Ethiopia: Researching Sexuality in Ethiopia - Reflections On My Experience Journeying Through a Complex Field

15 March 2021

Researching sexuality has often encountered challenges concerning its legitimacy everywhere and more so in Africa. The situation in Ethiopia seems to be relatively more daunting compared to other African countries. Whereas in some countries there is a tradition of strong (feminist) scholarship and movements that focus on issues of class, human rights, body and the self, reproduction, sex work and sexuality, discrimination, oppression and stereotyping, in Ethiopia this kind of scholarship is in its infancy. So far, we have never had a course or programme on gender and sexuality at Addis Ababa University (AAU) where I am based. Throughout my academic career (since the 1990s), I have been affiliated with the department of Sociology and Anthropology at AAU. Obviously, the main subject matter of sociology/anthropology is the study of culture, and sexuality research could have been one of the foci. However, there weren't any health related courses let alone courses on sexuality up until recently at the nation's pioneer, prestigious and largest university. There is also no undergraduate gender studies programme and no comprehensive course on sexuality offered within the existing postgraduate level programme. Ethiopia's remarkable position may be the result of its particular political history and powerful indigenous religions.

In the context of the above constraining environment for sexuality research, teaching and training, I have been engaged in researching and publishing on sexuality and HIV/AIDS since the 1990s. I have done ground-breaking research on young men, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, men who have sex with men, sexual abuse against girls and boys, and other sexual and reproductive health topics. Such topics pose not only difficulty in accessing informants but also raise wider issues regarding the ethics and politics of research, and collecting, analysing and publishing the data without jeopardizing the wellbeing of informants and the researcher. So far, I have authored and co-authored a number of books, articles and book chapters on sexuality, reproductive health issues and HIV and AIDS. Some of these studies were considered by the public, the media and the academic environment as too intimate, incriminating, or 'discrediting' to the researcher and the researched. Nevertheless, inspired by colleagues across the African continent I have managed to create a niche and get on with my work.

The challenges of reaching men who have sex with men (MSM)[1]

Efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS among those who do not embrace social identities such as 'gay', which is peculiar to specific parts of the world, motivated scholars and activists to come up with another label known as 'men who have sex with men' (MSM). This phrase is intended to include men who have sex with men, but who do not regard themselves as 'homosexual' or 'bisexual' or any other categories. They can be married, particularly in cultures wherein marriage is strongly promoted by society, and thus they might insist on or find it convenient to consider themselves as heterosexuals, or understand themselves as mainly husband and/or father, as their sexual identity is not a prime indicator of their social identity.

As is the case in other African countries, homosexuality is strongly condemned in Ethiopia. It is virtually impossible to talk about it or come across the topic being discussed. Yet, Ethiopia seems to be particularly restrictive as other studies have shown that despite a virulent homophobic public debate, same-sex relations do occur. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 97% of Ethiopians responded that homosexuality should be rejected by society, which was the second-highest percentage rejecting homosexuality among the 44 countries surveyed. Homosexuality has been the focus of state surveillance and prohibition as well. Under Article 600 of the Penal Code of 1957, homosexuality is an illegal sexual practice punishable by imprisonment. The 2005 revised criminal code of Ethiopia maintained the criminal status of homosexuality. It is important to note that the legal provisions are rarely enforced, but their power lies in the fact that they give support to institutions such as churches, mosques, or individuals in society to rally against homosexuality. To my knowledge no single gay person has come out and spoken about homosexuality. Yet, people are so fearful of the public and significant actors that they live completely invisible lives.

In 2006/07 I set out to commence a study about MSM. Conducting research with a closed population about very sensitive practices presented enormous challenges. From the outset, I was well aware of problems that may occur in the process of establishing rapport, understanding the subtext and convincing such closed populations to take part in a study. Aware of this, while writing the proposal, I typed different words and phrases related to homosexuality and came across 'Ethiopian gays' Yahoo groups. I subscribed to these Yahoo groups and contacted moderators and members of three fora. I exchanged emails to explain the objectives of my research and pledged to guarantee the confidentiality of the information they provided. Both the moderators and members raised a number of questions, such as the relevance of the study and concerns about audio recording interviews. I answered these and other questions to their satisfaction. Despite all these efforts, members of these different Yahoo groups did not come forward for interview. After a number of email exchanges, the moderators of one Yahoo group posted the following message which was a major setback for this research:

Dear Members: We have received word from people we trust at Addis Ababa University that have informed us that Mr. "... .." is not to be trusted. Therefore, the moderators at our group do not endorse his research. We also urge members not to meet with him personally or give him any personal identifying information...

The moderators unsubscribed me from the group without giving me the chance to explain my intentions. This illustrates the power that gatekeepers of sub-cultures wield and how this power can be used to credit or discredit a researcher. And for good reasons: it has too often happened that researchers have been sloppy in their work and have put informants at risk. Moreover, they exert extra care to ensure that the person is a researcher and not a snoopy journalist or an informant. Fortunately, most members of this group were also subscribers to other Yahoo groups where I did manage to explain my position. I then sent my interview guides to some members by email requesting them to send their responses by email to ensure anonymity, but still to no avail. At last I got in touch with a possible willing informant and after reading the interview guides I sent him, we exchanged 12 emails. He eventually responded that the questions were too intimate and expressed his unwillingness to collaborate.

In the meantime, I heard that a public health student at the Department of Community Health, AAU, had conducted a study on the epidemiology of anal sex and HIV and AIDS. I approached him and he introduced me to an informal leader of male sex workers who eventually helped me recruit his friends and colleagues as participants in the research. I started conducting interviews with sex workers while the above message posted on a Yahoo group was in limbo. Again, unfortunately, someone from a Yahoo group who read my MSM proposal accused me of using the word bushti[2] and posted another disparaging message. This was another setback and other members believed that I had a sinister motive. Meanwhile, one informant (a postgraduate student) who had been following the debate came forward and wrote to me expressing his willingness to be interviewed. This was an important breakthrough in my research and it was through him that I managed to conduct interviews with those few men who were not sex workers.

Another challenge to my fieldwork occurred when Ethiopian Television aired a programme entitled 'The problem of homosexuality in Ethiopia' in September 2006, expressing a variety of misinformation and sensationalist plots. All those who engage in homosexual sex were presented as foreigners. Sexually abused children/youth who were interviewed noted that they had been devastated mentally, physically, and sexually. A professional claimed that '90% of the perpetrators were victims themselves'. A Muslim religious leader argued that the act could cause God's anger and may lead to disaster. A policewoman maintained that the public should be warned about the looming danger posed by homosexuals. One woman from an NGO blamed illegal (underground) video houses and suggested that those concerned should question why young people got involved in such acts. A man from Bright for Children Voluntary Association suggested the need for dialogue and solution. One sociologist remarked on the need to nip it in the bud before it gets an opportunity to spread. After watching this programme, some men who had consented to be interviewed declined. Interestingly, and alarmingly, all those interviewed and the presenter (a journalist) were unable to distinguish between male child sexual abuse (paedophilia) and homosexuality. This shows how a deadly combination of ignorance and judgement not only hinders research but most importantly affects marginal groups disproportionately.

The foregoing discussion suggests how difficult it is to conduct research with a hidden and stigmatized population. My failure to find respondents testifies to how fearful people are to be exposed and that they do not want take any chance to reveal their sexuality to the public and family members. When I began this research, I wanted to involve as many men as possible from various socio-economic backgrounds. My intention did not materialize as I could not meet with them as I had envisioned. I thus settled on two groups: sex workers (who made up the majority of the study) and very few non-sex workers. Our choices for doing research are thus limited by what is possible and therefore the production of knowledge is also limited as we are not always able to fully study what we wish to.

What is more, the resistance and rejection came not only from interlocutors and informants but also from academics. When I was doing the research on MSM, I was proud to be venturing into this unknown territory and used to tell people about it. I trusted that academics in particular would appreciate producing knowledge on an issue that exists under the cloak of secrecy. I was completely wrong and received negative and stigmatizing remarks that also discredited me as a researcher and person. I must now admit that, after a while, all such prejudice and stigma disheartened me to a certain extent. Thus, I rarely speak about my previous study and am very careful about how to phrase it or with whom to speak about it. I have also encountered rejection of manuscripts (including an article on sexual abuse against male children and joint publication of my book on youth sexuality and HIV and AIDS) that I have submitted for publication out of fear of disseminating such studies to the public.


Eventually, in 2007 I finished a study entitled: Under the Cloak of Secrecy: Sexuality and HIV/AIDS among Men who Have Sex with Men (MSM) in Addis Ababa. In it I described the sexual lives, behaviours, preferences, relationships, support and safety issues of MSM in Addis Ababa. I explored their desires and fantasies, the tensions between their personal desires and social expectations, family and community relationships (including, their social networks), the problems they face (such as violence, stigma and discrimination or ostracization due to their sexuality), issues related to religion, religiosity and belief in spirits, masculinity, knowledge about HIV and AIDS (and other sexually transmitted infections, STIs), sexual behaviour with men and women, and condom use. I wanted to understand and respectfully represent their plights and our responsibilities as researchers, as citizens, so as to communicate that we should not give up on those who are ignored, if not rejected, in our societies at least for public health reasons.

What is telling is that I didn't receive support from the underground gay community and I constantly questioned why I was labouring while the community that is bearing the brunt of the stigma and ostracization was not willing to be interviewed so as to bring their very existence and predicament to light. This echoes Nyanzi's (2013: 70)3 observation that 'as an outsider, I faced perceived suspicion from members of various LGBTI groups. I was frank about being heterosexual. While non-LGBTI scholars were quick to alert me of the potential dangers of researching alternative sexualities, many LGBTI individuals were hesitant to trust me'. Indeed, people are so worried and fearful and rightly suspicious of anyone outside of their close confidants. Despite all the challenges, Nyanzi's and my experiences as heterosexual Africans attempting to study alternative African sexualities are especially valuable and make for an interesting discussion of these methodological issues. They fit well with this African Arguments series exploring the study of sexuality on the African continent.

Finally, I should state that the difficulties we encounter while researching and publishing sexuality should be a source of encouragement as we are constantly opening new territories for the next generation of researchers, perhaps with better institutional and social support. I am witnessing a growing interest among undergraduate and graduate students in sexuality and other hitherto uncharted territories in the country. For instance, in December 2020, I examined an excellent MA thesis on lesbians, gays and bisexuals (LGB) by a young female researcher from the Institute of Gender Studies of AAU and it is my hope that other Ethiopian scholars will take up the challenge and expand the field of sexuality research.

End Notes

[1] I am well aware of the controversies surrounding the MSM terminology.

[2] Bushti is a common demeaning name for homosexuals in the country.

[3] Nyanzi, Stella (2013) 'Rhetorical analysis of President Jammeh's threats to behead homosexuals in The Gambia', in Marc Epprecht and Sybille N. Nyeck (eds), Sexual Diversity in Africa: Politics, Theory and Citizenship, Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.

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