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  • Very Straight Sex: The Development of Sexual Morés in Jamaica
  • Suzanne LaFont

Same-sex sexual acts and heterosexual sodomy are illegal and publically condemned in Jamaica. Many Jamaicans believe that the international pressure to liberalize their sexual morés is a form of post-colonial imperialism. In this paper, using slave, elite, and creole narratives, I have traced the racial, political, economic, religious, and cultural forces that have shaped sexualities in colonial Jamaica. I will argue that sexual intolerance began during the slave era as a complex dialectic between colonial elites and Afro-Jamaicans. Historically, respectability and rectitude evolved as a Afro-Jamaican response to the slave experience. Today these values persist as a source of national pride while also functioning to distance Afro-Jamaicans from their colonial past.

“Christian Missionary [to a Jamaican Slave]: ...You have sinful connexions with different women and the one that you profess to live with as your wife is not so for you have never been married to her. All this is wrong and will be the ruin of your soul if you die in your sins...No fornicator shall enter into the Kingdom of heaven...Quacco [Jamaican Slave]: If this be true, Massa, God help poor negroe & plenty beside he.”

(Missionary tract, 1784) 1


In September 2001, as I was reading a journal while riding through Manhattan on a crowded D-train, a man with a Jamaican accent tapped my arm and said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to be looking over your shoulder, but I have to tell you that the second line there is wrong.” The “line” the man referred to read, “[It is also a] badly kept secret that Jamaica has a perceptibly vibrant gay population.” As I turned to look at him, he added, “It is not true, we don’t love gay people in Jamaica.” The line was from a journal article titled “Homophobia and Gay Rights Activism in Jamaica,” a subject so volatile that the author published it under a pseudonym (Williams 2000). Over fifteen hundred miles away from the island, the substance of Jamaican sexualities was being contested.

Many Westerners would have been surprised by this exchange. Current images of Jamaica, created primarily by the tourist industry, are replete with suggestions of romance and sexual adventure; depictions that are neither right nor wrong. On one hand, Jamaican culture is engulfed in sexuality. Jamaican music, dance, and media feature implicit and explicit references to sexual behavior and practices. On the other hand, acceptable sexualities are narrowly defined, and Jamaicans themselves seem intolerant of sexual expressions that fall outside a strictly constructed paradigm of heteronormal activity. Although homophobia is well-known and widespread in Jamaica, sexual intolerance extends beyond homophobia to the condemnation of homosexual and heterosexual oral and anal sex acts — a complex of sexual intolerance that I term anti-sodomism. 2

Sexual intolerance is blatant and takes many forms. A number of current incidents demonstrate the depth of homophobia. Sixteen men, presumed gays, were killed in a prison riot in 1997 after it was announced that condoms would be distributed to prisoners to curb HIV/AIDS. The lyrics of several popular dancehall songs openly advocate murdering gays. In June 2001 the Prime Minister, long believed to be gay (a fact many Jamaicans believe is responsible for their failing economy), felt he needed to publicly affirm his sexual orientation with the statement: “My credentials as a lifelong heterosexual are impeccable.” (White 2001). He also assured Jamaicans that the laws against homosexuality would stand. And when the lone Jamaican gay rights organization, J-FLAG, declared that they were going to rally and march through a major commercial area in Kingston, hundreds of citizens, women and men, young and old, armed themselves and lined the streets daring any Sodomites or battyman/Chi Chi man [homosexuals] to show themselves. 3 None did.

Heterosexual anti-sodomy is also blatant and is illustrated in the following examples. Men who date tourist women are ostracized for potentially engaging in oral sex (a sex act Western women are said to demand). A musician I know threw an American groupie out of his hotel room in the middle of night after she...

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