Monday, February 23, 2009

Sex Positivity: Carnivals of Culture, Puritanism, Oppression and Body Positive Spaces.

Hello? Anybody there? Sorry, its been a couple weeks since i last posted! But the truth can now be told... i was back in Jamaica with my honey, having a sweet time being very offline. Very sweet time. I still have tactile memories of our sunbaked, suntan-oil slicked bodies holding each other in the ocean, kissing while waves pushed us together. mmmmm!!! (to the family and friends i didn't get to see this time around, beg yu give me a bly, soon come back! this was a strickly honeytime flex...)

while in Jamaica, my partner commented on something that i wasn't really able to see as someone who grew up in the culture. The fact that most adults we talked to (age 30's through young 40's middle class Jamaicans, decent percentage of Catholic upbringing, living at least outwardly heteroexual lives) seem very comfortable talking about sex/sexuality. And with people they have just met. I'm not talking about come-ons, just casual matter-of-fact convo that involves sex in ways that people in the States may involve an anecdote from work, or relating a story of some old friend they just ran into. My sweetie pointed out several examples: A female friend of mine casually shares about her masturbation habits in the first 30 minutes of meeting said sweetie. A male friend recalls performance anxiety in first sexual encounters during a conversation on high school. At dinner in a fancy-ish restaurant, a pregnant female friend reports how her husband woefully strokes her breast with longing, because he knows from experience that her breast will no longer be "his" when the baby is born. Still another woman my honey just met shares how she feels that her sex life has gotten better and better with marriage.

Its only when this is pointed out to me, that i see the pattern. The gf then says with a "i shoulda had a V8" kinda lightbulb realization, "Of course. Its not about Jamaicans. Its about US. The U.S. is a puritanical culture!" It was a great conversation.

And it left me thinking. Thinking about how dominating culture-centric the U.S. is, establishing a standard by which people are determined to be "hypersexual" or... whatever the antonym of "hypersexual" is. Usually, people of color and LGBTQ folks are stigmatized as "hypersexual", while this sexuality is coveted, obsessed about, and fetishized.

Of course, there is a spectrum of appropriateness in every culture, and right now in Jamaica the Broadacasting Commission is banning the radio airplay of sexually explicit songs, a move inspired by the relatively new dancehall phenomenon of "daggering". Daggering is a style of dance typified by simulations of hard banging, rough sex. One of the signature songs, "Hundred Stab" challenges men to pound into a woman 100 hundred times in under 60 seconds. There is an added "extreme sport" factor where a man may jump from a chair or speaker box onto a woman being (consensually!!) held like a net, aiming his groin at hers. Or a woman may run full tilt across a room to jump onto a man. People definitely leave dances with smiles and bruises! This video and this video will elucidate. Whew!!

But again, levels of "appropriateness" are relative. Displays of homosexual activity is definitely staunchly oppressed, and amorousness between same sex couples could be life threatening. Also many members of the dancehall community are not happy about the stigma being placed on the good time they are having, especially since this is near Jamaican carnival time, where the soca/calypso community parades half-naked in the street, emanating rhythmic rapture and beaming with sexuality (see pic above). The dancehall community asks, why is this ok, and our dancing is not? Class and color raises tensions, as dancehall has roots in dark skinned, working class people, and the carnival community has roots in "brown" middle class people. Issues of what is ok to model for children also raise heated debates, with class structured values bouncing back and forth.

Jamaican culture clashes aside, if we look at the picture above, an ironic fact may come to mind. I cannot think of a national cultural event in the United States that echoes this level of costumery, body/sexuality celebration and dance (besides other isolated Brazilian and Caribbean Carnival celebrations here). The closest that would seem to come to this, is Gay Pride. I believe this is ironic for many reasons, but also because here, it is puritanical and heterosexist oppression that has created the need for a space that asserts humanity, and celebrates the body, love and sexuality. Sure, us straight folks have the privilege to walk down the street holding hands, and be amorous in public without fear of harm (perhaps race might complicate that, but mostly, its a pretty assured straight privilege), and the media floods us all with normalizing images of heterosex and affirms its naturality.... But there is not really a national event where heteros- or better yet- EVERYONE regardless of genders and sexualities, can just walk down the street, sun on our skin, revelling in our beautiful bodies, dancing and getting hot and happy with other hot and happy people. One woman i know who does the Jamaican carnival in "full" costume reported having a rapturous experience... dancing down the street, being transported by calypso and soca polyrhythms, feeling free in her body and soul, and looking around and seeing her closest friends also enraptured. A powerful moment of being sublimely and utterly present opened up... and with it came the realization, the message to mark this moment as the happiest moment in her life. Tears streamed down her face, and the ecstacy raised her even higher.

So what do we need here? A Pan-Gendered, Pan-Sexual, Sex Positive Parade? I'll DJ!! When not dancing my half nekkid butt off. The event would need to have a catchier name though, methinks. The Carnival of Body Liberation!! Hee. I'm open to suggestions.

In conclusion, to me the phrase "Sex Positivity" has a new emphasis. It is a phrase that symbolizes the conscious maintenance of natural and healthy body/sexuality self-image in a dominating culture that is oppressive to bodies and sexuality in specific, historically and culturally defined ways.

Hmmm. Maybe the Carnival Of Everyone-Is-A-Juicy-Hottie? Still needs a little fine tuning... ;)



Ed said...

I'm wondering how you think the virulent homophobia common in Jamaica ties into your thoughts on the otherwise sex-positive atmosphere? Because I'll admit that the whole time I was reading your piece, I was thinking "not if you're gay!"...

Fiyu Pikni said...

Hmmm. Thanks for sharing.

I might have misunderstood you, but I don't think Jamaican popular culture has ever been oppressive to bodies and sexuality, heterosexual sexuality that is. As a matter of fact, our openness to expressing our sexualities justifies the evolution of our Dancehall into the "Rampin Shap" we know it to be. The Dancehall is, and has always been a 'body positive space' and I believe that is part of the problem with Dancehall music today... it reeks of heterosexual positivity, which is sexualizing our children at ever earlier ages. But anyway, that is not what most concerns me. (As a matter of fact I have no problems with Dancehall, when it is played in appropriate contexts).

I would fully support your proposed Carnival of Body Liberation if it wasn't limited to heterosexuals. As open as we are to discussing matters of sexuality, Jamaica as a religious society still suffers from "erotophobia". Sex is evil, and can only be done in specific contexts. Those who do it for pleasure are heathens, for its main purpose is for procreation, as God created it to be...

There can be no 'Body Liberation' without a dissolution of prevailing thoughts that only heterosexual love is permissible.

richard said...

hey Ed, thanks for the comment- i think that tied into the "irony" that i was speaking about, that in Jamaica there is a national, heterocentric celebration of sex positivity, and in the States there is a national, homocentric celebration of sex positivity. You have a strong point though, because for SURE, LGBTQ folks in Jamaica can't casually talk about queer sex with people they just met. (think i will change the 30-40 something middle class Jamaican demograph to include heterosexual, or at least people who live outwardly hetero lives) Thanks for catching that.

i also invite you to peep the "fave posts" links on the right, there are a couple posts on Jamaican homophobia that i would love to hear your opinions on.

Lucrece said...

"homocentric celebration of sex positivity"

I have to challenge that. It is not uncommon to see gay men uncomfortable with "homosexual" because it centralizes sex.

Tied sadly with sex-critical feminism, queer theory has often adopted a puritanical take on sex, favoring to downplay it as being frivolous and unimportant, while focusing on other cultural factors.

richard said...

wow, i am lovin the flurry of intelligently critical comments so soon after i posted! its been awhile! makin me go back and edit my post up in here...

Fiyu Pikini: Thanks for your comment. I think that you did misunderstand me, i was definitely painting Jamaican popular culture as being (hetero)sex-positive in comparison to dominant US culture. I don't want others to be confused, could you let me know what made you feel that i thought Jamaican culture was oppressive to (hetero) bodies and sex? Good points on the whole religious/colonial influence too...

"The Dancehall is, and has always been a 'body positive space' and I believe that is part of the problem with Dancehall music today... it reeks of heterosexual positivity, which is sexualizing our children at ever earlier ages."

so well said, i am right with you on alla dat.

"I would fully support your proposed Carnival of Body Liberation if it wasn't limited to heterosexuals."

but wait... is not a hetero only ting dis! which is why i put in capitals EVERYONE. but i went and added more text to make it clear that the fantasy/vision i have in inclusive of all genders and sexualities.

"There can be no 'Body Liberation' without a dissolution of prevailing thoughts that only heterosexual love is permissible."


Lucrese: still lovin the critical thinkers in this thread... yes, it is true that many queer folks do not prefer being categorized in a way that emphasizes sex, some eschewing "homosexual" for "same gender loving." If my sexuality was so institutionally demonized, i would probably have similar inclinations.

viva sex positive feminism and queer theory!

richard said...

thot i would leave a link to my signature post on homophobia in Jamaica in this thread:

Homophobia In Jamaica: Thoughts Intersecting Current Politics, Dancehall, Colonialism, Religion, Slavery & Jamaican Patriarchy.

Fiyu Pikni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fiyu Pikni said...

I just reread the post, and the arguments/ proposals laid out now are a lot less problematic.

I was just noting that your analysis of Jamaica's openness, and the need to celebrate our sexualities more expressively, failed to take into account the widely held puritanical views on extra-hetero sexuality.

But no worries- your amendments clarify things well.

Michelle said...

Good point about lgbt pride--it's one of the few events I can think of with sex-positivity & love beaming. And we need that self-affirmation as a community-- that creation of a specific safe space because of societal hostility. It's a beautiful, brave response to oppression and violence to affirm through a public community event lgbt fun, love, sexuality. It is telling of general sexual repression though that there isn't a public space explicitly celebrating human sexuality/ love--esp. for something so essential to our spirit and everyday life. Although there's plenty of images of bodies in the media, they're objectified, stripped of spiritual content, and used as tools of diminishing our sense of body love & increasing our desire to consume. whew! gotta work on that.

Michelle said...

btw, I loved this post! :)

Senai said...

Thank you for this.
While my family is not from the Caribbean, growing up in Crown Heights, my community certainly was.

I miss the Labor Day parade (which has become increasingly subdued with pressure from the Orthodox Jewish community).

I miss the NIGHT BEFORE Labor Day ("Jouvay") where we would arrive with very little clothing to one club (or three) to wine all night with hotties who still knew their boundaries no matter how far we let ourselves get into the rhythm.

I miss the ribbing from my Trini + Jamaican friends when, as a teen, my eyes would open wide at such freedom in conversation around sexual matters - a drastic difference from my "Huxtable" house 2 doors down.

And of course, your post brings up so much around life here in SF where it's difficult to enjoy the same freedom at a dancehall party because the culture to support it and give it context is oftentimes lacking.

But thank you for the reminder... written and visual.

Gina said...

I love the daggering videos!! especially the woman wearing the school girl outfit and glasses! Ideas for costumes for fetish parties :)...hmmm...although these aren't "public" spaces, I do feel like play parties can allow for some of the collective, body-positive expressions of sexuality that you're looking for?

Natacha said...

So I'm hella feeling all the things Senai is feeling. I didn't grow up in Crown Heights or Flatbush, but I did grow up knowing a dance is just a dance. Even if it was overly sexual (at least according to American standards) it didn't communicate that you were a ho or wanted more of 'something' off the dance floor. It was just a sexy, happy feeling.

However, in terms of Jamaica's ban on explicit music I fully support it. Sometimes when I'm getting my win' on I can't help but want to cover my ears and scream aloud "No, he DID NOT just say that!" While soca is also very suggestive I don't feel it conveys the lewdness that's found in a lot of dancehall. I'm curious to see what artists are going to come up in light of the new law.

This is an interesting article I ran into yesterday on the topic:

richard said...

Michelle: Wow. You never cease to amaze me, how succinctly you convey in a paragraph what i want to say in my whole post!! good point too about the images in media, cuz yes, though there are heteronormative body/sexual images all over the place, very few of them are actually healthy, non-exploitive, realistic, or inclusive of body types, race, class, etc.

Glad you liked the post!

Senai: You know how dis ting go!! That feeling of body liberation in the carnival/dancehall space, and the freedom around talking about bodies and sexuality that can occur in Caribbean circles... Yes. Thank you for a female perspective as well, i'm sure the part about being able to push the edge of sexuality through dance while having the safety of knowing it won't have to go any further, that really must be liberating.

speaking of liberation Senai, i believe you are involved quite synchronistically in an upcoming event that deals a bit with these topic? It has to be my next post. Lets get this Love Movement started!!! Thank you!!

Gina: hahaha!! i love the sex positivity lens you always bring to this Gina. And yes its true, though not a public celebration, play parties do provide spaces for people to be free in their sexuality and bodies.
My only complaint about these spaces is that i get the impression that in the U.S. they tend to be homogenously white / not necessarily safe for people of color, unless one enjoys being fetishized. It sounds like queer play party spaces have safer sounding parties, like queer woman of color events. But i won't be attending those either :)

aren't the daggering videos something else?!? and i have to admit i was really feelin that woman's costume as well. she was workin it! and proudly showing off her bruised knee at the end too :)

Natatcha: Welcome to the blog! I've appreciated the fb link ups, glad to see you here too.

Thank you for re-affirming the body/sex-positive perspective of the female body in the dancehall. I like the phrase you used, that you grew up knowing "a dance is just a dance."

And i feel you on how the lyrical content can just flop the whole vibe sometimes! As a dj, when i spin hip hop or dancehall, i keep it as positive as possible. sometimes i stretch it with dancehall because i know a lot of my audience in Oakland doesn't know what is being said. (ie, what "Murder She Wrote" and "Heads High" is REALLY about) On the hip hop tip, that usually means that i don't play A LOT of popular songs, especially ones that liberally use the b-word or h-word. heh, Chris Rock has a hilarious and edgy critique on consciousness, misogyny, gender and hip hop:

contains material that may not be suitable for minors.
Chris Rock On Rap Music

i also agree with you, that soca is usually not as lewd or offensive as dancehall can be sometimes. I think i have grown to love house music and getting open with my body and spirit in soulful house spaces for a similar reason... nothin but love in the music.

That article is really interesting! More female perspectives, thank you! Dr. Donna Hope is a pretty prominent Jamaican feminist intellectual, she keeps it real. I would just want to hear from a working class female perspective as well.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

be careful in your categorization of carnival- the things you refer to are specific to carnival in jamaica only- in the rest of the caribbean carnival is an institution embraced by persons from all walks of society regardless of colour or financial standing. jamaica's carnival is a product of uptown primarily because it was imported to jamaica by those who could afford to fly to trinidad annually, i.e. the middle and upper class.

if you have been to trinidad carnival you will also realize that it is an event that is significantly more open to persons of all sexual persuasions- people are in the street behaving quite openly together, regardless of whether they are MW, MM, WW or ??. In my experience in the whole eastern caribbean, the homophobia i have seen, beyond the latent background victorian vestiges, is from your persons influenced by dancehall music- jamaica is unfortunately exporting its bile now.