Sexuality and love are two things that permeate every aspect of Orange is the New Black, and they are portrayed in often conflicting yet also related ways. For many characters, feeling alone in prison leads them to seek physical intimacy without a romantic attachment yet while continuing to hold on to outside feelings; this makes their sexuality, often convoluted on its own, both something they seek for the physical connection to others as well as a point of its own identity, even when it interferes with romantic feelings.
The best example of this is in Piper herself. Once Alex, her former girlfriend who got Piper sent to prison in the first place, arrives at Litchfield, the two begin a sexual relationship that hints at potential romantic feelings but never directly are mentioned. However, Piper’s attempts to also cling on to her feelings for her fiancé create a point of contention between all three, and Piper eventually loses both of them for her lack of commitment to either. As Piper’s family struggles to deal with this new turn – just as they struggled to deal with Piper having dated a woman in the first place – they try to put a label on her, asking questions like, “Are you a lesbian now? Were you straight when you got engaged to Larry?” Piper eventually tells her best friend that you cannot be “either straight or gay” and that there is a spectrum, leading viewers to infer that Piper knows her sexuality is something that defines her, although she is not sure how to define it.
Other examples of sexuality as an identity yet using it for comfort are clear in many other characters. Morello, a prisoner who is obsessed with a man that has filed a restraining order against her, has an ongoing same-sex physical relationship for much of the first season but eventually ends it because she “wants to be loyal to Christopher”, leaving viewers to assume that she is heteroromantic but questioning sexually.
Daya begins a physical relationship with Bennett, a prison guard, initially to be able to ask for things from him, and eventually she experiences conflicting feelings of romantic interest and desire for her situation to go away. Although her sexuality is less obviously convoluted, her use of it and then subsequent questioning of why she chose to use it falls clearly into a similar category. Countless other prison hookups, especially amongst friends, are depicted as “experimental”, hinting that they are being done simply because they can and because the prisoners are missing their traditional intimacy. And, most glaringly, Sophia’s wife remains with her former husband after she transitions to female, despite the fact that she is heterosexual, out of a desire for comfort and support. In this way, viewers of OITNB can see clearly that the fluid, often unlabellable sexualities of the prisoners stem mainly from loneliness and a desire to be connected with someone, even at the expense of outside, “more real” connections.