Take Back the Tech, Don’t Take it Away

Here’s a video clip in which a Trini mom explains that after observing changes in her nine year-old son’s behaviour she became worried that something was wrong.  On attending a PTA meeting she heard teacher express concern about boys performing oral sex on each other at school.  She then states (quite matter-of-factly, in my opinion) that only after she beat her son, to get him to talk, she explains, did he admit to having been raped and bullied at school. She suspected that he was being victimised and her last resort to get him to open up to her about that victimisation was to beat him, to use violence against him.

If you’ve been following this blog you know I’ve come under fire from readers for suggesting that some reactions to a video of another Trini mom beating her daughter online were dishonest.  I erred in accusing individual readers of a pretense of righteous outrage.  I will argue though that collectively such outrage expressed online is as performative and it is genuine.  The decisions of these two Trini moms and the entire structure of discipline in most Caribbean schools and many Caribbean homes suggest that the use of physical force is understood as appropriate more often than it is understood as reprehensible or abusive.

As much as there is to say and do about violence against children (and the sexual assault of boys in particular) I want to talk about social media for a moment.

Many people mentioned that a 12-year-old has no right with a facebook account (this violates Facebook’s Terms of Use) and that the mother should have been monitoring her daughter’s internet usage.  Look, I went to school in the time of phonebooths when some girls would line up during lunch with a bandit addict’s supply of quarters and call their adult boyfriends during lunch hour.  A 12-year-old girl can’t even walk down the street without harassment from (usually) adult men.  These harms did not begin with the internet, though they are surely amplified by it.

Changes in technology aside, social media usage has come to mean that you are modern and that you are participating in global culture. Teens don’t want to be left out.  Jamaican media maven and researcher Marcia Forbes found just that. Children without regular access to internet or facebook accounts experienced these privations to be a source of embarrassment just as other markers of poverty are.  When the kids leave facebook it will be for the next hottest thing (read Instagram), not because parents have managed to push them offline.

Using social media has become inevitable in many ways.  As Astra Taylor notes in this must-read interview:

Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we’re really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.

The twelve year-old posting sexy pics online, the mom giving her daughter some good-West-Indian-discipline, the persons high-fiving her and the outraged are all managing their online selves.

We could all do with some media literacy.  I don’t just mean teaching girls that the nude photos they share online will live on forever and potentially haunt them forever.  As a practical piece of advice this is necessary.  So too is helping them navigate intimate relationships and question the imperative to be sexy all the time, above all else.  Our children also need the comprehensive sexuality education which many states are denying them. What I mean by media literacy though, is being a lot more critical about how we engage social media and thinking critically about what it has come to represent.

Much has been made of the liberatory potential of digital media and it’s ability to be subversive and even revolutionary.  But as the Trini girl in the video learnt, online and offline worlds don’t just collide, there are one and the same.  So if the offline world is dangerous for girls and boys, if girls have their self-confidence and self-esteem hollowed out by age 12, expect their online worlds to reflect that.  Online tools are a product of military investment in communications technology.  They cannot liberate us, though we can be anancy-like and use them creatively and in ways in which they were not intended.

Facebook now requires you to pay to promote every single post on your page or they only reach the news feeds of a very small percentage of those who have liked your page.  The exception is that where a post is popular, the momentum of the engagement from readers will cause it to appear in the news feed of other readers and so the page views increase.  This is what happened with the viral video and the two articles I wrote about it.  Sharing the video was a bad judgement call.  The video (and articles) reaching so many of our facebook page subscribers was a result of readers liking, commenting, reading and resharing.  Its popularity was co-constructed.  We need to co-construct a media literacy for our times.

Caribbean youth and Caribbean feminists are doing some innovative stuff online.  Visit the Walking Into Walls page to learn about the crisis of violence against women, girls and boys across the region.  Read, share and comment on those stories.  Help to create a sustained online conversation that translates to offline action.  Buy 24-year-old Gordon Swaby’s Edufocal which “combines the challenge and fun of play with the structure and discipline of study” for your children and the children in your lives.  UWI PhD graduate Tara Wilkinson has started Media Playhouse in Barbados to teach children to create their own media.  Our blog celebrated its fourth birthday in April this year.  CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network is currently working on its website which will serve as a hub for feminist and social justice media from the region.

So many teens have mobile phones, how many of these teens have educational apps on those phones? How many teachers are using mobile technology as part of their pedagogy? Couldn’t we use e-tools to deliver the comprehensive sexuality education that many CARICOM governments are fighting to keep out of school?

It’s time to take back the tech, not take it away!


Response to Feedback on Performing Good-West-Indian Discipline Online

I’ve been getting lots of feedback on my article entitled Performing Good-West-Indian Discipline Online.  I wanted to respond to and engage with those comments so here goes:

One of the key pieces of feedback I received was that I was complicit in the public shaming and violence against the pre-teen girl by sharing the video on facebook and linking to it on the blog.  One person told me that they same way I would not share a video of a woman being raped I should not share a video of a child being beaten. They insisted that even if the video was shared a million times by others it was disappointing to see it shared here on CODE RED for gender justice.  If we wanted to talk about child abuse surely we could do that without exploiting a 12-year-old girl. I agree.

It took me sometime to come to that agreement though.  Since I have witnessed children being beaten daily in school settings I did not think of that violence in the same way I think of sexual assault.  I understood that it was abuse but part of the way that it was normalised in my mind meant that in some ways I had also minimised it.  I was wrong.

The other key piece of feedback I received was that I was “shaming” readers who said they found the video disgusting and rushing to judgment against them.  Someone suggested that by engaging in such shaming I was complicit in normalising violence against children.  That I found it difficult to believe that the video literally made some people sick to their stomachs says more about me than it does about them.  It says that I have experienced violence against children to be a very common feature of everyday life in the Caribbean.  My original post made that clear.  I was wrong though in suggesting that people who said they were disgusted by the video were lying or seeking to demonstrate “political correctness” on the issue.  I also completely failed to consider that people may witness violence everyday and find it reprehensible, traumatic and stomach-churning every single day.

I am grateful for those who engaged with me even when they disagreed, felt that I was trying to shame them or considered that I was complicit in violence against children.  I feel no need to claim innocence.  In fact, my original article, flaws and all, was precisely about how none of us are innocent.  I wanted to challenge readers to reach beyond seeing this one mother as brutish and violent or as serving up some much-needed tough love in our media-saturated times. In the end, readers challenged me to look inward at my own prejudices, modes of engagement and understanding of violence.

I still have a lot to unpack.  Writing those short lines about witnessing violence in my family was particularly difficult to do.  Codes of family secrecy are strong and are not transgressed without consequences.

I am part of this Caribbean, I am inside it and it is inside me.  All of my writing comes from that complex and complicated place of messy entanglement with whatever I’m trying to understand.  Thank you for pushing me towards greater understanding.



Performing Good-West-Indian-Discipline Online

Today I shared a viral video of a Caribbean mom beating her 12-year-old daughter with a belt for talking to and sending photos of herself to a man online.  In the comments which followed on the CODE RED facebook page two persons wrote that they were unable to watch the video as they felt sick to their stomachs.

I was taken aback by their comments. Or rather, I felt their comments were dishonest.

I watched my grandmother punch my cousin in the face for breaking eggs on her way back from the shop. My father once ripped a shirt off my teenaged sister.  I attended public primary school. Nuff said.

My mother recalls missing school regularly because her grandmother would put her mother out of the house on a whim.

I will not even write what I have seen and heard my neighbour do to his son.

Remembering those occasions in which I experienced or was forced to bear witness to physical and emotional violence is traumatic. Sometimes the very ways in which Caribbean parents seek to demonstrate love, care and guidance are the very ways that will destroy you.

We have to know better so we can do better.  We have to unlearn.

But we can’t begin that process of unlearning and re-learning if we are going to get all righteous and pretend like violence is not an everyday, normalised part of life.  The mother who made the video and posted it online knew that her Caribbean viewers would recognise “good West Indian discipline” when they saw it.  She made that video for us, to let us know she is a good mother, a tough mother.  She knows that after what her daughter posted online people would be asking questions about what kinda mudda raises the kinda force-ripe 12-year-old that would post risque photos online.

These videos of mothers and fathers beating their children are in wide circulation and generally receive praise as examples of good parenting.

If we want to change the normalisation of physical and emotional abuse we have to get honest.  Yes, we can (and do) watch the videos. Yes, our stomachs can take it.  Yes, we have witnessed or received worse. Yes, we use violence ourselves. For many Caribbean parents the decision to not hit their children is one that must be consciously chosen over the culturally approved mandate that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.

One mom left this comment:

growing up in a caribbean household (where my brother and i did get licks) i know that the traditional mindset is that this is no big ting. that the lash she get and the mother posting it online was deserved since it seems she was ‘being fas’ and ‘talkin to man’ on FB and she is only 12 yrs old. as a mother who has struggled to find alternative ways to discipline and teach my boys other than the belt, i understand the moms frustration. she probably is honestly trying to keep her daughter on the straight and narrow using the only way she knows how. i am loathe to judge her cuz she may not know any other way to talk and discipline her child. but the truth is that this is wrong. its abusive, humiliating and does more harm than good in the long run. the problem is how to change this mindset that is so ingrained in caribbean culture? i’ve gotten into some serious rows with friends and family who think me soft and too american for not beating my kids. and i’ve also caved to the pressure and frustration and beat them when they drove me crazy… its easy to point the finger but to actually throw off generations of teaching when there seems to be no viable alternative? so much harder….

I appreciate her honesty. Corporal punishment is still legal in most Caribbean schools.  When I started teaching it was against the law for ordinary teachers to hit children but senior teachers and principals were legally permitted to do so.  When the media publicized the fact that teachers who beat children were engaging in a criminal act many teachers felt that their ability to control the classroom was being undermined.

We have experienced violence and are living with that trauma.  We have used violence. We have failed to consider other alternatives. We have justified our use of violence. Violence has become a normal and natural response.

When we dare to be honest about how hurt we are, about how hurt we feel when we hurt others, we open the door to healing.

It’s time we stopped saying that we were beaten like slaves and it made us the men and women we are today.  We are not betraying our parents when we recognise that they were abusive, we are not denying that they weren’t also loving, that they raised us in trying times and under harsh conditions.

We have to admit the hurt and our implications on both sides of it.

See also I am a Complicated Latina Feminist, Ending Violence by Tina Vasquez for a thoughtful exploration of violence and family responsibility.

Edited to remove link to video following complaints. Please read my response to reader criticisms here.

Who’s next?

Guest post by Colin Robinson

Who’s Next? is a free noon event on Thursday at NGC Bocas Lit Fest at the Old Fire Station in Port of Spain. Seven intriguing new voices offer a tease of T&T’s writing future. The literary festival is overflowing with treats. I’d promised to unwrap more today, but life has overtaken literature.
Allegations about Delmon Baker pose one of the toughest ethical and political challenges the local LGBTI movement has faced. The only thing I’m clear about is that if I were a parliamentarian who was gay or bisexual, I would come out this week.
Media houses report claims by an articulate 27-year-old man (who cites scripture to deny he is gay or bisexual) that,in a four-year friendship, on at least three occasions in times of need he visited the home of the now 37- year-old MP, who touched him sexually or intimatelyThe accuser is described as “vulnerable,” related perhaps to his children’s home upbringing. He says the touching was unwelcome, and showed e-mails in which he shared his distress (but I’ve seen no timeline of the alleged incidents and communication).
Gabrielle Hosein reminded us last week how easily accusers get demonised. But this one has not painted a sympathetic picture of himself. He says he was inspired to break his story by Patricia Singh, who accused Minister Ramadharsingh of soliciting oral sex for help getting a house. But his demand for a public apology for private acts seems odd. Another newspaper reports he has fraud charges and court matters pending.
Homophobia skews public discussion about such allegations, and Baker’s legal team’s preaction protocol letters have silenced legitimate debate about them, leaving much of it up to scandal rags and social mediawhere it is least helpful.
Peeling away the feeding frenzy by those who smell a badly bloodied government is hard too. One test I’ve tried to apply to clarify the ethics of the matter is to change the sex of the complainant. But so much is genuinely different about this. Including the Government’s responses—like refusing Baker’s resignationpastor Rodger Samuel counselling the alleger to pray; and he and the communications minister invoking the legal response to dodge comment.
It’s complicated. Many ask: why did the accuser go back, after the first unwanted sexual advance? I know I’ve gone back. What sort of sexual advances are legitimate between friends, and in relationships that have nothing to do with any office?

In a 2002 decision soundly criticised in a UWI-commissioned law paperby SeShauna Wheattlea former Chief Justice freed Marvin Marcano for Christopher Lynch’s murder, saying his victim’s same-sex sexual advance was so unnatural it would send any right-thinking person crazy. Women don’t enjoy that protection. Twelve years later, a few months after the paperthe retired CJ mused that same-sex love is not repugnant and hurts no one.
But take Baker out of the picture. What about the other MPs, on different benches in both houses, who are lesbian, gay or bisexual? Who is “vulnerable” when they make sexual advances? Does our culture of scandal and stigma around same-sex desire make such office holders especially susceptible to sexual blackmail? Do our unenforced laws that make such behaviour illegal, even when it’s consensual, drive talented people away from—or out of—public service? Does the forced secrecy around such desire drive powerful people to seek sex from the vulnerable?
Public debate has also not yet turned on the fact—perhaps because few know this—that 25 years after Independence, the PNM created a new law criminalising with a five-year jail sentence a man playing with another man sexually in private— regardless of consent (though no one may have ever been prosecuted for consensual conduct). No parliamentarian is calling for such laws—which could be used to prosecute them—to be repealed.
But some things are refreshing. Despite the “No man, woman or goat is safe from this Government” picong—the titillation of prime time TV reporting—and the broadcast of a purported recording of a grown politician in tears on the phone—I’ve heard no loud voice say no homosexual belongs in the nation’s CabinetLast week the chief justice, attorney general, police commissioner, house speaker and arts minister all turned out to embrace the visiting American couple whose son, Matthew Shepard, was murdered, and listen to their message of acceptance and equal rights (though Rodger Samuelput in charge of national diversity, was notably absent.)
Hopefully Dr Baker and his accuser will be judged on the ethics of their conduct and not the other’s sex.
Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith.


This article was originally published in the Trinidad Guardian and is re-published here with the author’s permission.

Colin Robinson is a Trinbagonian working to build a better nation, and a movement for justice, dignity and pleasure, using fellowship, imagination, writing, and organising in LGBTI communities. He works with CAISO, the Caribbean IRN and CariFLAGS; and, in addition to the Guardian newspaper, his essays have appeared in Aché: A Journal for Black Lesbians, the Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, the Commonwealth Opinion series, the gspottt blog, Voices Rising: Celebrating Twenty Years of Black LGBT Writing and the forthcoming Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.

No Laughing Matter: Stories of rape and sexual assault in Caribbean media this week

Laughing at boys who are raped

The Jamaica Observer recently subjected readers to the most crass and reprehensible of cartoons which pokes fun at the rape of boys in institutionalized care. Yes, they invited readers to laugh at the fact that boys were being raped.  A UN study of nine Caribbean countries found that 32% of boys described their first sexual experience as forced or somewhat forced.  Men and boys in institutionalized settings such as prisons face high rates of sexual assault.  These violations are often met with laughter or are seen as adequate punishment for the transgressions that land men in prison.  Never mind that prisons are filled with young, poor men with little formal education.



Even the Minister’s statements as reported by the Observer seemed to suggest that the boys were criminal and to blame for the fact that the residential programme was being closed. Terms such as criminal acts, sexual predation, non-responsive and financial burden painted the boys as the problem, as incorrigible, and the overall story was very unsympathetic toward them:

Among the reasons were rising cases of sexual predation by older boys against younger male wards, criminal acts being perpetrated by the wards, severely traumatised youngsters and the astronomical financial burden straddling the convent.

“The Sisters of Mercy cited the grave antisocial behaviour of children in the care system, the sexual predatory nature of the boys on one another, children who are witnesses of serious crimes or are victims of heinous acts, and who are non-responsive to traditional interventions for which their institutions have been equipped to provide,” Hanna said.

“The Sisters of Mercy have also indicated the incapability of human capital to respond to the many changing faces of the issues being manifested. The challenge is further compounded by the high cost of care for each child, as a result of the more extensive interventions required which is beyond the capacity of their resources, thus limiting the ability to meet basic operating demand,” she added.

The Minister who was quoted in the Observer story is also reported as defending herself against criticisms that “the boys had been damaged by unfortunate statements made.”  There was no report which I came across in which the government committed themselves to improving the lives of children in state care or to eliminating sexual assault in these settings. At the root of why the Observer found the rape of boys funny are notions of men’s sexuality as active, never passive or receptive and understandings of heterosexuality as normal and natural, hence the harmful misconception that (real) men and boys cannot be raped.

Read this young Belizean man’s story about surviving rape and incest by both male and female rapists.

Putting Professional Women in their place

Feminist Aliens is a brilliant project run by some amazing women from the Caribbean and Africa.  They recently posted the first person testimony of one of the founders who was sexually assaulted while on an internship:

I was 22, training to become a member of one of the oldest and most patriarchal professions. I had already completed four years and my career horizon loomed large after all I had only a few more months and requirements to complete. From Day One I was warned about the ‘professional climate’, maybe it was a code for ‘this is a man’s domain’, but it was during my required internship that I really fully understood the extent of this climate. My first encounter with “wuk fuh wuk” happened that summer.What basically was communicated as “don’t worry I will look out for her”, a subtle, gesture of “I understand” or “I was there too as a struggling student trying to make my mark”, turned into “you put out for me and I will take care of you”.


She then goes on to detail the heinous sexual assault and abuse of power by a very powerful man and subsequent sexual harassment at other places of employment. Not only was such behaviour criminal, it was common knowledge that these men were predators. Widespread acceptance of such behaviour meant that it was difficult for young women to be accepted as colleagues by their male peers:

I left that job and tried to branch out on my own but was constantly subjected to unwanted comments from senior male members of the profession. “I like red women so be careful.” or “You know them bow legs sexy in them heels.” and “Next time I see you girl… (shaking head in desire at least so it appeared)”. Instead of feeling like a colleague, I felt like a sideshow.

Much is made about the fact that of the minority of Caribbean people who are privileged enough to attend university women outnumber men.  As Tracy Robinson noted years ago very little mention is made of what women’s numerical dominance means in terms of the sexual assault and harassment they face just because they are women. As more women enter the professions we need to break the silence on the sexual assault and harassment that seem to come with the territory. Outing rapists, especially powerful rapists is not easy but it must be done.

Go read the entire article here.

Sexism, heterosexism and homophobia are scourges across the entire Caribbean.  The Dominica Bureau of Gender Affairs recently took to the streets to protest, noting that  “60.3% of 614 cases of domestic violence were sexual abuse. 72.3% of these domestic violence cases involved victims below the age of consent (0-15 years). Of that figure, 3.79 were males and 68.5 were females.”

In Trinidad and Tobago men and women have come forward to report sexual and physical assault by government Ministers.

Check out part one and part two of Healing Through Words, a series on surviving sexual assault.

Rape is no laughing matter.