Desire Work

Ex-Gays and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Melissa Hackman
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , August
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What does it take to leave one’s homosexual orientations behind and become a heterosexual? How do people develop new sexual selves and how are their efforts to do so shaped by their understanding that God wants them to leave their older—“sinful”—sexual selves behind? In her book, Desire Work: Ex-Gay and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa, anthropologist Melissa Hackman explores these questions, in painstaking detail, through an ethnography in the context of a Christian therapy-group she refers to as “Healing Revelation Ministries.” Given that the leader of the group was an American, but felt called to “heal” gays in far-away Cape Town, South Africa—widely known as Africa’s international gay capital—the book is not only about a local religious therapy movement, but actually has significant transnational dimensions.

Hackman makes clear that efforts to become an ex-gay aim at a radical personal transformation, and require sustained work on the self that is often painful and replete with setbacks. In five chapters, the author introduces us to such processes by detailing the personal labor that constitutes them. Ministries seeking to “heal” homosexuality often follow the twelve-step-plans developed by therapy groups in the field of alcoholism, and which constitute the basic protocol of the therapeutic process. In this context, people struggling with same-sex attractions, and participating in the group, were offered explanations for these attractions, and typically, these explanations pathologized them: same-sex attractions were said to be the outcomes of childhood sexual abuse, and men’s subsequent inability to build heterosexual identities. Hackman’s book follows people through their therapeutic processes and unpacks the fundamental paradox at the heart of it: one must learn to feel heterosexual desire that supposedly comes naturally. In fact, while heterosexual gender models are construed as natural in the world of Pentecostalism, for these participants it takes work on the self to achieve them.

A first step towards opening oneself up to God’s healing power was to create intimacy with God—to learn to listen to God, know his wishes, and desires for one’s life. They did so through individual prayer, reading of the bible, and through efforts to embody Godly ways. Hackman is able to marshal a tremendous host of examples to illustrate such desire work. We get to know Adrian, an effeminate young man who is convinced that, in order to develop heterosexual desires and become a heterosexual, he has to appearas a heterosexual and therefore overcome his “gay” appearance—his gay way of walking, deploying his body, looking, and talking. Importantly, Adrian seeks to give his voice a lower, more masculine, pitch in order to elicit different kinds of responses in his interlocutors, responses which validate him as a heterosexual.

However, provoking and cultivating heterosexual masculine desire also involves the development of a sexualized gaze towards women. Members learn how to judge women’s bodies—to comment on breasts and buttocks, to define their own preferences regarding the size of a woman’s erotic zones—in order to learn to get “hot.” In addition, the participants are encouraged to masturbate to heterosexual materials, as this would further train and inculcate heterosexual desire, and provide a first avenue to act upon this desire. Yet, it was also clear that using images of women when masturbating actually sexually objectified women and contradicted their male notions of marriage. This also contradicted the idea that masturbation itself was actually sinful, leading to sex obsession and sex addiction.

For most people in these groups, the ultimate goal was heterosexual marriage, and they actually did form intimate relationships in the context of the group. In these intimate relationships, these participants now face the daunting task of desiring a concrete person—a material opposite-sex body—and to master romance.

Doubtlessly, the most fascinating part of this book is Hackman’s attention to the paradoxes and contradictions in these Christians’s efforts to become “new kinds” of subjects. In particular, she demonstrates how people’s feelings, desires, and their actual practices are alternately read and construed as reflecting God’s influence on their lives, or as outcomes of their own subjective efforts and determination. She shows how talk about the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s mind can validate practices—and Godly—but may also be construed as weakness, escapism, and a failure to engage in hard desire work. Therefore, the book ethnographically elaborates a theory of agency in Pentecostalism that excels—and goes beyond existing accounts—in several ways. Agency is shown to manifest itself through technologies of the self, à la Michel Foucault, whereby individuals seek to construe themselves as a particular type of subject through the application of specific procedures. Unfortunately, agency also emerges as that fragile and paradoxical construction of radical autonomy—the self that allows the Holy Spirit to act in one’s life—and radical heteronomy, whereby agency is fully dependent on this external power.

In significant ways, ex-gays are a marginal social group. They are marginalized in the gay community, due to their understanding of homosexuality as sinful and undesirable, as well as in mainstream society, a result of their sexual insufficiency and perceived inability to become what they see as real men. Towards the end of Desire Work, Hackman describes what happened to members after the ministry had dissolved with many having taken up social lives as gays again. Many saw “desire work” as a part of their journey, allowing them to build better relationships. As Hackman lucidly states, desire work is a poignant example of what Lauren Berlant described as “cruel optimism” in which “what they desired (heterosexuality) impeded the achievement of a more satisfying and happy life.” Ex-gays were bound to a fantasy that “was always out of reach” (164). 

This book surely breaks new ground in the anthropology of Pentecostalism and gender. By going to the heart of debates about religion, gender, and sexuality, it pinpoints the practical and ethical dilemmas of those targeted by powerful actors that seek to restore the cultural hegemony of heterosexual bi-genderism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marian Burchardt is Professor of Sociology at the University of Leipzig.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Melissa Hackman is an Independent Scholar who has taught at Brown University and Emory University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.