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In everyday conversations, popular culture, and Facebook behaviour, promiscuity in T&T is a familiar topic. In certain contexts, like Carnival concerts and fetes like Unfaithful—where patrons get bands for “married,” “horning” and “single,” it is celebrated. An anthropologist listening to such talk might suggest that in Trinbagonian society a horn is a cultural variation on the traditional monogamous couple most familiar to Western society.
Historically such promiscuity was thought to be a male phenomenon. Social scientists studying T&T in the 60s and 70s wrote books describing men as having “deputies” and outside women. And that Caribbean societies were structured by the concept of “reputation and respectability.” This binary reinforced the lopsided view that women are the ones with the responsibility to be monogamous. Men, of course, must have deputies to enhance their reputation.
Such representations have been shown to be false. Trinbagonian women exercise autonomy and control their sexuality too. Members of both genders horn their partners. And despite a general societal emphasis on what Peter Wilson called “respectability,” women’s sexuality is neither passive nor limited to monogamy.
With this historical and cultural background, we probably all know a horn when we see or hear about it. That said, Lise Winer’s dictionary of the English/Creole of T&T provides a definition: to horn is to cuckold; commit adultery; have a relationship outside of an official one.
Such a definition suggests that horning is not equivalent to flirting. Perhaps they are on the same continuum but not like for like. Interestingly, there is quite a bit of academic literature on flirting. Social scientists describe flirting as complex and symbolic communication.
Flirting is the communication of a space of possibility. It is to suggest, playfully, in both non-verbal and verbal ways, that a space of possible commitment exists. Yet this space of possible commitment will more than likely never happen because the essence of flirtation lies in the possibility, not the commitment to action.
Obviously to suggest monogamy is the only or even the most traditional form of relationship flies in the face of evidence from cultures all over the world, including our own. Monogamy is one relationship style among many. And monogamy has come to be understood currently as the most popular, and “normal.”
So is horning a little more diverse, and varied than Winer’s dictionary definition? Perhaps for some a horn works as a safety valve to relieve pressure in a relationship, and for others it’s just plain old cheating while there are other positions in between and beyond those too.
The anthropologist Daniel Miller points out in Tales from Facebook, his book on Trinis and how they use Facebook, that to notice horning is part of local culture is not to make a judgement about anything. Rather it is to acknowledge that such behaviour has been identified locally over a long period of time. “It is a constant aspect of people’s lives and expectations for generations,” as Miller puts it.
This is something that has come up in other research too. Cultural behaviours are learned behaviours. They are enculturated, meaning children learn them from their elders. So in interviews about “what is horning?” respondents sometimes mention that they knew what horning meant even before they were old enough to have proper boyfriends or girlfriends.
When asked how they knew that, respondents said they learnt it at home, or from their fathers. “We understand a horn from little. It will happen to all of us.” It was a small sample—nothing conclusive—but it does suggest that horning as an idea and behaviour is something circulating culturally.
On Facebook, when information is posted and tagged, vague fears and scenarios about horning can float into the minds of people in relationships. One side effect of this might be an increase in the numbers of partners who stalk their other half’s Facebook pages, friends or relationship status changes.
Interestingly, the word “friend,” so common to both Facebook and horning culture, poses considerable semantic ambiguity here, providing evidence of how technology and local culture can overlap in novel, unintended ways. According to Miller, in this new technological era, a cultural phenomenon that used to be kept on the outside of one’s periphery, in the faint, distant parts of one’s consciousness, is no longer kept so far away. In the era of Facebook it could be said the fear of being horned now feels much closer.
• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine