home Around the Globe, Culture, Sex, South America Respectability politics are harming Caribbean women

Respectability politics are harming Caribbean women

Human sexual behaviour is an astonishingly complex topic. In patriarchal societies such as ours, messages of sexual virility are connected to the ‘fitness’ of persons to lead institutions traditionally controlled by men. Just recently in the United States, presidential candidate Donald Trump tried to evoke this belief of leadership tied to the size of one’s genitals in a debate with Marco Rubio.

However, sex is also used to discredit and silence those who contravene ‘approved’ societal boundaries. When twinned with religion, it is an effective way to keep subjected people compliant with whatever claims to hegemony one may have, legitimate or not. Across the Westernised world, many progressive political careers were cut short, and many profound, practical ideas from grassroots thinkers and activists remained unspoken ideas because their sexual choices with other consenting adult(s) fell outside of what society considered ‘appropriate.’ Those who oppose them only had to publicise — or threaten to — their sexual behaviour (real or implied) and that was often enough to strip that person of any moral legitimacy to make meaningful contributions to social change.

At the heart of this is something many call ‘respectability.’ A term that ties in to so many things, often issues that appear to have nothing to do with a person’s sexuality. Respectability, which revolves around notions of restraint and control, is constructed upon a foundation of shame and guilt attached to sexual behaviour. In the United States, where ascetic Protestant Christian values inform the mainstream culture, irrational attitudes about sexuality are often carried to ridiculous levels.

Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton immediately come to mind, as do the current gutter politics of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — or rather, the drawing of their wives into the fray. Caroline Powell’s very important essay “The Political Use of ‘Family Values’ Rhetoric” examines how those in the US political system, influenced by evangelical religious values, routinely idealise the nuclear family model when showcasing political figures, while marginalising poor, common-law and/or non-traditional family groups. The benchmark is essentially the exclusive, monogamous marital model (although the marital aspect has been relaxed….somewhat).

Respectability politics and colonialism’s ugly legacies

Similarities exist in the Caribbean where, because of how Western religions were taught during the colonial period, an often irrational conservatism is everpresent. In fact, ‘respectability politics’ is very familiar to many African, Asian and Native peoples because it comes from something often called the ‘hypersexuality’ narratives. These were racist, misogynist ideas of sexual promiscuity suggesting complete lack of self-control. From the 16th century onward, many Europeans and North Americans considered the Caribbean and other ‘exotic’ locations as places where their old sexual restraints could be set aside, if not flung completely out the window.

This mindset came from their observations of indigenous lifestyles that, although having their own strictures regarding sexual interaction, were more sex-positive than what existed in Europe. But that freer sexuality provided the justifications the enslavers and colonisers needed for dehumanising, exploiting, enslaving and colonising native peoples (as it had once provided justification for the exploitation of their own peasants). In the colonised Caribbean, explanations of a lack of respectability justified excluding subjected peoples from political institutions, or used to gauge just how ‘fit’ we were to be given the reins of an illusion of power and authority. Of course, that meant adopting the mannerisms, dress and ideas of sexual morality to ‘prove’ we were now ‘civilised.’ Respectable behaviour in the form of Eurocentric values and lifestyle was considered natural among the colonisers but non-whites could only aspire to it and then had to constantly prove our respectability.

Note, this is not about throwing around accusations of racism all over the place; indeed many subjected peoples hold the same racist and sexist ideas that were once directed at them. And that is partly my point; it is how Caribbean people internalised and respond(ed) to this perception of hypersexuality that concern me. North America and the colonised Caribbean were shaped by physical and psychological violence, with a hierarchy of white over non-white twinned with things masculine over things feminine. In that social ordering, when a non-white educated class was created as a buffer between the underclass and the elites, so-called Victorian morality was the standard moral code in most colonies. Struggling to navigate hostile environments to make space for themselves and their communities, colonised males and females often policed sexual interactions more harshly than the colonisers.

Who gets to enjoy open sexuality?

So what is it about sexual pleasure that is such a problem? What makes a man’s (worse still a woman’s) intimacy with another consenting adult immoral if s/he stands outside of the ‘prescribed’ confines of marriage/monogamy?

The answer predates the Victorian era and is by no means limited to Christian morality (although that faith, as a principal vehicle of European imperialism, did spread these ideas to places they may have not otherwise have tainted). Space does not permit here but the works of researchers like Cheikh Anta Diop, Gerda Lerner, Merlin Stone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Jean deLumeau paint an astonishing picture. This picture reveals that the moral – mainly religious – teachings upon which the shaming of people for their sexuality stand, originally had nothing to do with any respect for the sanctity of marriage or any god either. And on that subject of the persistent assigning of male titles to the Divine, so much can be written that will explain our cultural valuation of aggression, individualism, violence and possessiveness. This is an extremely important point to note since the picture also shows us that in the tropical south, even in ‘Old’ Europe, the very earliest images of the Divine were female, built around collectivist cultures that functioned on codes of honour and reciprocity.

Their works show us how the concepts of dominance and control became the core values among patriarchal cultures in general and Western culture in particular. We learn how nomadic hunter-warrior clans, emerging from the frigid wastes of post-Ice Age Eurasia, brought with them herding, military lifestyles. They also brought mindsets shaped by constantly fighting predatory animals and rival clans in order to survive. This included a reflexive suspicion of anything outside of their clans. We see how their social customs placed greater value on wandering, warring and hunting over settled lifestyles of farming and fishing such as what was common among agrarian cultures of the tropical regions. We learn of their hostility towards the natural world which included women, particularly menstruating and post-menopausal women. We learn that the males projected their superstitions and sexual insecurities onto the women, many of whom as pregnant or nursing mothers, were already disadvantaged in these nomadic, military cultures.

The rising patriarchy held generally pessimistic views of life and of their own selves and their deities reflected that. All of this fed into the later Greek tragic plays and Christian concepts of original sin, including the Greek notions of the higher and lower self.

According to this binary theory, the self has a superior masculine part that was strong, vocal, ordered, courageous and masterful, controlled by reason, possessed by certain types of men. In contrast was the lower, inferior self that was irrational, spontaneous and controlled by nature and emotion. Women, mainly because of their menstrual cycle and motherhood, were considered ‘closer’ to nature and in the Greco-Roman tradition this made them unfit to determine the affairs of society. That ‘closer to nature’ label included being permanently tied to sexuality, which was considered a destructive, corrupting force in the patriarchal cultural outlook of Greece and Rome.

Thus, women were socialised to feel ashamed about their bodies and bodily functions by being told that they and their bodies were contaminated and impure, disrupting the social order. Men, since boyhood, were socialised to purge ‘effeminate’ traits within them including compassion and affection. They were made to value expressions of aggression and to approach sex as a power relation over women and the ‘effeminate’ emotions within themselves. All this may have come out of very real situations in ancient Eurasia where men in a post-orgasmic state felt vulnerable in the event of an attack by a rival clan. Many ancient myths seem to suggest this. Whatever the reason, by the coming of the Abrahamic religions, numerous superstitions about the dangerous power of women’s sexuality were in circulation including beliefs that a woman’s hair was magical and her vagina was a mouth that sucked men’s energy. All of that fed into the Christian teachings that shaped Western civilisation and has come down to us today. It’s not pre- or extramarital sex that is immoral, it is ALL sexual encounters.

As women and marginalised groups in the Caribbean, and around the Western-influenced world continue to assert themselves with increasing confidence, the challenge is for those of the tropical south to identify and deconstruct the last vestiges of illegitimate domination. But are we willing to?

Image: Fiona Shaw/Creative Commons


Corey Gilkes

Corey Gilkes lives in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. An avid and largely self-taught researcher, he is currently writing a book examining the impact of European social values, through Christianity, on traditional African concepts of femininity in post-Independence Trinidad and Tobago.

One thought on “Respectability politics are harming Caribbean women

  1. The fact is we should just mind our own business is what I always say. There are so many adult bullies around these days (especially in the church) that my head spins. Patriarchy is so prevalent in society and even more so in the church, so much so that my thesis topic has to do with Patriarchy in the Church. As a Christian, at times I am embarrassed by the way we deal with certain things. We are forgetting that our job is to love one another regardless of the person’s preferred lifestyle.

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