Sexual Conquest and 19th-Century Women’s Prisons

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM
Crystal Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta)
Anastazia Schmid, Indiana Women’s Prison
The Indiana Women’s Prison opened in 1873.  For the first decade, the prison’s physician was Theophilus Parvin, president of the AMA and the nation’s leading authority on nymphomania and masturbation. According to documents from the prison, contemporaneous news accounts, and his own scholarly writings, Parvin appears to have perfected his theories and highly intrusive practices regarding female sexuality while at the prison.  

The dictates of the patriarchy and “moral” elites were alive and well in the 19th century and within the confines of IWP and continue to reverberate today.  Then, as now, it matters who determines what is “normal” or “appropriate” behavior for women and their sexuality, especially in captivity.  The Indiana Women’s Prison was founded on a premise of rehabilitating its inmates into good, moral, working women of a quality good enough for marriage, and in many ways it retains this paternalism and premise of moral superiority today. 

As exemplified by Parvin, an “expert” title is enough to claim anything as truth or fact, especially regarding prisons and prisoners, and to limit sources of information by holding the reins of control over what is printed or distributed to the general population. The interconnected nature of the affiliation of those in positions of power, influence and authority further solidifies any claims that power elites make.  As in the 1870s, prisoners’ insights especially about their own conditions of captivity continue to be devalued and discredited today, allowing a continuation of dehumanizing treatment and questionable medical procedures.

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