Sleeping their way to freedom

Sex trafficking has become an issue of global concern. Even in western countries such as the United States, young girls and even grown women are being kidnapped or lured into a life of forced prostitution. For women of African descent in the Americas – North, Central and South America and the Caribbean – violent and forced sexual exploitation is centuries old. Chattel slavery was nothing if not that.

Prostitution is as old as human society, the oldest profession they say. Prostitution in Jamaica is no different. While much is not known on what transpired during the time of Spanish colonization, prostitution on the island took off in a big way in the 17th century with the founding of Port Royal.

Port Royal – hive of prostitution
“Port Royal prospered on the back of its pirate economy, and by the 1660s its streets were lined with taverns and brothels eager to cater to the whims of young buccaneers flush with Spanish loot,” noted Evan Andrews. There was the “seamy harbor overrun with gambling, prostitution and drink, where hard-living mariners often squandered thousands of Spanish reals in a single night.”

John Appleby said:

By 1670 it (Port Royal) was identified by godly observers as a latter-day Sodom, sustained by pirate booty, with an unruly culture of taverns, punch houses and brothels. …Some men were willing to pay exorbitant sums of money merely to see a woman naked.

A.L. Bancroft, writing in 1883, described the behavior of pirates in Port Royal after one of their seafaring exploits:

Proceeding thence to Jamaica, they squandered in riot and gross dissipation the wealth that others had accumulated by years of toil and self-denial. A few days of swinish debauchery among the wine-shops and brothels of Port Royal left the majority of the gang without means or credit, and clamorous for some new expedition.

A depiction of Port Royal during its glory days in the 1600s. One sees what appears to be female prostitutes on the left trying to catch the attention of pirates as they parade down the street.

These pirates were doing in Jamaica what they did in their home country, Britain. They simply transferred to the colony what occurred in the motherland, perhaps on a grander scale, fueled by ill-gotten gain. In The Secret History of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank asserted:

As many as one in five young women were prostitutes in 18th-century London. The Covent Garden that tourists frequent today was the centre of a vast sex trade strewn across hundreds of brothels and so-called coffee houses. Fornication in public was common and even children were routinely treated for venereal disease.

Cruickshank said further:

English society expected, even encouraged, men to pay for sex. Prejudice barred women from all but menial jobs. Prostitution at least offered financial independence: a typical harlot could earn in a month what a tradesman or clerk would earn in a year. For a few beautiful and savvy women, the gamble paid off. Lavinia Fenton, a child prostitute, married a duke. But most prostitutes were destined for disease, despair and early death.

It continued apace in the 19th century. Ronald Hyam said, “at mid-century there were almost certainly more brothels in London than there were schools and charities put together.” Estimates were that London alone had about 80,000 prostitutes during the 1860s, some West Indians among them.

Prostitution was a way of life in venerable London.

Widely practiced prostitution in the United Kingdom led to epidemics in sexually transmitted diseases; serious enough that the British parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864 with subsequent reenactments, alterations and new editions in 1866 and 1869. The acts were aimed at combating STDs in the British armed forces.  The legislation empowered the police to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes at the various harbors and ports and have them checked for STD infection.

By the 1880s, the Contagious Diseases Acts were extended to cover British colonies, including Jamaica. “The Contagious Diseases Acts were in force in Jamaica, Trinidad, Hong Kong, Fiji, Gibraltar, Malta, India, Burma, Ceylon, the Australian colonies, Malaya, and the Cape (reenacted there in 1885), and in Cairo,” noted Philip Howell of the University of Cambridge in the UK.

This suggests that prostitution continued in Jamaica and did not end with the demise of Port Royal after it was leveled by the massive earthquake in 1692 and almost wiped out by the great fire of 1703. Prostitution followed newer cities and towns, especially those with harbors. Ships, harbors and ports were major draws. The port towns of Kingston, Montego Bay and Falmouth were hotbeds of prostitution.

Slavery and prostitution
In slave societies, Jamaica included, one sees the intertwining of enslavement and the purveying of sex for sale. One of the most intriguing characters in James McBride’s historical novel, The Good Lord Bird, is Pie, a prostitute. The novel centers on the tragic figure of the abolitionist, John Brown, who sought a violent overthrow of American slavery. It took me awhile to realize that Pie was enslaved because she commanded and insulted and cursed her clients, all white men. She held them in the palm of her hand and she could do or say almost anything to them, for she was the prized prostitute in the tavern/saloon that doubled as a brothel. It was only her mistress, who owned her, and the saloon’s enforcer, to whom she showed any respect.

That image of Pie may reflect the reality of some enslaved women in Jamaica and elsewhere. For the most part, black enslaved women were raped, sexually exploited and dominated by white men. But those who knew the power of what they had could be like a Pie. Again, not unlike the young, teen aged Kitty, the mistress and partner of the overseer in Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. Again, the beautiful Dulcimina in Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women comes to mind. Though not a prostitute, Dulcimina’s beauty and her wit gave her a sort of power other enslaved women did not have.

How much power did sexually attractive, savvy and witty enslaved women wield? The evidence strongly suggests that, like Pie in The Good Lord Bird, owners hired out enslaved women to offer sexual favors. This is an aspect of slavery one rarely reads about. In an article in the Journal of Caribbean History, Brian Moore and Michele Johnson cited sources that said “prostitution in the British Caribbean dates back to the days of slavery when female slaves were hired out to provide sexual services” and “that prostitution did exist in the urban centres of the Caribbean during the period of slavery.”

Moore and Johnson said further:

After emancipation women formed a large part of the migration from the rural areas to the towns, and as employment opportunities in domestic service, seamstressing, washing and other “female occupations” declined in relation to the supply of labour, some women were probably obliged to sell sexual services to survive.

In addition:

Girls, even as young as twelve years of age, were also recruited into prostitution by persons, usually women, who provided them with shelter and sustenance. But there may have been an element of choice as well, for as the Jamaica Times noted, some women who started out as domestic servants, dressmakers and the like eventually gave up those jobs to become prostitutes.

Dawn Michelle Miles, in her 2010 Ohio State University master’s thesis on the experience of female enslavement in the Caribbean, wrote:

Black women in the late 1700s-mid 1800s regularly utilized prostitution, and their sexuality more generally, as a means to gaining their freedom. When prostitution became widespread in 1802, the manumission rates among black women began to steadily increase. Black women prostitutes asserted their agency by choosing to use their sexual exploitation they faced at the hands of Europeans as a means to gain their freedom.

The conclusion is controversial and contentious but was apparently true. Many black women were sexually exploited, but some used their sexuality to empower themselves.

A more venerable form of prostitution, if there is such a thing, was practiced, or allowed, by operators of lodging houses. In the Caribbean, Jamaica included, most of these lodging houses were operated by mulatto or mixed race women. Some were reportedly the mistresses of white men who, in addition to providing lodging to travelers, offered sexual favors as well, whether they did it themselves, or allowed others to offer such services on their premises.

The old Bog Walk Hotel in St. Catherine, photographed in 1907 by Alfred Leader, essentially one of several lodging houses across the island before and during that time

These lodging houses were not brothels, not in the usual sense of the word, but places where visitors stayed who arrived by ships in port towns such as Kingston, Falmouth and Montego Bay. In an article titled Victims or Strategists? Female Lodging House Keepers in Jamaica, Paulette Kerr named 18 such lodging houses that existed in 1878 in what is now Downtown Kingston, almost all operated by mulatto or mixed raced women. The lodging houses existed along with more traditional brothels, which Kerr claimed were operated mainly by free black women.

Inland lodging houses catered mainly to government workers, military officers, merchants and others who traveled from one part of the island to another. The more well-known inland lodging houses were in places such as Bog Walk in St. Catherine and Moneague in St. Ann, where travelers overnighted on their way to or from Kingston and the north coast.

Kerr found that in one year, 1847, such female lodging housekeepers earned about £150, a princely sum for that time, more than that earned by clerks, retailers and master mariners. Operators of these lodging houses had a level of freedom and financial independence that few other women of their ethnicity and status had.

Prostitution today
In modern Jamaica, prostitution is widely practiced in Kingston and other major towns, especially the tourism centers of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril. Night clubs, especially the go-go variety, and assorted massage parlors, peddle sexual services. While many females in these establishments and elsewhere may do so voluntarily, Jamaica is not immune from the modern slave trade that induces mainly young women and girls into prostitution.

The US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor alleged that in Jamaica “trafficking in women for prostitution continued to be a problem” and that “child prostitution and trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation were problems.” The same report claimed that Panamanians were being trafficked into the country. I’ve heard tales of Cubans as well.

No country has been able to eliminate prostitution. Highly conservative countries and cultures that impose severe restrictions on women’s freedoms rarely succeed as it institutionalizes the power of men over women and girls to an extreme degree, leading to widespread sexual exploitation. Countries such as the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic with laissez faire policies toward prostitution have not seen reductions in sexual exploitation and the sex trade.

Prostitution is as intractable as any other vice. So long as there is demand, there will be supply.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

Where women make progress

Rita Humphries-Lewin, founder of Barita Investments, Jamaica’s oldest stockbroking company

A 2014 study by the international Labour Organization (ILO) indicated that Jamaica has the highest percentage of women managers globally. In Women in Business and Management, the ILO reported that just under 60 percent of managers in the country are women.

The status of women on the island is relatively high in politics as well. Portia Simpson Miller was Prime Minister from 2012-2016 after serving a brief stint from 2006-2007. Women have held other senior government cabinet positions in foreign affairs, health, education, labor, social services and sports, among others.

Several factors may account for this high percentage of women in business, the professions and politics. Since 2000, Jamaica has ranked in the top five in global indexes for college and university gender parity. In a 2014/2015 statistical review by the University of the West Indies, of the 14,846 Jamaicans enrolled at the three main campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, 9,945 or 67 percent were females. At the Jamaica campus at Mona, of the 4,999 students enrolled in the social sciences, which include management programs, 3,281 or 66 percent were women; of the 3,663 in the medical sciences, 2,669 or 73 percent were women; of the 512 in law, 377 or 74 percent were females.

All this is added to traditional professional caring roles such as nursing, teaching and social work, which are dominated by women.

That Jamaican women are well represented in business management did not happen by chance. At least three key decisions in the 1970s laid the foundation for the advancement of women in education, in management and the professions. In 1974, Prime Minister Michael Manley first proposed and began the process of providing free education to all Jamaicans, from primary school through to college and university. This opened college and university education to swaths of the population previously excluded.

Jacqueline Sharp, CEO of Scotiabank Jamaica, the country’s second largest bank

The Employment (Equal Pay For Men And Women) Act of 1975 stipulates that all persons, regardless of gender, should get equal pay for equal work. Furthermore, “no employer shall dismiss or otherwise discriminate against any person because that person has made a complaint or given evidence or assisted in any way in respect of the initiation or prosecution of a complaint or other proceeding under this Act.” In other words, clear provisions are made to enforce the law.

The Maternity Leave Act of 1979 provides for women to be paid, for at least eight weeks, “the normal wages earned in respect of the last normal working week during which she worked” prior to going off on maternity leave. She may take an extra four weeks no-pay leave without fear of losing her position or benefits upon returning to her job. Strict enforcement is provided in case of violations.

The combination of increased access to education, equality in pay and other forms of compensation, and the security of keeping one’s job after pregnancy, helped women to advance.

Long journey
It took Jamaican women a long while to get where they are. Women have always had to work, but the jobs they did were mainly menial. Someone once said the discussion about women working is a white woman’s discussion, because black women always worked outside their homes. In slave societies in the Americas – North, Central and South America, including the Caribbean – women were forced to work in the fields, factories, and in the masters’ and mistresses’ homes, without compensation and at the abuse of their bodies.

From Through Jamaica With a Kodak, published in 1907

Jamaican women blanch at the very idea of going back to that dark past. In April 1981, one minister of government in Jamaica proposed, as a solution to unemployment in the country, the hiring of women breaking rocks. The country’s women, middle class women in particular, were outraged. The proposal was quickly withdrawn and died a natural death. That unfortunate minister of government, who had gone on to create a monstrosity of a chaotic transportation system in the country, was harking back to the days when breaking rocks was indeed a source of employment for Jamaican rural women.

Alfred Leader, who published Through Jamaica with a Kodak in 1907 after visiting the island, wrote:

In all directions here are to be seen native women, engaged in the hard, rough work of the island. Women repair the public roads, break stones on the roadside, and in other ways are employed for work which (as it seems to an Englishman) ought to be done by men only.

He referred to “seeing so many women engaged in coaling steamers, loading them with bunches of bananas, breaking stones on the roads, and other similar employment.” He observed:

One constantly meets the native women bearing heavy loads (garden produce, logwood, etc.), in baskets or bundles upon their heads. They run these huge weights mile after mile along the country roads at a great pace, their swinging skirts and upright carriage (the latter due to this practice of weight-carrying upon their heads from early childhood) being quite remarkable. Some of these burden-bearers are tall, graceful women, almost queenly in their bearing.

From Through Jamaica with a Kodak

He saw “a native woman, trampling along, with a single heavy bunch upon her head, having brought her burden from her half acre many miles away.”

Women worked on the shipping docks just as men did. He saw that, “immediately on arrival of the steamer, the fruit is run by negroes (women chiefly) into large boats built for the purpose, and conveyed by these to the vessel lying at anchor in the harbor,” a phenomenon he witnessed in Kingston, Port Antonio and Port Morant.

It is clear. Women in Jamaica have made significant progress. The ground was laid in the 1970s, the fruits began to be seen in the 1980s, and the pace took off at a fast clip in the 1990s.

Despite such advances however, one could argue that the percentage of women in leadership is lagging.  Management figures are 6 percent to 14 percent lower than the number of women with university degrees in the broader population.

And if tertiary education is important in the preparation for political leadership, there should be far more women in the nation’s parliament and in the government cabinet. Of the 21 senators, only five or 24 percent are women. Only 11 or 17 percent of the 63 members of parliament are women.  Ministers of government, which number 21, includes only four or 19 percent who are women.

While there is much to celebrate, there is yet need for even greater equity. For instance, in the UWI Statistical Review For The Academic Year 2009/2010, only about 28 percent of fully tenured professors and 31 percent of senior lecturers were women. Women lecturers outnumbered men at 52 percent and assistant lecturers at 57 percent. At the highest levels in the university system, the number of women trail men by a long way. It is only in the middle where women predominate.

Anecdotal evidence suggests similar realities prevail at the highest levels of management in private companies and corporations.  Few women are at the very top, even fewer are appointed to sit on boards. They populate middle and junior management posts.

The conclusion is difficult to escape. Women carry out instructions given by boards and chief executives, but it is only rare that they set policy, determine governance and direct operations. In other words, they are shielded from holding, or wielding, real power and authority.

Considering that women in Jamaica achieve levels of education and other attainments at two or three times the rate of men, this is an imbalance that needs redress.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel