Saltfish, Pleasure and the Politics of Eating

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Hearing Ishawna’s “Equal Rights” for the first time months ago was so very satisfying. I’ve written about Ishawna before and I am a fan, so when I first heard this song, I hollered out one stink jamette cackle. It is the kind of song you nearly don’t know you need until it happens: actively demanding pleasing, riding and owning a “mainstream” dancehall beat and Ishawna coyly demanding “show mi what yu tongue can do.” The song is also gratifying because we haven’t heard female pleasure articulated in that way before while we were so busy being inundated for years with men’s opinions of why it shouldn’t be done.

Lyrically, not all of the metaphors work to the same degree; I’m so here for the delicious physicality inside the verbs “suck” and “nyam”, but “chewing” on my pussy decidedly like French fries of all things — not so much. Still, nearly every line is unapologetic. The weaponising of the pussy and Ishwana’s reinscribing of the dancehall men’s lyrical and phallic gun (for one example, but there are others that approximate the cocky and specifically, penetrative sexual intercourse, with violent imagery) means that what is between her thighs is simultaneously like a cutlass: a tool frequently used throughout the region to enact horrible injuries upon bodies in both public and domestic spaces.

The spectacular horror of a cutlass attack wielded high, with every dull thud of the blade’s crack through flesh and bone is likened to the pussy’s grip and the pussy owner’s potential to extract what’s needed and demanded through its cutting hold. What does the investment in vaginal tightness mean for women and can women elect to do so: elevate their own pussy performance on their own terms for their own damn selves and satisfaction? I am reminded of Red Dragon’s classic chune and how I am further of the belief that the pussy pat is an affirmative and declarative statement when outside of and separate from a man directing you to do so.

Sections of Ishawna’s song’s hook and its title are obviously hyperbolic to some extent, but the estimation of “equal rights and justice” with getting your pum pum eaten, given the specific cultural context, does not happen in a vacuum.  There are reasons behind why women are squealing out hearing this song. Those people expressing indignation that “rights” and “justice” have anything to do with pussy eating were probably not lambasting performers and regional sound systems that have continuously made violent assertions of masculinity against the backdrop of not eating pussy.

Ishawna’s evocation of the pussy as cutlass, rooted in questionable sexual respectability concepts of vaginal tightness versus looseness, is not less problematic just because she said so, but it further complicates our examination of what good pum pum looks, feels and tastes like and where we, as women, get those ideas from. It would have been wonderful to hear yu gon’ eat whatever comes out of these panties and yu will enjoy it, but Ishawna is not about completely subverting the sexual expectations of cishet men; she still chooses to cater and she just reframes their expectations, so the pum pum is well shaved and she drinks her pineapple juice daily.

The other issue with one part of the song’s opening is it uses pum pum eating as a prop for a man to feel good about otherwise failed sexual performance, not because he genuinely loves and wants to go down, and his partner deserves all the orgasms; but the clincher is really the next line where Ishawna caustically observes that the man is “bright enough fi a look gyal fi shine you, but yu no wan’ taste.” The whole double standard is here laid bare and stripped to its center of nonsense.

I knew there would be answer-backs and I have avoided listening to all on principle except for part of one. Scrolling through some of anger and outrage from certain men under some of the YouTube uploads and their wasted energy on indignant responses are largely not needed because this song already exists. The conflation of emasculation with eating pum pum already takes place. It’s been taking place. People already live this and feel this way. Ishawna’s pissing you off only because she’s singing about refuting what already takes place.

Getting your pussy ate, alone by itself, will not suddenly improve the material conditions for those West Indian women who don’t have the luxury to deliberate over how they receive orgasms, if they receive any. West Indian women may navigate personal spaces where making or refusing sexual demands is lethal and women have already been getting killed for telling their lovers no. I am pro-pleasure, but I recognize that sex alone will not and cannot fix structural issues, and when particular sexual issues become interwoven with nationalistic identity, it’s even more difficult. It doesn’t mean it’s a song that didn’t need to be sung either.

Ishawna’s approximation of her pum pum to a cutlass does not impact the rates of sexual violence and femicide that women and girls suffer regionally. But given the extent to which the preservation of not “bowing” is already musically equated with violence and how comments from some men show that some feel it is justified, and given this specific cultural context: the song’s stance is powerful to some measure, inside that space. A man whose perception of his masculinity is threatened can be very, very dangerous. For some men, a suggestion of eating pussy does that.  The song has also given many people opportunities to talk about eating pussy openly on social media and contextualise their own narratives about sexual pleasure both personal and cultural.

Although what constitutes good sexual experiences are largely believed to be subjective, we should be able to recognize that there are narratives existing in many places specifically about pussy and what to do with it and the ways in which these narratives can inform our desires as well as other aspects of our lives. Dutifully bound to notions of respectability and cleanliness, beliefs of vaginas inherently in need of sanitation and refreshing allowed companies to make tremendous amounts of profits while endangering the health of black women by exposing them to known carcinogens. White supremacist imaginings of black women’s bodies spring from the racist ideologies about all black bodies and these have sometimes seeped into our own consciousness.

Elsewhere, I’ve noted how certain aspects of Jamaican masculinity get exported and become manifested throughout the Anglophone West Indian diaspora, a cultural terrain I frequently navigate. Again, this is never meant to malign Jamaican masculinity as singularly so (which it’s not), but it is a testament to the reach and sway of one of the region’s most influential pop cultural expressions. The ways in which Jamaican cultural identity then becomes yoked to not bowing is reiterated through dancehall lyrics and embodied through those men who identify with aspects of Jamaican masculinity regardless of their own cultural background. It’s so well-known that DJ Khaled announced he abides by it and not engaging in oral somehow became another definitive example of cultural identity to be emulated. But it’s also not true that no Jamaicans engage in oral sex. Clearly not true at all (plus, I know this from personal experience), so how does this become a prevailing narrative?

There are all kinds of people who don’t like oral either but regionally and globally, this thinking tends to get stereotypically connected to Jamaicans. My concern, as with the Beenie Man song, is the way eating pussy is tethered to constructs of masculinity, and all the terrible ways in which ideas of upholding masculinity inform toxic parts of cultural identity. Men in dancehall are allowed to vociferously demand oral sexual pleasure however they want it and men were okay with that, so who is Ishawna?

The region’s sexual attitudes are variegated still, and there are many West Indian men who have generally not had issues (as part their own cultural narrative) with eating pussy. There are men I know who tout that as an aspect of their cultural identity; there are those who don’t care for it, but there are many who do. Possibly, the most famous calypso extolling the pungent virtues of eating pussy is Mighty Sparrow’s “Saltfish,” followed closely by the wickedly good, problematic double entendre of “Congo Man.” Trust meh, yuh eh live ’til you have belted out, “I never eat ah white meat!” at the top of your lungs repeatedly with a horde of happy, tipsy and near-inebriated people: fun times. Even in Skinny Banton’s recent revisit with this theme, the lyrics speak to the extensive imagery of preparation, being devoured, of being eaten.

The literal consumption of women in soca songs, through risque references to food which directly indicate the vagina always contains hints at oral sex. When done well, the consensual, reciprocal and celebratory overtones are clapping back at competing notions of being stripped of one’s masculinity through going down, and women being unworthy of sexual enjoyment which centers them. Consider Winston Soso’s “I Don’t Mind,” and the woman assuring him that “all de meat is yours.” There isn’t anything convincing me that Soso, “a greedy man,” isn’t being fed from her loins in more ways than one. I mean, is it any wonder Soso chooses to accept her offer? Yes, more of that, please.

No one expects women to be picky about penis taste or smell; you’re just supposed to open up and deal with it, but whenever women on social media have flipped this script, men interject being salty and defensive. Vaginal taste is an issue for all kinds of men and women and those conversations, especially heterocentric ones, remain informed by gendered expectations that are often rooted in misinformation and unhealthy internalized beliefs (which is not to say that queer folks can’t carry on with some on the same). On that note, I defer to the Birdie on this matter; he’s right, you know: all saltfish sweet.

 

Photo credit: gangxpics via Tumblr. Used under a creative commons license.

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