The Sexual History of the Global South:
Sexual Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America

Saskia Wieringa and Horacio Sivori (eds.)

Book Review

From its earliest days, Zed published several path-breaking books – mainly by women from the country or region in question – on women’s roles in national liberation struggles and resistance to oppression. It now has a lively list of publications that link gender and sexuality studies with an international slant on issues such as body politics, the care economy, harmful cultural practices, forced marriage, masculinities, migration, pornography, reproductive and sexual health and rights, the sex industry, trafficking, and war. Moreover, Zed has consistently tracked contemporary developments in women’s and other social movements, feminisms, and understandings of patriarchy.

Unsurprisingly, many of these books have been reviewed in Gender & Development. This edited volume is based on ‘the History of the Sexualities in the South’ (p. vii) research project conducted under the aegis of the South–South Exchange Programme for Research on the History of Development (Sephis). With funding from the Ford Foundation, the programme ran from 2008 to 2010 and included ‘grantee’ training workshops in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, and Indonesia. One of its aims was to ‘train a relatively small group of sexuality researchers from different countries of the global South’ and to promote ‘an international community’ among them (p. viii).

The book opens with a sometimes laboured editorial overview, followed by 12 chapters, each focused on a specific topic in a specific country. These range from the historical – such as ‘The Rise of Sex and Sexuality Studies in Post-1978 China’ by Huang Yingying and ‘Government and the Control of Venereal Disease in Colonial Tanzania, 1920–60’ by Musa Sadock –– to more contemporary issues such as ‘Canons of Desire: Male Homosexuality in Twenty-first-century Keralam’ by Rajeev Kumaramkandath and ‘Sexual Pleasure and the Premarital Sexual Adventures of Young Women in Zimbabwe; by Tsitsi B. Masawure. Other chapters explore ‘gender and sexuality in a women’s prison in Brazil (Fabíola Cordeiro), ‘gay and lesbian activism in Argentina; (Diego Sempol) and ‘the “lesbian” existence in Arab cultures; (Iman Al-Ghafari). Some chapters are more fluid than others, but most suffer from an overdose of academic jargon and assiduous referencing  – underlining the importance, if research is to be accessible to a wider audience, of ‘translating’ it into more reader-friendly language.

Some chapters end somewhat abruptly, which suggested they were extracted from more extensive research. This is borne out by the listing of completed research on the Sephis website, although unfortunately there is no link to the full research papers.

A common theme is that most non-reproductive female sexuality and all ‘deviant’ gender identities are the subject of social controls and sanctions – whether by legislation, by castigating such behaviours as pathological or immoral or by ostracising sexual ‘dissidents’, and often all three. As Wieringa and Sívori point out: ‘The medical and psychiatric establishment has held primacy in the definition and control of sexual desires across the globe’ (p. 8). Denial not merely of their right to exist but even of their actual existence is another well-rehearsed means to force ‘unacceptable’ groups of people and sexual practices underground – for instance by asserting that homoeroticism began with colonialism. In ‘Sexuality and Nationalist Ideologies in Post-colonical Cameroon’, Basile Ndjio summarises this attitude: ‘Homosexuality is simultaneously represented as an un-African phenomenon, a disease of evil brought to Africa by whites, the most dangerous vestige of Western colonialism, and the most insidious form of neocolonialism’ (p. 122).  Homoeroticism and same-sex relations are ‘demonized’, and ‘institutionalized’ homophobia, multiple violations of the rights of African men and women branded as gays or lesbians, the rhetoric of monstrosity strips them of their bare humanity; (p. 135). In his ‘critical ethnography of cruising sites; (p. 206) for men looking for same-sex encounters, Rajeev Kumaramkandath finds that acquiring the ‘dominant symbol of manhood’ by ‘heading one’s own family’ is ‘a primary condition for one’s homoerotic inclinations to remain unnoticed’ (p. 215). The appearance of conforming to social conventions thus serves to conceal unconventional or illicit desires.

Several chapters reveal different attitudes towards male and female same-sex relations, and in both cases between active and passive roles, usually (but not always) related to the bodily act of penetrating or being penetrated. The chapter by Abel Sierra Madero, ‘Sexing the Nation’s Body During the Cuban Republican Era’, gives an account of how dandyish or effeminate men and also women who flouted ‘feminine’ norms – regardless of whether these people were engaged in any same-sex activity – were seen to threaten ‘the moral integrity of the nation’ (p. 65). As the embodiment of ‘a threat to national masculinity and sovereignty’, effeminate men represented ‘the defeat of national virility against North American values’ (p. 80). In challenging the ‘natural’ order of subordination to men, lesbians and women with ‘deviant masculine features’ (p. 71) – both popularly equated with feminists – endangered healthy reproduction. This is one reason why, rather than encouraging honest discussion on gender and sexuality, Cuban feminism distanced itself from any form of female homoeroticism.

Iman Al-Ghafari’s exploration of ‘a lesbian identity’ in Arab cultures finds that gender ‘appears an act or unstable role that can be performed by either males or females’, but that although ‘the homosocial context provided plasticity for homosexual practices’, for women this was only ‘a temporary form of pleasure’ before becoming ‘heterosexually gratified wives’, with no ‘freedom to identify the self as being lesbian’ (p. 164).

A frequent ideological trope is that of the sexual ‘dissident’ as predator – in one women’s prison in Brazil, masculine women or sapatões and their girlfriends were particularly feared as ‘the deviants among deviants’ (p. 228), although the former were ‘defined as irredeemable criminals, figures of domination, perversity, and violence …Much more than lesbianas and other women who had sex with sapatões, they were identified as animals [original emphasis] those that “not even the family wants”’ (pp. 228–9). In part to ward off such predators, many prisoners enter into a ritualised search for a ‘legitimate spouse’, whose visiting (and sexual) rights would enable them ‘to distinguish themselves from innate criminals’ (p. 239). In another exploration of heterosexual relations, the students interviewed by Tsitsi B. Masawure discussed their energetic pursuit of sexual pleasure, often with numerous male sexual partners and ‘kissing friends’, serially or simultaneously, while knowing that this was possible only within the ‘liminal space’ (p. 253) of university.

Looking at the volume as a whole, I was struck that the original research programme on sexualities in the South had become The Sexual History of the Global South. First, because it implies that there is one sexual history of the two-thirds world, which the co-editors are at pains to argue is not so. And second, because it suggests an encyclopaedic coverage that goes far beyond what a handful of case studies could possibly achieve. Indeed, the co-editors admit that the ‘list of subjects and issues is somewhat arbitrary’, explaining that the book is ‘the result of an academic training venture, which largely reflects the current conditions of a field’ (p. 3). Since edited volumes are seldom read cover to cover, let alone in one sitting, readers are likely to pick and choose among a disparate collection on the basis of their existing interests.

In his review of the major flagship publications on development, Adebayo Olukoshi  noted that the North produces the theories and writes the narrative, confining ‘the voice of the South’ to textboxes. Moreover, Southern intellectuals are pigeonholed into commenting on their country or region – their critique of the Northern development project gets no hearing. Wieringa and Sívori underscore this insight: ‘in a global division of knowledge, countries in the South are considered the realm of “culture”, whereas analysis, interpretation, and debate take place in a separate public sphere, to which Southern intellectuals can claim access only by means of a Northern education, and where they will remain marked as representatives of that foreign culture’; and that they ‘find themselves back in the footnotes, providing the empirical material upon which Northern academics build their theories’ (p. 6).

It is somewhat ironic, then, that the original research programme is described as aiming to support ‘scholars from the global South trained in their own countries’ to produce ‘micro-geographies’ as building blocks of ‘a global perspective … that is neither reflective of hegemonic Western concerns nor dispersed into unconnected fragments’ (p. 3). The co-editors highlight the lack of consensus on critical conceptual and political issues, for instance on whether to use local terms or to broaden existing definitions of terms relating to ‘same-sex desires in global South locations’ (p. 6). Given the intention to facilitate ‘cross-cultural and trans-disciplinary conversations’ (p. viii), it is a shame the volume did not capture these conversations, perhaps in the form of commentaries on each other’s work or a joint reflection by the contributors on where they would now place themselves within the ‘international community’ of researchers on sexualities and sexual politics in the global South – and for that matter worldwide.

Without the authors’reflexivity on their own agency, the chapters remain ‘unconnected fragments’ in a whole that, with an extra dash of editorial imagination, could have been far more than the sum of its parts.

Review ©2013 Deborah Eade, Writer and Editor, France

The Sexual History of the Global South: Sexual Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America is published by Zed Books

Review originally published in Gender & Development 21.3 (2013)