Date of Degree

2-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Anthropology

Advisor

Dana-Ain Davis

Committee Members

Don Robotham

Ismael Garcia-Colon

Juliet Hooker

Subject Categories

Africana Studies | Central American Studies | Latin American History | Latina/o Studies | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Women's History | Women's Studies

Keywords

Sexual Panic, Reproductive Justice, Respectability, Sexuality, Anti-blackness, Black Feminist Anthropology

Abstract

Most never-married young “Creole” (Afro-Caribbean) women in Bluefields, Nicaragua are raised in fundamentalist Protestant families and institutions that emphasize sexual abstinence before marriage. In this context, abstinence is required to maintain social standing and “respectability.” Nevertheless, women in Bluefields, the administrative center of Caribbean Nicaragua, exhibit what Creoles themselves understand to be high rates of sexuality and pregnancy among post-menarche unmarried teenaged women (USAID, 2012; Mitchell et al. 2015). Such young women’s pregnancies occur at an important developmental stage of their lives and have long been associated by social scientists with adverse social, emotional, and health situations. These scholars have widely debated the cause of “elevated” rates of teenage pregnancy, related issues of family structure, and reproductive practices among Afro-descendant peoples when compared with Whites in developed nations. One scholarly approach depends on cultural deficit models that attribute “poor” socialization, lack of impulse control, and lack of sexual regulation to Black families to explain phenomena such as the late-age marriages and high birth rates of single women in the Caribbean and the United States. Other scholars have pointed to structural inequities caused by the historical impact of anti-Black racism and impoverishment. However, these explanations do not account for how quotidian cultural processes interact with material, racial, and gendered structural inequalities to inhibit reproductive justice for young Creole women.

Applying a Black feminist analytical and methodological framework and drawing on theory in sexuality studies, this dissertation brings the contradictions of a “politics of respectability” to the forefront by adding a cultural dimension to explanations centered on structural inequity. This project contends that, paradoxically, a colonial missionary Protestant-based “politics of respectability,” mobilized by some Black communities as a defense against prevailing discourses of racial inferiority, chief of which is the continuing dominant discourse of Black female hypersexuality, creates a “sexual panic” around young Creole women’s sexuality. This panic creates a familial and institutionally based disciplinary regime that inhibits young women’s access to reproductive justice, as well as producing in many young women individual counter-practices seeking to control their own desires and sexuality, resulting in observed high levels of teenage sexual activity and “out-of-wedlock” pregnancy.

The dissertation expands the "site" for the theorization of respectability politics and challenges, from a Black feminist perspective, ideas about Black families and Black women, as it applies sexuality studies to forge new ways of thinking about gendered aspects of anti-Blackness, slavery, and its afterlife in Caribbean Latin America.

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