On Sodomy

Even though I *should* know better (is this not the lament of now?), I have been reluctant to write about gender and sexuality, convinced that “the national” takes precedence. How does that happen? How do we convince ourselves that our most urgent questions should take a back seat while we wrestle with the “immediate” politics of the present? And, why is it that, quite often, it’s questions of gender and sexuality that are shunted to the side, as though they are not part of the national?

It is no secret that at moments of crises, nations are sutured (though not healed) by appeals to kinship values. The repeated incantation “we are all brothers and sisters” is chanted in what one of my languages calls uchawi (another language calls it the performative). We are encouraged to subordinate idiosyncratic passions to maintain the kinship-nation. Any acts or utterances that step outside prescribed lines are taken to demonstrate indifference toward the national cause. (I will confess, all this setting up is a delaying tactic.)

One of the most disturbing reports on the post-election violence claims that boys have been sodomized. It is often juxtaposed with the statement that women have been raped. Sodomy and rape can then be understood as similar acts of gendered violence. Simultaneously, sodomy, like rape, can be understood as an engendering act that both creates and reinforces gendered hierarchies: boys are lesser men, available for bodily humiliation.

Still treading warily: gender-based violence is violence no matter what form it takes. In no way should this reflection be read as an apologia for male rape.

What strikes me in thinking about this issue is how seldom the Kenyan press (mainstream and bloggers) and artists (musicians and writers) tackle the question of male homosexuality, of sodomy (and here, I must confess to a certain weariness with “good gay” people who “don’t do that”). I am especially concerned by the dearth of affirmative (“sodomy is good”) or neutral (“sodomy is okay”) reports, counter-narratives that would compete with and contextualize the current rapes.

Put otherwise: if the only accounts of sodomy we have come from prison and ethnic-based rapes, it becomes impossible to understand sodomy (a metonym for homosexuality) as benign, benevolent, pleasing, and pleasurable. It becomes impossible to campaign for homosexual rights when the acts associated with homosexuals are symbols of ethnic violence and national fragmentation.

Instead, as in the current situation, sodomy can only be understood within certain conceptual clusters. It is pedophilic, something men perform on boys. It depends on gendered notions of submission and violation. It violates the sanctity of the family—here, we cannot overlook the symbolic way incest is conjured. It breaks the contracts that bind communities.

Cumulatively, these narratives, whether spelled out or not, create a position for sodomy outside the national imagination. It defiles and violates the national.

To be clear, I am not conflating the rapes of boys and sodomy. Rather, I am interested in how such a conflation might happen (might be happening), and how sodomy might then come to occupy a degraded place in the national imagination. In those metonymic flights beloved by contemporary cultural politics, one who is for sodomy (as I am) might then be taken to sanction pedophilia, ethnic violence, and national fragmentation.

I would like to arrest this metonymic flight.

10 thoughts on “On Sodomy

  1. Intresting, what do you make of the incidents of forced circumcision in this maddens and it place in the gallery of crimes against humanity?

  2. fascinating. Hadn’t thought about it in this way…

    Discourse on sodomy in Kenya has always been to exclude the ‘westernized’ others who do not conform to African heterosexual norms. What is happening is no surprise then.

    What, however, does it say about those performing the act of sodomy on their victims? Are they too sick outsiders? What is the ethnic group to do with them? Congratulate them or exclude them (thinking of child soldiers who can’t come back home even a the end of the war in Uganda and Siera Leone)

    ethnic identity is produced and inscribed on bodies….

    forced circumcisions now come on the heels of Mungiki’s forced circumcision of Kikuyu women some years back. its all about power. The dominant performing their dominance on the bodies of the demasculated.

    The Kikuyu mainstream has for a while tried to distance itself from Mungiki. What will happen now?

    You bring up an absolutely fascinating topic!!!

  3. On forced circumcision: there’s a long and necessary essay/blog post to be written on the place of masculinity in these elections. I had written a pre-election piece, but it desperately needs updating in terms of post-election violence. While much of the coverage has focused on ethnicity and class, we also need to consider the different kinds of masculinity deployed, encouraged, and contested. To be sure, there’s also quite a bit to be written about forced circumcision and castration (cultural, if not physical), but that’s a much longer topic.

    Mwananchi, I’m hesitant to agree with your “always” regarding sodomy being westernized. The work of someone like Deb Amory indicates there are more complex genealogies for sodomy other than an African/western binary, say, for instance, an African/Arab route. I honestly do believe we need to look more closely at colonial and post-colonial prisons to understand the place of sodomy in the national imagination. This is not to deny the western/African binary, only to say that this Fanonian derivation can often obscure other, messier ways of considering the issue.

    As for the ones performing the sodomy, that’s a good question. I guess we might argue that in a “time of war,” certain sexual acts tend to considered in light of their war-time meaning (as acts of dominance, say) than in terms of their “regular” meaning. To be clear, I do think this explanation is somewhat of a cop-out, but it can serve as a place-holder for now. I am not as concerned with the individual bodies concerned, victim and victimizer, as much as I am concerned with the production of sodomy as a particular kind of discourse with particular, negative connotations.

  4. This long drawn out composition is not neccessary. Do not feel the need to apologise or tip toe around the topic of sodomy.

    Any sexual act between two consenting adults is fine by me and is not upto us to judge them.
    When it involves an individual enforcing themselves on a weaker person be they a minor or of consenting age then that is morally and socially unacceptable.

    It’s quite simple as far as i’m concerned: “sodomy” if that’s the term people choose to use, if performed on minor is a peadophillic act be they female or male. So to try and reason this out or try to understand it is in itself trying to look for an out, an excuse as to why an otherwise “normal” human being would perform such an act just because they are angry or whatever reasoning they have worked themselves into mentally

    What wrong has a minor done to justify this? Mob mentality is the core excuse that is used as to why people do what the wouldn’t normally do. Then choose to justify it – “they asked for it”, “they did not conform”,” i was angry”.

    Actually i digress – rape is rape. If the act of “sodomy” is not perpetrated by two consenting adults then its wrong morally or otherwise.

    Any act of sexuall violence is not in it self about sexual gratification but also about dominance, control. What is the quickest way to guarantee to break someones will?

    Maybe i’m beginning to sound pedantic but so be it.

  5. Candybox, thanks for dropping by.

    My aim here is to point out that the paucity of positive discussions on sodomy within general discussions in Kenya means that this particular instance stands in for, or colors, all subsequent discussions. It is part of a larger, ongoing project on this blog (in the “queer” section) where I try to think through historical and conceptual models of African homosexuality.

    You are right that rape is rape. But, I would add that we also have very positive descriptions of heterosexual intimacy, from the bible to popular culture, which means that we can recognize the violence of rape without claiming (as some feminists once did) that all heterosexual sex is rape.

    In contrast, we do not have the same buffer within African discussions of homosexuality. It is this that concerns me. I am more interested in the ongoing cultural effects and meanings that circulate/will circulate about sodomy, in part due to an absence of positive or neutral discussions.

    I would also add, as my archives indicate, that I do not believe sexual acts are inherently private–let people do what they want–but are subject to state sanction and approbation and, more generally, to community approval or disapproval. Why else would Kenya’s parliament have been so worried that changes to sex laws (2 year ago) might allow gay marriage? But this is a whole other topic for another time.

  6. “I am not as concerned with the individual bodies concerned, victim and victimizer, as much as I am concerned with the production of sodomy as a particular kind of discourse with particular, negative connotations.”
    What about the concept of disgust? What about the ideas about the body,boundaries, health? House arrangements? Body aesthetics? Hierarchies? If we talk of metonymy, what of mis/translations? Irony? your thoughts?

  7. I think it also doesn’t help that the word ‘sodomy’ referred to a crime up until the other day. Does not the word therefore still connotes something that is done to you as opposed to something that you are indulging in? While some people who will remain nameless for now think it’s sexy to tell their manfriend “baby, let’s go fornicate” the origins of the word ex-sexify the term for most people (like this one time in a bar in Texas…um… forget it)

  8. mutumia, do tell me about the bar in Texas . . . really do

    Mwananchi: thanks for the link. I hadn’t read that post before I wrote this, but it tallies with other work I’ve read on election violence and sexuality in Kenya.

    Mothufare, I owe you a response. When my brain resumes work. It’s occupied elsewhere for the next few weeks.

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