The Sex Thieves. The Anthropology of a Rumor

By Julien Bonhomme – University of Chicago Press, 2016

bonhommeWhile working in Africa, anthropologist Julien Bonhomme encountered an astonishing phenomenon: people being accused of stealing or shrinking the genitals of strangers on the simple occasion of a handshake on the street. As he soon discovered, these accusations can have dramatic outcomes: the “sex thieves” are often targeted by large crowds and publicly lynched. Moreover, such rumors are an extremely widespread practice, having affected almost half of the African continent since the 1970s. In this book, Bonhomme examines the story of the “penis snatcher,” asking larger questions about how to account for such a phenomenon—unique in its spatial and temporal scale—without falling prey to the cliché of Africa as an exotic other.

Bonhomme argues that the public belief in sex thieves cannot be considered a superstition or form of mass hysteria. Rather, he brings to light multiple factors that explain the rumor’s success and shows how the cultural dynamic can operate on a vast scale. Analyzing the rumor on both transnational and local levels, he demonstrates how it arises from the ambiguities and dangers of anonymity, and thus that it reveals an occult flipside to everyday social interaction. Altogether, this book provides both richly ethnographic and theoretical understandings of urban sociality and the dynamics of human communication in contemporary Africa and beyond.

Table of Contents
Front Matter
Editorial Note
Acknowledgments

Foreword: Sexually Bewitched
by Philippe Descola

Introduction: Beware the Sex Thieves!
Chapter One: Sex, Crisis, and Witchcraft
Chapter Two: Strangers in Town
Chapter Three: Shivers and Lynchings
Chapter Four: Witchcraft, New Style
Chapter Five: Danger: No Greeting
Chapter Six: The Foreigner
Chapter Seven: Front-Page News
Chapter Eight: “Everything is in Place”
Chapter Nine: To Believe or Not To Believe

Conclusion
Appendix
References
The Sex Thieves. The Anthropology of a Rumor, Chicago, HAU Books – University of Chicago Press, 192 pages
édition révisée et augmentée de Les Voleurs de sexe. Anthropologie d’une rumeur africaine (Seuil, 2009)
Traduction de Dominic Horsfall
Préface de Philippe Descola