conférence Julien Bonhomme

The Sex Thieves: The Anthropology of a Rumor


Julien Bonhomme, anthropologist, has been a lecturer at Ecole normale supérieure for 10 years. He now is “Directeur d’études” (full professor) at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and co-director of the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale.

The conference and debate with anthropologist Julien Bonhomme was held on Tuesday, May 9th, 2023.

Strangers are accused of stealing or shrinking people’s genitals during ordinary encounters in public spaces: a rumor that leads to violent reactions that can go as far as public lynching of the accused. The sex thieves rumor first appeared in the 70’s in Nigeria, before sporadically spreading for a period of 30 years in about 20 countries in West and Central Africa. In his book The Sex Thieves: The Anthropology of a Rumor, Julien Bonhomme shows how, with the sex thieves rumor, witchcraft stops being a local hearsay and becomes an urban, modern, and transnational rumor.

To understand such a phenomenon, the author sheds light on the very ordinary concerns on which rumor is based. He details the accusations and incidents as well as the various protagonists of “genital theft” cases: the alleged victims, mostly men; the accused, strangers or even foreigners who sometimes confess the theft to avoid public lynching; the crowd within which violent acts can emerge; and local authorities who try to restore public order as quickly as possible and avoid mob justice.

How and why does a rumor spread? Where is it discussed? How is it seen by different people? To explain how rumor appears, spreads, and disappears, the author analyses the mechanics of social communication and cultural transmission. He reveals the polyphonic nature of rumors, which create beliefs, raise doubts, and generate criticism. The anthropologist analyses the role played by the media, which documents the cases and labels them (as mystical events or as a crimes), but also spreads the rumor.

To cite this content :
Julien Bonhomme, “The Sex Thieves: The Anthropology of a Rumor”, 9 mai 2023, URL :

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