This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
Bright colors, glorious headpieces, glitter. Steel drums and xylophones. As people with Caribbean roots, we feel our chests swell with pride and our hips begin to sway immediately when we think of Carnival (which ended yesterday) and the ancestral rhythms of island cultures from Trinidad to Jamaica.
The costumes are sexy, sassy, and everything we aspired to be as Caribbean-American preteens. We fawned over Carnival outfits like many tweens do for their future prom gowns. The feathers, the strings, and the beads became our markers of someone no longer a child, but a grown individual who could finally do grown things: show off your body, stay up late, drink, wine the night away, and of course have sex. Without a doubt, Carnival is about ownership of our bodies, about an annual recommitment to our sexuality and broader sense of liberation. Through dance, we tell and retell a true, old-timey story of freedom fighting and of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. When we rush the DJ stage to party front and center at the show, when we jump in the parade “playing mas,” we re-create together the movements of our ancestors who rushed gates, barricades, and slave owners for their freedom. It is a reminder that movement is part of movement work and part of social justice.
It is impossible for us and, we suspect, many other Caribbean-descendant women and femmes to separate this sacred time of year from reproductive justice in all of its fullness. We know sex happens during Carnival. For some, that’s kind of the point. So why aren’t we talking about everything else that comes along with it?
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Carnival’s freedom of expression doesn’t always extend to other parts of island culture, especially music with contradictory messages about sexuality. Trinidadian musician Lady Gypsy sings the hilarious “Old Time Wine,” which is a hypocritical and classic example of the impossible pressure to be both reserved and unrestrained sexually. We are simultaneously told to “put on your bodysuit” and cover up and also to “move your pumsy as you please.” She criticizes women for leaving “nothing for men to wonder,” while also letting you know that “old women who look like me” can still be amazing, provocative dancers who are incredible in the bedroom.
It’s like not knowing when to jump in a game of double dutch. Are we supposed to have sex or not? Bold sexuality must fit within the confines of Carnival, Bacchanal, or Junkanoo. Conversations about sex, reproduction, and abortion are left for another day that never comes.
Though every country is different, the Caribbean’s powerful figures—from legislators to pastors and teachers—have pushed us all to lean into oppressive patriarchy since the end of slavery and the uptick of globalization. We must be palatable to foreign cultures, tourists, and to the growing conservative majority. The end result: Caribbean women and femmes face a restrictive double standard.
In Marlene Henry’s “Pum Pum Palitix: The Blessing and The Curse” (her PhD dissertation at the University of the West Indies), the 2006 dancehall queen in Jamaica and Japan discusses the gendered suffocation she and many have experienced. She was revered for mastering a sensual, athletic, and technical style of dance, executing all the moves that make pastors blush. Yet, she had to navigate a complicated culture that yearns to be both conservative and liberated.
In her iconic dissertation, Henry combines being a theorist and practitioner who shows us the multiple ways the body is a terrain for freedom struggles. She writes that individuals are lambasted and limited by genitalia [“pum pum” means vagina] and cis-normativity in Caribbean cultures, but that our oppressed bodies could also be a site where renegotiation of freedoms and power dynamics can occur.
“We have to think (about) the symbolism and prominence of the genitals in micro level socio-sexual relations,” and the ways these relations are encouraged on macro levels, Henry writes.
So now that mas is done, the paint, mud and glitter washed off, we must continue to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be free within our bodies, our desires, and our sexualities all of the time?
Are we truly evoking the spirit of mas and of our ancestors when several Caribbean countries haven’t mandated sex education for young people? Or when we have oppressive anti-abortion laws and high rates of maternal and infant mortality, despite being some of the most literate and well-educated groups of people in the world? We know exactly what could improve the quality of life for us.
Currently, Jamaica and other countries don’t mandate comprehensive sex education in schools, despite knowing that many Jamaicans report having sex as early as age 15.
And just last week, days before Carnival, Trinidad and Tobago Minister of Education Anthony Garcia acknowledged that students in both primary and secondary schools are engaging in sexual activity, but said he would never allow the distribution of condoms.
“We will always resist that,” he said.
Trinidad and Tobago’s recently-elected Unified Teachers Association President Lynsley Doodhai said he isn’t aware that there is a set-standard sex education course in the country, but that it could be beneficial. The hurdle: getting teachers and parents on board.
“I know that teachers have expressed to me that they would have felt uncomfortable in teaching or educating students about sex education,” he said to local media outlets. This sentiment is echoed in a 2011 UNICEF documentary about teachers from several islands as well.
Trailblazers Sonia Folkes, president of the Jamaica Family Planning Association, and Denise Chevannes-Vogel, executive director of National Family Planning Board in Jamaica, are demanding we not only have comprehensive sex education in schools, but to start early.
Folkes argues that even primary school children must learn about their bodies, about what consensual touch is, and to know that they are in control of themselves. And as former Caribbean tweens, we know how important that would have been for us, and how the old saying “books before boys because boys bring babies” didn’t go quite far enough to prepare us for adulthood.
Similarly, Chevannes-Vogel echoes the need for starting young. She also advocates for gender-specific conversations to disrupt dangerous societal norms around gender compliance and heteronormativity.
“For boys, you have to have ‘nuff gyal inna bundle [a bundle of girls].’ You cannot be thought to be gay,” she explained in the Jamaica Observer.
“For girls, the notion [is] that you need a man to validate who you are; the notion [is] that if you haven’t had a child by the time you are a certain age, you are a mule …. All of these are the cultural attitudes that we also have to empower our young people against,” she said.
In his 2016 address to the Family Planning Association, U.S. Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago John L. Estrada had this to say about his home country and what could be possible for reproductive health and sexual liberation for all Caribbean people through bold, open conversations about sex:
“My wish is for effective, evidence-based formal sex education to further improve and reach all the children growing up in the United States and Trinidad and Tobago …. A girl needs to know that her body is her own,” he said.
He continued: “Adolescents who struggle with their sexual identity should know that they are not alone, and they have nothing to be ashamed of. Teenagers need to know that love doesn’t have to hurt. And that there is no tolerance for domestic violence. A young couple dealing with an unintended pregnancy should know the resources and options available to them in addition to marriage.”
We envision and fight for a Caribbean where the ability to obtain holistic counseling, contraceptives, abortions, safe birth, and hormones is met with dignity and affirmation. Where LGBTQ young people can love boldly without fear of violence and with pride. Where a country’s leadership doesn’t outlaw medical care affecting the health and well-being of more than half the country just because the laws aren’t aligned with their oppressive “ethics.” Abortion, for example, is outright illegal in seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is only permitted to save a woman’s life in eight others, including Jamaica. A 2008 study in St. Martin, St. Maarten, Anguilla, Antigua, and St. Kitts showed that abortions were being performed against the law, and that the practice was the sole way women were able to obtain abortion services on those islands.
We envision a world where Carnival is celebrated, where sex positivity and pleasure are the norm. We must resist the pressure to conform. Instead, we bask in the culture that has been carved by the women of color who wined before us. We have nothing to be ashamed of, but we have so much to lose. If we do not take a stand, our identities, femme sparkle, and entire cultures are at risk. Comprehensive sex education is a start.