van Klinken on Hackman, 'Desire Work: Ex-Gay and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa'

Melissa Hackman
Adriaan van Klinken

Melissa Hackman. Desire Work: Ex-Gay and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. xvi + 198 pp. $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0064-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0082-2.

Reviewed by Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds) Published on H-Africa (February, 2020) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)

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In Desire Work: Ex-Gay and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa, anthropologist Melissa Hackman offers a detailed study of an ex-gay Pentecostal ministry in Cape Town, South Africa. It is the first book about such a ministry in a global South context. Ex-gay ministries emerged in the 1970s in the United States, out of conservative Christian fears about the emerging gay rights movement. Located in the spectrum of evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity, those ministries claim to heal homosexuality and other “sexual sins” through faith in God and Jesus Christ. From the US, the movement has spread to other parts of the Americas, Europe, and South Africa. The Cape Town ministry, which Hackman calls Healing Revelation Ministry (HRM), was founded by an American missionary in 1997, and it closed its doors in 2010 when the founder relocated to the US.

Hackman conducted intermittent fieldwork between 2004 and 2013, including one full year in 2007-8. The value of such a long-term and in-depth ethnographic engagement is reflected in the text, as she (and the reader) gets to know her research participants in-depth, learns about their life stories, and follows their experiences over a long period. This longitudinal approach is particularly relevant given the subject of this book. Although Hackman states not to be interested in the success of the ex-gay process, as the book progresses it becomes clear that at the end of her research many of the participants are no longer ex-gay but, in fact, ex-ex-gay.

The book is structured in five chapters, preceded by a chapter-length introduction and a short afterword. In the main chapters, Hackman subsequently contextualizes HRM in post-apartheid South Africa (chapter 1), examines the processes of religious transformation promoted in the ministry (chapter 2), analyzes the spiritual practices through which members learn to fight demonic sexual desires (chapter 3) and through which they cultivate heterosexual desire (chapter 4), and finally explores why ex-gay Pentecostal men left HRM, giving up on their desire to develop a heterosexual male self (chapter 5).

The term “desire work” refers to the “process of emotional, bodily, and religious discipline and practices with the end work of heterosexual marriage” (p. 4). Despite the Pentecostal orientation of the ministry, desire work in HRM is conceived of not as the result of divine intervention through Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit but as the result of disciplinary practices—what Hackman following Michel Foucault calls “technologies of the self,” that is, “active processes of constant attention, care, and correction of the self” (p. 7). Through these practices, gay men are supposed to learn what, at the core, is natural: heterosexual desire, and related to that, the performance of a heterosexual masculinity. The obvious paradox here is that in spite of being natural, such desire in some cases has to be learned through purposeful effort, combined with the un-learning of an “unnatural” homosexual inclination. At the end of the book, Hackman returns to the theme of desire work, identifying some interesting similarities as well as differences regarding agency, piety, and self-transformation in HRM and in Saba Mahmood’s 2005 study of the Egyptian Muslim women’s piety movement, The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

Acknowledging the transnational connection between HRM and the US, Hackman seeks to understand the ministry in its South African and wider African context. She asks why there is an ex-gay ministry in the only African country that actually offers legal protection of gay rights and why some South African men are attracted to its mission. The men participating in HRM are mostly white and some colored (a specific South African racial category, dating back to the times of apartheid, that can be loosely translated as “mixed race”) and mostly Afrikaans speaking. At the time of the research they were in their early twenties to mid-thirties, meaning that they grew up during apartheid. In one of the most interesting and strongest parts of the book, Hackman provides an insightful analysis of the ministry and its appeal to its members in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. In her account, “the ministry was full of men whose subjectivities were in flux personally and socially” (p. xiii). This flux was a result of the social, political, and economic changes in post-apartheid South Africa, with new discourses of both race and sexuality, and with subsequent feelings of insecurity and frustration, especially when the promises of liberation were not realized.

Hackman further explains HRM as “part of a larger democratic cultural shift in sexual discourses,” a shift in which sex and sexuality had become the subject of public discourse and a site of agency and selfhood (p. 9). This shift was the result of HIV prevention campaigns and of a relatively strong gay rights movement, but also of emerging evangelical and Pentecostal Christian movements deeply concerned with sexual morality. For the men at HRM their “desire work” was part of a larger national project of cultivating acceptable forms of heterosexual masculinity and of sexual and gendered citizenship. Charismatic forms of Christianity, with their emphasis on personal transformation, provided them with a path to engage this project. In a particularly enlightening discussion, Hackman links the technologies of the self that are employed in HRM to the culture opened up by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Against the background of the TRC promoting public confession as key to dealing with wrongs of the past and with experiences of trauma, the healing methods of HRM in Hackman’s analysis “gained legitimacy because detailed admissions of painful feelings and past actions became key to self-transformation” (p. 47).

Throughout the book Hackman makes considerable effort to understand the ministry in the wider context of Pentecostal Christianity in Africa. Personally I found this less convincing. The suggestion that an American-founded, Cape Town-based ministry that is mostly attended by white and colored South Africans sheds a meaningful light on African Pentecostalism and its sexual politics more generally is difficult to maintain because of the problem of representativity. Of course, there are certain similarities, such as the firm opposition against homosexuality and the practices of moral and religious transformation. Yet these can be explained from the conservative nature of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianities in general. Typical African (neo-)Pentecostal practices, such as deliverance of the “evil spirit of homosexuality” or miraculous forms of healing, seem marginal (although not absent) in HRM. The same applies to discourses that frame homosexuality as “un-African” and gay rights as a form of “Western imperialism,” which are popular across the African continent but which, for understandable reasons, are not invoked by HRM. In my assessment, the book makes a stronger case for HRM as a specifically South African phenomenon than as an African Pentecostal phenomenon.

Throughout the book, Hackman refers to her own experiences during her fieldwork, and in the introduction she gives an explicit account of how she negotiated her identity. It is obvious that Hackman, as a self-identifying lesbian white woman from the US, from a mixed Jewish-Presbyterian background, found herself in a rather complex position in relation to her research subject, the ministry and its members. In true ethnographic mode, she opted for the research method of participant observation, with the level of participation going as far as volunteering in the HRM office carrying out administrative tasks several days a week. Reading the book, we learn that Hackman decided to keep her sexuality as low profile as possible during fieldwork because she would be seen as dangerous if people knew. Only at the end of a full year of fieldwork she disclosed her sexuality to many of her participants, a number of whom felt betrayed. We further learn that, in the course of her fieldwork, Hackman felt objectified as a woman by the ex-gay men in the ministry; that she was accused of witchcraft; and, finally, that she was expelled from the ministry because she did openly challenge a decision made by the HRM leader. Although all of this is discussed to some extent, I wish that Hackman had made more effort to self-reflexively engage these experiences, her positionality, and her methodological decisions. Turning the gaze to the ethnographic self would have added a rich layer to the book, making the profound challenges that emerged in her fieldwork process productive for the analysis and discussion and allowing the reader to benefit from it.

Regardless of these criticisms, Desire Work is a rich and fascinating ethnographic study worth reading by anyone with an academic interest in gender, sexuality, and self-making in evangelical and Pentecostal Christian circles.

Citation: Adriaan van Klinken. Review of Hackman, Melissa, Desire Work: Ex-Gay and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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