- Des mots, des pratiques et des risques. Études sur le genre, les sexualités et le sida by Rommel Mendes-Leite
This book is a tribute to the late Rommel Mendès-Leite (2016), an anthropologist specialized in sexuality and gender questions; it brings together his complete writings from 1990 to 2005. Some were written with other researchers likewise active in developing sociology of sexuality in France, among them Catherine Deschamps, Pierre-Olivier de Busscher and Bruno Proth. The texts discuss a wide variety of topics, including places for meeting sexual partners, bisexuality, HIV/AIDS, and gender and sexuality categorisations. Across the diversity of study sites and research questions, Mendès-Leite applies an approach characterized by three features, some of which are also important in the thinking of contemporaneous researchers.
The first is that in theoretical terms this is a constructivist approach emphasizing variations in practices and identities by time period and social group–as opposed to social naturalization of sexuality. Mendès-Leite's anthropological inquiry focuses on recurring figures and the long term, more or less independently of social context, which is why he can use a single conceptual framework to analyse situations in the two different countries of particular interest to him: France and his native Brazil. It is an approach that allows for comparing data on different spaces and periods–in connection with the bi-categorization of sexes, for example. The second important feature of Mendès-Leite's writings is the temporal context: he began his research during the AIDS epidemic, an opportunity to produce studies on sexuality, particularly on groups and spaces widely ignored by the social sciences until then, such as bisexuals and places for male sexual encounters. Meanwhile, AIDS is understood as an indicator of social usages of sexuality and how they have evolved, especially in connection with the body, gender and conjugality. Mendès-Leite's research thus partakes of the gradual recognition of male homosexuality that was an integral part of policy for managing the epidemic, as attested by several articles in this anthology, notably his analysis of narratives collected by Sida [AIDS] Info Service telephone counsellors and his thoughts on possible symbolic meanings of anal penetration. The new recognition of male homosexuality obviously did not compensate either for the discredit suffered by sexual minorities in general or the established ranking of what were considered legitimate research topics. The third characteristic is methodological. The approach in these texts is ethnographic and draws extensively on interviews, though there is some quantification and use of statistical data. Regardless of the methods used, this is a Verstehen approach, ever attentive to the various meanings a word may have, the ways individuals make sense of what they do, and the misunderstandings that field survey procedures may generate.
It is in this methodological preference not to study sexuality as a set of behaviours that much of the originality of Mendès-Leite's approach lies. Moreover, [End Page 725] he did not restrict himself to the three indicators most commonly used in social science research on sexuality: sexual attraction, practices, and identity. Together with others, he shows the discordances between the three and undertakes a critical examination of scientific and lay categorizations, the classification and quantification operations they allow, the populations they are meant to apprehend and those they render invisible. The text on bisexuality is exemplary in this regard. But he also insists on individuals' representations, the "imaginaries" in which they inscribe their practices. In this connection, his study of outdoor places where men seek sexual partners is concerned to restore "the imaginary that attaches to each specific place" (p. 118), the symbolic connotations of quays and forests, for example, the "fantasy-invested worlds" (p. 143) found in bars and sex clubs, which use them primarily for differentiation purposes. Mendès-Leite systematically takes these symbolic dimensions into account in his study of "sexual cultures", this being...