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Home and Habitus in Latin America
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000) 125-128

Book Review

Lila's House: Male Prostitution in Latin America Jacobo Schifter Translated by Irene Artavia Fernández and Sharon Mulheren New York: Haworth, 1998. xi + 132 pp. $39.95 cloth, $12.95 paper

Mema's House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos Annick Prieur Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xvi + 294 pp. $50.00 cloth, $16.95 paper

We have here two intimate studies of homes and habitus, in one a house of male prostitution in San José, Costa Rica, and in the other a house of male refuge and pleasure in a sprawling community on the edge of Mexico City. Both studies illustrate well the need for finely detailed explorations and analysis of same-sex sex among men in Latin America. When they stick to closely observed events, emotions, and practices, both volumes provide splendid new documentation and insights into long-standing issues related to active and passive, homophobia and homosociality, and the relation of femininity to masculine identities. It is when studies of this kind dip into overgeneralized claims based on little more than speculation that they tend to reinvent hackneyed truisms. Happily, the books under review contribute to more than they detract from a multifaceted appreciation of the complex political economies of sexuality and desire among men in Latin America.

In Lila's House, the more nuanced book, Jacobo Schifter provides a gripping survey of the material motives and fantastic realities of a group of twenty-five young men aged thirteen to twenty-seven who work in a male brothel in the Costa Rican capital. (Despite the capacious subtitle of the book, Schifter's study is characteristically narrow and thorough; it never gives in to vacuous peroration pretending to represent hundreds of millions of men.) Rarely overstepping the evidence presented, Schifter makes a fine contribution to the emerging literature on same-sex sex among men in the region. Empathic but never fawning, this volume is also academically challenging and shows the author's deep commitment to the practical public health implications for the young male prostitutes (for instance, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, mental health, and addictions).

Schifter quickly distinguishes his findings from idealized paradigms that have persisted in the social sciences and in the popular imagination. For example, he finds little uniformity among the motives, behaviors, and backgrounds of the young sex workers who work out of the house owned by a social misfit named Lila, who himself worked for fifteen years as a male prostitute. Although most of the youths are from the lower middle class, and although many come from homes that their fathers have abandoned, this does not explain why only a small percentage of young men in Costa Rica wind up selling their bodies to other men.

The male prostitutes are known as cacheros, a word that Schifter glosses as referring to men who are bisexual in terms of their actual practices but heterosexual in terms of their fantasies, their preferences, and other aspects of their lifestyles. Most of the men have wives or girlfriends, and most over fifteen have at least one child. One young man describes himself as "one hundred percent pro-vagina" (53). The clients seek younger men, some as young as ten. Some clients are bisexual themselves, with wives and children; are completely in the closet; and are attracted especially to the youth of the prostitutes. Others, considered homosexual by the cacheros and the author, are attracted to the manifest masculinity of the young men.

Early in the study Schifter poses certain key questions: What is the sexual discourse of men who are attracted to women but sell themselves to other men? Are there contradictions between discourse and sexual practices, and what might all this have to do with emerging sexual cultures in Lila's house? Earning money to buy drugs and other material goods is a primary motive for the young men there, and Schifter notes that they have virtually no contact with the broader gay community in San José. Despite earnest attempts to fantasize about women while servicing their clients, however, several of them eventually confess their greater enjoyment of...

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