"Bisexuality" and the Politics of Normal in African Ethnography

By Epprecht, Marc | Anthropologica, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

"Bisexuality" and the Politics of Normal in African Ethnography


Epprecht, Marc, Anthropologica


Abstract: The purpose of this article is to explore the contemporary implications of the dismissal of "bisexuality" in the ethnography of sub-Saharan Africa. It problematizes the ways in which same-sex sexuality was represented in African ethnography, showing how colonial-era anthropologists tended to suppress, minimize or exoticize evidence of such practices in conformity with colonial ideologies, practices and prevailing debates around gender and sexuality in Europe and America. In the light of critiques launched by feminist, postcolonial and queer theorists against such anthropological representations, this paper demonstrates that the continual denial of "bisexuality" in Africa in the colonial era has become unsustainable.

Keywords: bisexuality, colonialism, Africa, queer theory

Résumé: Le but de cet article est d'explorer les conséquences contemporaines du rejet de la «bisexualité» dans les oeuvres ethnographiques d'Afrique sub-saharienne. Il pose le problème de la façon dont la sexualité entre personnes de même sexe a été représentée dans l'ethnographie africaine, démontrant la tendance des anthropologues de l'ère coloniale à supprimer, minimiser ou tropicaliser les évidences de telles pratiques en conformité avec les idéologies, les pratiques et les principaux débats de l'époque coloniale sur les différences entre les sexes et la sexualité en Europe et en Amérique. Étant donné les critiques émanant des théories féministes, post-coloniales et allosexuelles contre ces représentations anthropologiques, le présent article démontre que le rejet continuel de l'existence de la bisexualité en Afrique durant la période coloniale est devenu une position intenable.

Mots-Clés: bisexualité, colonialisme, Afrique, théorie allo-sexuelle

Anthropologists have played a central role in documenting the diversity of human sexuality as it is understood and expressed in different cultures around the world. Scholars in many other disciplines, including my own of history, are often heavily dependent upon their research. However, as Lyons and Lyons (2004) among others have persuasively demonstrated, anthropologists at times "conscripted" select evidence and even fabricated "facts" about the people they studied in order to advance ideals and preferences around sexuality in their own societies. By conjuring idealized or exoticized Others, they helped to create an understanding of "normal" and "modern" by way of contrast. This has resulted in a body of purportedly empirical or scientific data that in retrospect we can see as deeply flawed, morally normative, and sometimes actually complicit in the construction and maintenance of racist colonialist structures. Indeed, to one African critic, the ethnography of African cultures generated by European and American scholars from the 1920s to the 1950s was so "useless" in empirical terms that it is only useful today to the extent that it sheds light on how those colonial structures could function (Owusu 1978).1

Owusu was much too harsh in such a sweeping judgment. In at least one specific area, however, the critique is warranted to a significant degree. This is the commonplace assumption or assertion as an unqualified fact that Africans south of the Sahara either did not practice samesex sexuality in their traditional societies, or that they only did so so rarely that it was inconsequential. From the vast generalizations of late 18th- and 19th-century travellers, to colonial-era codifications of custom, to modern studies of sexually transmitted diseases, sexuality, prisons and masculinities, social science research has tended to portray Africans as virtually unique in the world in this respect. Same-sex issues meanwhile remain largely invisible in much of the resources available to HIV/AIDS educators in Africa, including what are otherwise frank discussions about sexual health and sexual cultures. The non-existence or irrelevance of homosexual transmission among black Africans is apparently such a given that it typically does not even warrant a footnote or a web-link in this material.

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