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Of Sodomy and Cannibalism: Dehumanisation, Embodiment and the Rhetorics of Same-Sex and Cross-Species Contagion



This article explores ideas of the ‘human’ in discourses surrounding the AIDS epidemic, from the 1980s to the present. It compares two sequential lines of thought: first, the notion of AIDS as the result of ‘unnatural’ gender behaviours and queer sexualities; and second, the notion of AIDS and other zoonotics (cross-species diseases) as the result of non-western dietary practices and social mores. In the first case, the early years of the AIDS crisis are traced through the languages of sexual perversity utilised by the popular press and the Christian right. In the second case, the later years of the epidemic are traced, once the ‘roots’ of the virus became tied to Africa, and carriers became bestialised in narratives that located HIV as a consequence of unnatural, or inhuman, interactions with the animal world. The article argues that we have witnessed a paradigm shift in the didactics of the epidemic, from a narrative of sexual impropriety to one that also includes a narrative of dietary impropriety, each of which consistently relies upon a clear dichotomy between the human and the inhuman.