referred to as ‘big bros’ — succeeded in brewing liquor for their guests.
Secretly, inmates fermented liquor by buying bread and yeast.
The yeast was used in a fermentation process with glutinous rice in closed-lid buckets. When yeast eats sugar, it releases alcohol.
While Thai prisons are accepting of weddings and coupling, sexual intimacy remains inherently troubled since prisons are designed to make inmates feel as though they are being constantly watched.
While intercourse needs privacy, the prison is a place with few hidden corners. Someone always sees or hears.
Perhaps only ‘big bros’ can use toilets to masturbate alone. No one dares to disturb them.
Prison rules clearly prohibit and punish sexual acts. If a warden sees sexual activities, inmates can be disciplined immediately. But all this does not mean that prison is a place where people do not have sex at all.
Indeed, unofficial businesses have sprung up purely to serve the sexual needs of inmates. Am reported that from Monday to Friday, all inmates were required to work in assigned divisions. But they were free on Saturday and Sunday, when wardens let the inmates relax.
The few hours free from the wardens’ watchful eyes were valuable. In many prison, ‘big bros’ operate make-shift brothels or ‘love hotels’. Payment is made by bartering goods such as cigarettes.
“Ladyboy groups have big sisters — senior ladyboys — who set up temporary sheds from blankets draped in the form of enclosed rooms. Clients can buy time with them, while married couples can rent the sheds.”
“But [the love hotels] are only tolerated on the weekend. If the sheds are opened on other days, responsible prisoners will be heavily punished.”
Boss, a former political prisoner in the central region for more than two years, also remembers ‘love hotels’ from his time in prison. He recalls that sex in prison was common and helped inmates relieve stress from the pressure of prison life.
“[Sex in prison] could be dirty, indecent, whatever. For long-term prisoners, having sex with a ladyboy is a form of relaxation. Some fall in love and live as couples.”
“Sure, you can jack-off in prison if you do not care about being seen. But some people like friction, penetration and contraction. Some people need something like that.”
Boss recalled that his prison had several ‘love hotels’ but that his zone was the most famous. Its name rhymed with a famous red light district in Bangkok and was popular because it only allowed inmates under 22 years of age. Most people using this service were ‘big bros’. –
Ness, a fellow ex-inmate of Boss, believes that sex in prison was far from being regarded as sinful.
“Inmates think it’s normal. It’s understandable for men who have been imprisoned for many years. They have needs and want release. When someone sees an inmate departing from [a love hotel], they won’t tease because they understand that it is normal.”
Access to condoms varies from prison to prison. Ness recalls that monthly boxes of condoms were distributed in his prison to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
But Am said access to condoms in her prison was difficult. Inmates were forced to sign a list to obtain condoms.
Most inmates did not dare to volunteer themselves, aside from the ‘big bros’.If inmates asked for condoms too regularly, a warden would investigate whether they were engaging in sexual commerce.
If caught, they would be punished.