Book Review: Regulating Romance: Youth Love Letters, Moral Anxiety, and Intervention in Uganda’s Time of AIDS

Regulating Romance: Youth Love Letters, Moral Anxiety, and Intervention in Uganda’s Time of AIDS. Shanti Parikh, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015, 320 pp.

Uganda’s success story in reducing HIV/AIDS infection rates in the 1990s is well known in the international public health community. The generational effects and legacy of intensive international interventions are less commonly teased apart from clinical dimensions of the illness in the country’s narrative. In Regulating Romance, Shanti Parikh uses the terrain of public health as a jumping-off point to explore how youth in Iganga District in eastern Uganda have absorbed public health messages, advice from relatives, and other discourses to navigate the fraught world of romance and their own budding sexuality. The concept of sociality, which is generally limited to clinical connotations in studies of HIV/AIDS, is extended to include lived experiences and “unintended consequences” (p. 7) of intensive interventions and shifting public discourses, rendering groups visible that are typically obscured.

Regulating Romance is crafted to culminate in the ethnographically engaging and juicy love letters of youth in eastern Uganda. While the reader is anticipating the ethnographically rich, the book is constructed carefully, embedding youth romance in Iganga’s historic and political particularity. Based on extensive and multivalent ethnographic methods, the text sometimes jumps between historical periods and groups of research participants. Using longitudinal case studies, sexual histories, participant observation, the collection of love letters, generational gossip, structured surveys, as well as community-based participatory activities, the resulting analysis is multivocal, undeniably thorough, and authoritative. Regulating Romance is a labor of love.

Divided into three sections, each part is written with a particular voice and makes an overlapping argument: history, publics, and counterpublic. Building on the work of Habermas, Nancy Fraser, and others, the concept of a youth counterpublic is used as a linchpin for the book. Uganda’s youth construction of sexuality and risk make them their own counterpublic, acting in spaces of creative resistance to dominant narratives of romance. The counterpublic, it is argued, must exist as both a physical space and a public discourse and challenge prevailing traditions. Hence, the first two sections document the historical and social practices of romance in eastern Uganda.

Elders recount their own romantic trials in their youth and, like most elders, lament the passage of time and corruption of younger generations. Their stories tap into domains of classical anthropological studies, such as kinship practices, burial ceremonies, tribal dances, and sexual practices. What careful and longitudinal analysis shows, however, is that the idealized past had many of the same traits as the supposedly corrupted present: control of women’s bodies, informal unions, and pluralistic learning through alternative moralities. Phenomena such as “sugar daddies” (transactional sexual relationships between older men and young women) are not unique but deeply embedded in historical social networks and patron/client ties. Similarly, sexual learning through familial ties has not vanished. Rather, the ssenga or paternal aunt role, has been transformed into the public sphere in the guise of advice columnists and consultants.

Despite these threads of continuity, the social fact of HIV/AIDS in Uganda has transformed acceptable expressions of sexuality and created “new technologies of sex and self” (p. 144). To understand risk, youth engage with new forms of information, such as discos, the media, and social spaces. They interface frequently with public health campaigns, although these act as moral admonitions against sex, rather than as sources of information. Risk is understood and reconstructed as a shifting and nebulous concept, which youth must translate into their own romantic behavior.

One chapter is dedicated to an in-depth case study of legislation surrounding statutory rape. In 1990, Uganda increased the age of consent to 18 years and made violation of this a criminal, rather than civil, offence. Typically, consent laws are praised by women’s rights advocates for protecting vulnerable women. The legislation in Uganda, however, has “inadvertently bolstered patriarchal control over the female body” (p. 148) by its inconsistent enforcement and its emphasis on female virtue. In practice, young men are disproportionately targeted by fathers seeking to protect their daughters’ virginity, while exploitative relationships with “sugar daddies” and older men are rarely prosecuted. It is in this context of moral anxiety that today’s youth are making decisions about risk, relationships, and sex.

The final chapters of the book delve into the details of youth romance through love letters, the most distinguishing and novel component of the book. A fieldwork revelation turned into the systematic collection of hundreds of letters from young men and women. As cultural products, the letters are understood within Uganda’s specific history. They are analyzed for content and structure and as social practices. Youth are treated as their own agents, capable of making tough choices, rather than simply adults coming of age. The letter writers strategically use language to communicate desire, set themselves apart, and reflect knowledge of romance and cultural mores. They use go-betweens to deliver the letter in coded ways, to protect both the writer and recipient from prying eyes and the pain of rejection. The letters are fascinating to read, and their logic comes into relief within the detailed backdrop of Uganda’s history, presented in the previous sections. Gendered dynamics are teased apart in terms of desire, fear, and repercussions of romance as being vastly different for young men and women. The letters complete the analytic counterpublic of youth romance, showing the struggle between dominant romance narratives and truly innovative ways of communicating. The sheer number of letters allows for a heterogeneity of youth creativity by including both typical and atypical exemplars in successful and not-so-successful courtships.

One shortcoming of Regulating Romance is its translation into the digital age. The massive amounts of data were collected in waves between 1996 and 2015, with the letters being gathered in 1998 and 2002. Will love letters withstand the transition to texting, Facebook, and other short forms of messaging? One section of text touches on the possible transformations of communication and suggests that the act of writing and transmitting letters through intermediaries will remain significant. Given the global explosion of cellphones and Internet connectivity, it seems more likely that the letter will transform to a new medium and include new rules and etiquette instead.

A theory-rich and ethnographically stunning text, Regulating Romance crosses domains of medical anthropology. It draws on the extensive literature in the anthropology of HIV in Africa, feminist theories of love and romance, and studies of youth as agents of change. The analysis leads to critical questioning of dominant paradigms in public health, sexual education, and youth education, in Uganda and more broadly. More specifically, HIV/AIDS interventions are critiqued for their “medico-moral authority” (p. 255) and legitimization of specific types of sexuality and risk. While this book situates itself outside of the more commonly investigated clinical gaze of interventions, it complements the growing body of literature in medical anthropology on clientship and the clinical aspects of HIV/AIDS in East Africa. Given the broad scope of this book, it would be useful for teaching ethnographic writing, the social landscape of East Africa, and implications of global health interventions.

Leave a Reply