Women in Dancehall Turn up for Pleasure Parity

illustration by Robin Clare

This article was published in Heat Issue #83 | Summer 2019

In 1996, reggae artist Tanya Stephens released “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet,” a controversial single that interrogated some men’s inability to please their female sex partners. Lyrics such as “Have you ever wonder wha’ make a girl cum?/ A woman first fi satisfy before you say you’re done” illustrated how women’s sexual desires are often secondary during intercourse—an issue that’s not specific to heterosexual Jamaican couples. A 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that straight women usually orgasm 65 percent of the time while straight men orgasm in 95 percent of their sexual encounters. (On the upside, gay men orgasm 89 percent of the time, bisexual men orgasm 88 percent of the time, lesbians orgasm 86 percent of the time, and bisexual women orgasm 66 percent of the time.)

Though dancehall has long been considered a platform for both men and women to unapologetically express their sexual prowess, the genre also has its limitations. “In Jamaican culture, ‘slackness’ definitely has negative connotations of sexual looseness,” Jamaican literary scholar Carolyn Cooper told The Fader in 2014. “It’s largely sexual, and it means improper behavior, particularly for women who are supposed to still accept the fundamentalist Christian values of Jamaican society. Women should be nurturing and, yes, sexual, but not in an overt way.” “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet” was not well received by many when it was released because it asked men to think about sex beyond rough and rugged penetration, which, for them, cyaa be good at all. Sadly, not much has changed in the 23 years since Stephens released her groundbreaking song, even as women in dancehall continue to lionize their sexual appetites and capabilities.

Though Jamaica is known for its institution-defying reggae music, eccentric fashions, and seemingly lax culture, the country is still home to traditionally conservative beliefs. On an island that has “more churches per square kilometer” than any other country in the world, religion influences how people respond to any cultural institution, including music, that challenges their views. So even in seemingly liberal spaces like dancehall, how sexual pleasure is acquired is still informed by Christian dogma. For example, sex should only be between a man and a woman, and oral sex is “ungodly” and perceived as a sign of religious deviance, as evidenced by Lady Saw’s 1990s anti-oral anthem “Sycamore Tree.”

Now as women become the most visible, and arguably, the most successful artists in dancehall, they’re speaking candidly about sex.

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In 2017, dancehall starlet Ishawna repurposed Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” for “Equal Rights,” a song that eschews the humanitarian-focused lyrical content that the title implies, but still calls for equality in the bedroom. Through lyrics like “Boy, me nah go compromise/ Me waan feel how your head feels between mi thighs,” “Equal Rights” demanded that men start giving oral sex instead of just receiving it. Ishawna released the record four years after self-proclaimed “Worl’ Boss,” Adidja “Vybz Kartel” Palmer, released his infamous 2013 single, “Freaky Gyal (Pt. 1),” that explained how much he enjoys receiving oral sex. After its release, other male artists, such as Gage, Konshens, and Alkaline, followed suit.

Vybz Kartel’s record subverted the social norms, ushering in a moment where sexual desires could be more openly discussed. But there was a caveat: Only male artists could openly talk about oral sex, and only if they were on the receiving end of the sexual act. Ishawna didn’t receive the same positive response. Instead, she was forced to cut short her performance at the 2017 Dream Weekend music festival after men in the audience sprayed her with water guns. Any notion that a man should “bow,” or give oral sex, was vehemently discouraged because it was seen as a threat to masculinity and a challenge to power relations. Now as women become the most visible, and arguably, the most successful artists in dancehall, they’re speaking candidly about sex. The reigning queen of dancehall, Spice, is leading the charge in rebuking social norms around women’s pleasure. Her 2014 song “So Mi Like It” is all about getting on top during sex. “Yes a so mi like it/ Bring yo buddy come yuh meck mi ride it/ Ride it like a bike it/ Cock up and sit down and wine it,” she sings—without backlash.

Spice told Billboard in 2018 that it used to be rare for female dancehall artists to get their music played in Jamaica because “[dancehall is] a male-dominated business.” When asked about the double standard in dancehall, Spice says, “They’re all biased when it comes to women. Men are always singing sexually explicit things about oral sex and how they want it from women. They sing about it proudly. But the moment another female writes a song about getting it from a man, it’s a big uproar.” Spice sided with Ishawna when “Equal Rights” was released and is rejecting the conservative values that have long dominated conversations about sex—and helping to redefine how the genre thinks about women’s pleasure. After all, we run tings, tings nuh run wi

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by Sharine Taylor
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Sharine Taylor is an Afro-Jamaican, Toronto-based writer and the founder of BASHY Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter.