I’ve been thinking about sex a lot these days. And I’ve come up with the 5 Commandments that women are asked to follow here in Jamaica:

1. Have as much sex as you want.
2. Hide what you are doing at all costs.
3. Tell one ‘hole ‘eap a lie when yuh buck yuh toe an mek dem see seh yuh fall dung.
4. Expect all k’i’na fiyah fi bun fi yuh when backra fine out.
5. Lie dung an beg fi mercy like sey yuh a ‘ungry belly mongrel dog.

And those of us who, for all kinds of reasons, decide not to abide by all of these commandments – well, a pyere problems, yes? Kwame Dawes just wrote a really insightful piece in the Washington Post about Annesha Taylor, who was the poster girl for the Ministry of Health’s public education campaign about HIV/AIDS. Just like Sara Lawrence, the Miss Jamaica World 2006 who was the target of public scorn and hypocrisy when she disclosed that she was pregnant last year, Annesha was immediately disappeared by MOH when she disclosed that she too was bearing a child.

The swirl of concern and debate around these women has not really been about them at all. Rather, it’s about the naive and dangerously simplistic story that was built up around them, and which these young 20-something women implictly agreed to by their participation: the story that these vibrant and beautiful women are mere “symbols” not people with active sex lives, who can speak without uttering a cliche, and who want companionship and pleasure the same way most of us do. It is telling that, no matter that their choices are much more closely aligned with the lives of many other 20-something women in similar circumstances, the MOH and the other cultural gatekeepers cannot come up with any other strategy but to punish them by demonizing them and making them objects of public ridicule. Wouldn’t this a great opportunity to talk about the reality of abstinence — namely, that it doesn’t work, and surely not for most people? Wouldn’t this be a good time to begin addressing that other reality that 20-somethings know only too well ie. that sexual intercourse between (and among) men and women is already risky, and that maybe harm reduction and more frank, open, informed dialogue about the complexities of sex might be more in line with what we need right now.

Annesha’s case, as reported by Kwame, reveals the immoral trades that Black (esp. working class) women are still being asked to make: their bodies for their children’s lives. Access to drugs, to companionship, to a structured environment to raise her children, to income, is dependent on her making a variety of trades, that only marginally benefit her. We learn that access to the life-saving candy from Big Pharma comes at a cost, to all of us women: our government is asked to push a bankrupt policy of abstinence and monogamy, which doesn’t even work in their country, much less in ours. Monogamy, from the perspective of the religious and political conservatives who are the decisionmakers at Big Pharma, means a particular thing: marriage. No common law foolishness fi dem. Of course, if anybody has cared to pay attention to our history through lenses not tainted by Victorianism, we might see that women in Jamaica generally do (serial) monogamy; marriage is not the be-all and end-all for most. Of course, this unintentional boycott of the shackles of marriage in Jamaica is taking place, despite our being told that we are moral reprobates for not marrying the pathetic men who often come our way.

So how about the MOH tailoring a message that speaks to our realities as women? Oh no! Because the MOH (like most of our society) are really stuck in the 17th century, and really do believe that it is still a “problem” that women are not married (via church and govt) to the men who are the sperm donors to their children. Annesha clearly recognizes that she was caught in this double bind, and that the code of respectability still reigns as ever before. However, its not marriage campaigns doing that ideological work in the 21st century, its “reproductive health” and “family planning” policies.

Annesha and Sara, as black Jamaican women, are finding out that there’s no half-way about becoming the paragon of [rehabilitated] virtue these days in Jamdung. So you feel like you’re informed, educated and respected enough, and therefore have the authority to do your own thing ie. live in ways that entirely normal within this cultural milieu? That’s nice. But, my dears, you must remember that its not enough that you get to be poster-child; there was some fine print that you didn’t read. Stepping up as poster children for black women also means that you have agreed to be even more constrained by the morality debates enshrined in the 5 Commandments. Past “sins” of black women over the past 4 centuries are most certainly not going to be forgiven or forgotten; for that reason, it is even more necessary that you pretend to change your ways, as if you are “born-again”; and to act as if your entire life and framework have changed, while you continue to do what you always have done. Accommodation to the rules and acquiescence to being gatekeepers is what was expected of you. And that’s where you fucked up, my pretties.

For me, beyond the implications I have pointed out or alluded to above, is an urgent need to disregard the 5 Commandments entirely, and to rewrite the rules by which women can make decisions about their sexual lives without the overbearing hand of governmental or religious mandates. While Sara and Annesha are aware of the ideas embedded in the 5 Commandments, it would be too much to assume that they would reject these rules. They too, remain beholden to the systems which regulate the most intimate aspects of our lives. And so, even with first-hand knowledge of how utterly bankrupt and destructive that system can be for individuals, they may still emerge as its biggest supporters. That would be a pity, but certainly not unexpected.

Its the rest of us that I am looking to for inspiration and change: to be sexual renegades within a moral framework that is built on mutual respect for each other’s humanity, a sense of loyalty to each other, a commitment to standing up for each other’s health and wellbeing, and an ever-present awareness that our sexuality is not the beginning or essence of who we are, just another source of creative possibility and means to better living. I don’t think those ideas will be broadcast on any MOH billboard or ad anytime soon.

So, where do we start? Well, while we’re collecting dollar coins to make our own public education campaign, we adults should start practicing ethical sex right now: not just in terms of who you do whatever wtih, but also how we talk about sex to our children, co-workers, clients, etc. Sex isn’t just about biology, risk and problems. Its also – more importantly – about social interaction, pleasure, making babies (these are not mutually exclusive at all).

We also need fi start organize wi pickney dem fi aks question an’ tell di odder parents dem fi demand better discussions bout sex a’ school. Dem deh morality foolishness wha dem a teach n’ah go mek nobody feel sweet or hug yuh up a night time, so mek dem gwa’an bout dem bizness. If yuh an dem whe’n deh tell di pickney dem รณw much a clock, dem wouldn’a sex off one anneder inna some nasty bathroom and stairwell like seh a sports day dem deh (well, dem prob’ly woulda use di teacha desk instead…).