“St. Mary’s Is Gay-Town”: Girls’ Perceptions of Same-Sex Sexual Behavior in Juvenile Residential Treatment

AuthorDana Peterson,Vanessa R. Panfil
Date01 June 2020
Published date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
“St. Mary’s Is Gay-Town”: Girls’
Perceptions of Same-Sex Sexual
Behavior in Juvenile Residential
Vanessa R. Panfil
and Dana Peterson
Understanding lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) girls’ experiences in juvenile residential facilities is
essential for working toward their fair and affirming treatment, but other girls’ perceptions of “gay
girls” in juvenile facilities also contribute to the treatment environment. Drawing from interviews
with a sample of 59 girls in a juvenile residential treatment center serving delinquent, status
offending, and maltreated youth in upstate New York, we explore girls’ perceptions of same-sex
sexual behavior in that setting to illuminate dynamics and their implications for treatment experi-
ences. Opinions ranged from negative perceptions expressed by self-identified straight and LGB girls,
to matter-of-fact descriptions that were more neutral, to positive affirmations sometimes containing
anti-staff sentiments. These perceptions indicate the complicated nature and consequences of
youth–youth and youth–staff interactions around this issue.
juvenile justice, residential treatment, LGBTQ, adolescent girls, qualitative methods
Over 100 years of analyses of girls in the American juvenile justice system has revealed a focus on
their sexual activity. Girls’ sexual behavior, including same-sex sexual activity, was alleged to
communicate their promiscuity, perversion, or immorality, and landed girls in secure placements
(Pasko, 2010; Schlossman & Wallach, 1978). Similarly, early criminological work on the female
“born criminal” linked lesbianism and criminality, suggesting that incarcerated lesbians could
“infect” other inmates who were susceptible, and concluded that “prison is the great school for
lesbianism” (Lombroso & Ferrero, 1893/2004, p. 177).
Unsurprisingly, correctional and psychological research—especially during the 20th century—
has hypothesized about the causes of same-sex sexual behavior in girls’ juvenile facilities, how to
best address it, and how to prevent it. These works largely framed their analyses under the
Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA
University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Vanessa R. Panfil, Old Dominion University, 4401 Hampton Blvd, Room 6042, Norfolk, VA 23529, USA.
Email: vpanfil@odu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(2) 202-224
ª2019 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819863471
assumption that same-sex sexual behavior was, for example, “destructive” and “societally unac-
ceptable” (e.g., Halleck & Hersko, 1962). It was not until near the turn of the 21st century that
researchers and advocacy organizations began producing a critical mass of material to inform the
fair and affirming treatment of justice-involved young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, or queer (LGBTQ), who may or may not engage in age-appropriate sexual exploration
in juvenile facilities (e.g., Majd, Marksamer, & Reyes, 2009).
We and other feminist and queer criminologists consider these recent efforts a step in the right
direction. Juvenile treatment is intended to be therapeutic and positive. Gaining a nuanced under-
standing of self-identified LGB
girls’ experiences and how they experience treatment is vitally
relevant. In addition to experiences of LGB girls, what about other girls’ perceptions of “gay girls”
and same-sex sexual behavior in juvenile facilities? These perceptions affect the treatment
environment and experience: If negative, they can be frightening for some girls, damaging to
self-identified LGB youth, and problematic for youth–staff interactions. Drawing from interviews
conducted as part of a multiwave study of girls placed in a juvenile residential treatment center
(RTC) for delinquency, status offense, or maltreatment referrals, we explore girls’ perceptions of
same-sex sexual behavior in that setting to better understand the dynamics at play and implications
for the treatment experience.
Same-Sex Sexual Behavior in Residential Placement
Historical Perspectives: Concerns, Explanations, Reactions, and Media
The earliest studies of girls’ same-sex sexual behavior or relationships in juvenile residential place-
ments highlighted associated custodial or treatment issues that arose. Early 20th-century concerns
included preventing the “fist fights, hair pullings, trumped-up stories ...and every other conceivable
type of trouble making activity” resulting from girls’ sexual jealousies while in placement (Ford,
1929, p. 446). Girls who had been deserted by lovers were seen as at risk of becoming hostile,
depressed, or suicidal. Thus, the belief was that girls needed to be shown how self-d estructive
“homosexual behavior” really was to prevent their involvement (Halleck & Hersko, 1962). Coerced
or forced sexual activity was not a source of major concern in girls’ facilities, though the possibility
of peer pressure was noted. Women’s prisons, however, were very concerned with sexual coercion
(Freedman, 1996). There have been estimates of peer sexual perpetration in women’s adult facilities
(for a review, see Hensley, Castle, & Tewksbury, 2003), but there is not a robust literature that
estimates the frequency in juvenile RTCs.
According to these few early 20th-century studies, girls were thought to engage in same-sex
sexual behavior for reasons such as boredom (Otis, 1913), deprivation of heterosexual outlets, and
sexual perversion (Ford, 1929). Ford (1929) argued that deprivation was a leading cause of insti-
tutional “homosexuality” but also noted same-sex sexual behavior could be a symptom of sexual
disturbance, as many of the girls were incarcerated for sexual indiscretions. Alternatively, by mid-
century, Halleck and Hersko (1962) supposed that girls’ reasons for same-sex sexual behavior were
the same as their reasons for sexual acti vity overall, such as attention, stat us, and acceptance.
However, the authors framed these explanations with understandings from the time, such as girls
having a distrust of men due to sexual abuse, a failure to identify with femininity due to “bad
mothering,” group living with other young women who were often occupied with relational con-
cerns, and a pressure to conform. Subsequent tests of “deprivation (of heterosexual contact) theo-
ry”—the policy implication of which would be that girls should be housed in coeducational
facilities—found no support for the theory because the best predictor of same-sex sexual behavior
while incarcerated was previous “homosexuality.” Girls “imported” it into the facility (Propper,
Panfil and Peterson 203

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