PERSONS COMMITTED TO MENTAL HOSPITALS
In the United States today more than three times as many people are committed to mental hospitals each year than are sent to state or federal prisons. The grounds for such commitment and the commitment procedures vary from state to state, but among the involuntary patients of mental hospitals one may find not only those who are called mentally ill, but also "mental defectives", epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts, and a variety of other deviants or social nonconformists. Indeed, the term "mental hospital" should not be taken too literally. In actual fact it is often a multipurpose institution: a hospital, a prison, a poorhouse, and an old people's home.
This situation is more easily understood if one considers the history of mental hospitals. Until modern times Western societies usually did not distinguish between the insane, the vagrant, the criminal, and the indigent, but accorded all of them the same treatment. For centuries they were executed, mutilated, banished, or held in bondage, and eventually they were mostly confined. Thus, the first "houses of correction" were built to accommodate many different classes of inmates. The first such institution in Connecticut in 1727, for instance, was meant to house "all rogues, vagabonds, or idle persons going about in town or country begging, common drunkards, common nightwalkers, pilferers, wanton and lascivious persons,... and also persons under distraction and unfit to go at large.. .". Later, when special insane asylums and mental hospitals were established, an attempt was made to keep out the poor (who might enjoy the free room and board), but all sorts of other misfits could be committed simply on the director's assertion that they where mentally ill. As a matter of fact, sometimes no evidence of insanity was required, as for instance in mid-19th century Illinois, where disobedient married women could be committed at the whim of their husbands. These and other blatant abuses subsequently led to more stringent commitment laws, but official relapses have occurred, especially in the 1930s and '40s when a number of state legislatures began to allow the involuntary commitment of "psychopaths", especially "sexual psychopaths". Like the "wanton and lascivious persons" of the 18th century, these "sexual psychopaths" are an ill-defined mixed group of various harmful and harmless sexual deviants who fit no single psychiatric diagnosis. In fact, many of them cannot be called ill in any medical sense. Their "hospitalization" and "treatment" is nothing but an excuse for keeping them locked up somewhere, because if they were treated as criminals they might either not be convicted at all or serve relatively short sentences. (See also "Current Sex Laws in the U.S.")
The commitment to a mental hospital is a civil, not a criminal procedure, and therefore does not offer the procedural safeguards which protect the common criminal. After all, people are committed only "for their own good"; they are to be treated, not punished. As a result, it is extremely difficult for them to assert their rights and, indeed, as "mental patients" they lose virtually all of their rights to the hospital staff. They can be released only if and when this staff declares them to be "cured" or "safe". Moreover, while in the hospital, they may be subjected to various brutal "therapies" from electroshock to "psychosurgery" and "chemical castration". This is particularly disturbing in the case of socially harmless sexual eccentrics and other nonviolent "psychopaths".
Of course, with regard to sexual rights all institutionalized mental patients are equal: They do not have any. Thus, not only the sexually deviant, but also the "normal" inmates find themselves frustrated. Just as in ordinary hospitals, nursing homes, and other such places, there is no privacy and no opportunity for sexual intercourse. Most of what has been said about the aging, handicapped, and disabled therefore also applies here. There is, in principle, no valid reason for such wholesale sexual deprivation. On the contrary, sexual fulfillment could very often contribute to better health and help patients readjust to the world outside. For example, it would surely be beneficial for many of them if they could continue their sexual relationship with visiting spouses and lovers. But even within the institution itself sexual relationships might be feasible as long as pregnancies can be avoided. Certainly homosexual patients should not have to remain abstinent, if they find willing partners. (Needless to say, sex between patients and hospital staff would have to remain taboo, because the latter enjoy a position of nearly absolute power over the former. This could easily lead to sexual exploitation.) It is clear, however, that significant sexual reforms in mental institutions can be accomplished only if the institutional psychiatrists themselves become more tolerant of human sexual variety and stop labeling every deviant as mentally ill. This would render many of the current "therapies" superfluous and, indeed, often prevent any forced commitment in the first place.