1This 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.
2The 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.
3It 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, 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 what he saw as the correct focus of anthropology of sexuality.
4As we learn from the article on “imaginary and symbolic protection from AIDS”, his distance from the behaviouralist approaches that predominated in public health policy at the time does not preclude taking into account prevention practices; on the contrary, it helps us understand them. The notion of imaginary protection developed in the early 1990s, before the invention of antiretroviral drugs:
The majority of individuals know there is a need for risk management, are convinced of its importance, and do use preventive practices. However, they may proceed by re-appropriating prevention “instructions”, giving them meaning from a different perspective, though this does not mean they have changed their preventive purpose.
6This phenomenon accounts for variability in prevention practices by sexual partner characteristics (lifestyle, age and corpulence, among others) and the nature of the tie between partners, conjugal or otherwise. Imaginary protection may also involve exorcism practices that give the individual a sense of immunity, such as repeatedly being screened for HIV or having a condom on hand even though it is not used. This is therefore a way of adapting public authority health prescriptions; it does not call into question the prevention imperative but does take into account individuals’ contexts and demands. To call it ignorance or irrationality would be reductive. Imaginary protections show that public health rationality is simply one form of rationality among others: not always entirely accepted and open to reinterpretation.
7For Mendès-Leite it is the “sense of otherness” (p. 232) – a person’s way of relating to others and the criteria that enable him or her to reduce distances and trust others – that explains variations in risk management. While the anthropologist aims to describe and restore that type of rationality, his analysis also encompasses the tensions, dilemmas and contradictions within individuals. His conclusion is that otherness is not opposed to identity but seems instead to be its double. Imaginary protections, then, concern the difficulty of applying a moral rule, of giving priority to health over pleasure. They also attest to the coexistence of at least two value systems in each individual. At the level of interaction – in prevention practices and sexual encounters generally – a key focus of the work is the equivocal nature of the notion of “sexual relations” (p. 248) and “the ambivalence of the object of desire, the subject of desire” (p. 44). These notions are often central to Mendes-Leite’s analyses, which show that maintaining a stable identity requires compromises, resignation and in some cases, concealment.
8The analyses of gender relations also attest to original perspectives from which to critically examine existing research frameworks. These articles recall the importance of gender in access to sexuality and disease management. But they also examine “the tenacity of the bipolar logic” that distinguishes masculine from feminine and “moves the majority of individuals to adopt one or the other of these possible realities not only in their daily lives but also as their criteria for analysing otherness” (p. 180). This perspective enables Mendès-Leite to account for the gendering of social practices as well as the limits imposed by the gender framework. He advocates “inconstancy” or “roaming between sexes and genders” (p. 163), citing classic examples of a third sex in other cultures and cases of intersex. In his analysis of women’s experience of being HIV-positive he examines the effects of a public policy that primarily targets men, and the way the disease of AIDS calls social representations of femininity into question. In their attitude towards their bodies, sexuality and conjugality, HIV-positive women can no longer respond to the expectations so often elicited by their sex. This does not lead them to call into question femininity norms, however.
9The survey of places where men look for sexual partners, assumed at the time to be spaces that increase the spread of AIDS, leads Mendès-Leite to hypothesize that there has been “a domestication of anonymous male sexuality” (p. 110). Above and beyond the diversity of sexual practices and fantasies that these places elicit, the emergence of commercial spaces is analysed as part of a process of privatizing sexuality and institutionalizing male homosexuality – a practice very different from what is usually understood as sexual liberation. Independently of how the AIDS epidemic has developed and the social organization of male “homosexualities”, Mendès-Leite’s use of the concepts of otherness, the imaginary, and equivocation suggests an original research framework whose resources have yet to be fully mined by sociologists of sexuality.