Research

My research focuses on sexuality, gender, and kinship as central domains for understanding belonging, citizenship, and political economy in the postcolonial world. I depart from the premise that intimate domains of life tell important stories about global, national, and regional economic and political orders and have the capacity to reveal what is new about the historical present. Building on this premise, my research enterprise focuses on how postcolonial subjects pursue belonging and citizenship and on the role that sexuality plays in envisioning, negotiating, and actualizing such attachments. What can contemporary struggles over sex and gender tell us about today’s world at large? What do intimacies in Africa reveal about emergent forms of sovereignty, economic value, and political subjectivity in the Global South and in the Euro-American world? How do race, ethnicity, and cultural difference inform sexuality politics and the production of erotic capital? And how can anthropologists use ethnography to understand these emerging phenomena, while also critiquing their modes of sexual, racial, and ethnic oppression? My first book, Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya  (University of Chicago Press, 2017), explores these questions by theorizing the links between sexuality, ethnicity, the commodity, and autochthonous forms of social attachment. It examines how the tourist commodification of ethnic sexuality has shaped belonging and relatedness in Samburu, northern Kenya, and demonstrates how Samburu relations of kinship, age, and gender have shaped markets of ethnicity and sexuality. I am currently working on a second book, entitled Rescuing Sex: Intimacy and the Moral Rehabilitation of Citizenship in Kenya, that addresses the relation between sexuality, citizenship, the state, and competing forms of neoliberal sovereignty. Additional article-length publications explore ethnicity, belonging, and citizenship through the lens of age, generation, ritual, ethnic violence, embodiment, and materiality.

Ethno-Erotic Economies examines how a people long venerated and vilified for their ethnic and sexual difference use that very same difference to produce livelihoods and craft futures. Since the 1980s, young men from Samburu, northern Kenya, migrated seasonally to beach resorts at the Indian Ocean to sell souvenirs and perform traditional dances for tourists. They capitalized on an older, colonial image of the “tribal warrior” or moran, as a young man whose tall, slim, body spoke of an exotic sexuality and whose spear, club, and lion-hunt stories rehearsed fantasies of a heroic masculinity. This image became iconic of Maa-speaking “pastoralists” such as Maasai and Samburu and also branded East Africa as a tourist destination. Numerous Euro-American women on vacation in Kenya engaged in intimate relationships with such “warriors.” Young Samburu men soon found a path to rapid wealth through transactional sex with foreign women. My book asks: How does the commodification ethnic sexuality shape modes of belonging in Samburu? How do subjects come to embody ethnic and sexual Otherness? And what is the role of commodification in the regeneration or erasure of markers of sexual alterity? I argue that the commodification of ethnic sexuality opened new possibilities for imagining belonging, while also generating novel forms of exclusion and inequality. I offer the framework of “ethno-erotic economies” to speak of wide circuits of desire and monetary exchange premised on the commodification of ethnic sexuality. These economies are based on a dialectical relationship between practices of ethnic and sexual commodification and the ways in which Samburu imagine belonging through relations of descent, age set, ritual and more. Ethno-erotic Economies also introduces new concepts—such as “slippery intimacies,” “queer moments,” and the “ritual rush”—to describe some of the contradictory outcomes of this dialectic in the social life of Samburu. These concepts demonstrate how conflicting temporalities of social action transform the dynamics of belonging or how the logics of the commodity form infuse and are complicated by intimacy and kinship. Showing how the effects of ethno-erotic commodification permeate livelihoods in Samburu, Ethno-Erotic Economies makes ethnicity and sexuality central to understanding economic production, social reproduction, and political belonging in the postcolonial world.

My second book, Rescuing Sex, expands my interests in sexuality and gender to account for emerging forms of citizenship. A new idiom has animated, in recent years, struggles over sex and citizenship in Kenya. Kenyans’ quests for respectability, social value, and national belonging have involved salient incitements to moral rescue—calls to save intimacy from the corrupting forces of contemporary life and to secure it as a condition of collective vitality and prosperity. Political and religious leaders, the media, development workers, civil society groups, and ordinary citizens have depicted—if in different ways—non-normative sexual intimacies of various kinds as patently responsible for social and economic decay. In response, myriad drives emerged to rescue sociality from the perils of contemporary sex. They include reformist programs launched by churches and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and targeting, in disproportionate ways, HIV-positive women, unemployed young men, children, sex workers, gays and lesbians, refugees, and marginal ethnic populations. They also include public protests against homosexuality, abortion, and sex education and everyday violence by police and urban crowds against queers, sex workers, and “scantily dressed” women. Throughout, a certain nationalist nostalgia for a moral status quo, for a “return” to middle-class respectability and “African” values has legitimized a certain urgency for rescue. Rescuing Sex explores these historical and cultural developments to address broader questions about sexuality and citizenship. Why does sexuality become such a central criterion of citizenship? Why does it become so important in defining lines of inclusion and exclusion in the present? How do various social actors imagine the role of sexuality in relation to citizenship? How do NGO workers, church leaders, and paramilitary forces—that are all increasingly called upon to rescue, protect, and discipline citizens—negotiate sexual respectability through everyday encounters with rural ethnic families, sex workers, gays, lesbians, and others? And how do subjects and populations that national public discourses deem morally peripheral imagine livelihoods through and around dominant discourses of sexuality? What is the role of sexual scandals in the reproduction of state power and the generation of particular kinds of citizens? And how do sexually peripheral subjects and populations affect and transform dominant notions of citizenship?