An extract from Spirit Women, Church Women, and Passenger Women by Joel Robbins in the Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, Christianismes en Océanie, 157: January – March 2012.

Wardlow 1 has written an important study of gender and cultural change among the Huli of Southern Highlands Province, PNG. Although there are Christians among the 90,000 Huli, Christianity does not figure importantly in Wardlow’s account of their history or current situation. Instead, she focuses on socioeconomic change and its effect on gender relations. I will assume her choice of emphasis reflects the situation on the ground in Huli, in the sense that socioeconomic changes and the cultural changes associated with them are more important in accounting for contemporary Huli life than are religious changes. This makes Wardlow’s account an interesting contrast to my own and Eriksen’s in that it allows us to speculate about what happens to women when modernizing changes occur without significant Christian input.

The socioeconomic situation in Huli is complex. Although subsistence gardening is still central to the lives of most Huli families, male out-migration to work for wages reaches extremely high levels (up to 45% of males between the ages of 20 and 39 are sometimes gone— 2, and the cash economy is an important part of Huli life. Although Wardlow does not conduct her analysis in terms of values or use the term “relationalism”, it is not difficult to read her account of economic change in Huli as one in which a traditional emphasis on making relationships, and on the ways in which relationships constitute the person, is being challenged by the market economy’s individualism. Their situation is thus like that of the Urapmin in important respects, with relationalism and individualism coming into conflict and people struggling to promote one or the other value as preeminent in various domains.

Wardlow compellingly uses her data to complicate scholarly uses of the term “sex work”, but (…)
Against the background of her analysis of the rising importance of the market economy in Huli, Wardlow’s ethnography focuses on those women, known as “passenger women”, who leave home and have sex with many partners, often for money. Drawing on Wardlow’s account, I will argue in this section that passenger women see their turn to sex work as a protest against the failure of their families to realize the value of relationalism by ensuring that justice has been upheld for the relationships that constitute their daughters, particularly the relationships surrounding marriage.

In order to understand the motivations of the passenger women, and their connection to relationalism, it is necessary to consider how marriages are made in Huli. In Huli, marriages are completed by a gift of pigs, often as many as thirty, as bridewealth given by the side of the groom to the side of the bride. Bridewealth payments are at the very center of the Huli relational world 3. Since bridewealth involves so many pigs, men who want to marry have to realize or further draw on many of their pre-existing relationships to gather the needed amount. When the daughters that result from their marriages get married in turn, these men will pay back those who helped them with the pigs they receive for her. At the same time, the payment of bridewealth legitimates the marriage, insuring that the children that result will be firmly fixed in the relational webs of their parents and creating important affinal relations between the kin of the groom and those of the bride. Finally, once a woman marries and her father is able to pay back those who helped with his bridewealth payment, her brothers are able to ask others for help assembling bridewealth payments of their own, hence further extending their own relational world and that of their kin.

Touching on so many relationships, bridewealth is central to the lives of everyone in Huli. But for women, it has a special meaning. Both Huli men and women say that “women are for bridewealth”, suggesting that generating bridewealth through marriage is a key moment in a woman’s life 4 . As Wardlow 5 puts it, “women’s sense of self-value is shaped by bridewealth, and it is difficult for most women to imagine legitimate female personhood outside the bridewealth system.”

A crucial finding of Wardlow’s study is that women become sex workers when they feel that those to whom they are related—and men in particular—do not work to maintain them or their sisters within the bridewealth system by demanding that appropriate exchanges be made for them. These neglected exchanges take several forms. If a woman has premarital sexual relations with a man or is sexually assaulted, her father or brothers should demand either that the man involved marry her and pay bridewealth, or that he make a lesser payment that will supplement the potentially smaller bridewealth she will command when she marries someone else. Once a woman is married and her father and brothers have distributed her bridewealth, they should also continue to honor their relationships to her, supporting her if her husband is violent to her or irresponsible. A husband, for his part, should treat marriage as an important relationship in its own right, nourishing it with a steady stream of gifts to his wife and children.

These days, with men out-migrating to find work and with cash having become more important for making all kinds of purchases, men often fail to honor the demands of the bridewealth system at one or more of these points. Fathers and brothers, who are either absent or do not feel they can muster enough of a fighting force to press their claims, sometimes do not demand compensation for premarital sexual relations or attacks. Nor do they always support their daughters against their husbands, leading many women to accuse them of “treating them like a market”, which is to say selling them like a good that one has no interest in once it has been paid for. The increasing substitution of cash for pigs in bridewealth payments, women feel, only exacerbates this problem, since debts established with cash tend to create less lasting relationships than those of pigs and hence allow a woman’s bridewealth to sink from people’s memory too quickly. Furthermore, husbands who are familiar with the cash economy, and often away themselves, sometimes treat their wives as if they are things which they have purchased with cash, rather than persons with whom they are constituted in a relationship. They give little, demand much, and when their wives complain they protest that they have paid for them and can thus treat them how they want. Often, it seems, they resort to violence, which is made even worse for the woman involved when, as mentioned above, their fathers and brothers do not come to their aid.

Women who have been disappointed in one or more of these ways become enraged, and it is such rage, they say, that leads some of them to take up sex work. The logic of this move is as follows: if the men in their lives refuse to help maintain the relational productivity of their sexuality and reproductive power within the bridewealth system, they will remove it from that system altogether and put it to use in enriching themselves. The men who turn their backs on the system are already pursuing their own individual pleasures at the expense of their relationships with their daughters, sisters, and wives, so when the women who stand in such relationships to them deploy their sexuality to similar ends, it is a case of turnabout as fair play. Note, however, that this turnabout is not a simple abandonment of the bridewealth system, for it only makes sense in relation to that system. As Wardlow 6 notes, when women become sex workers, they do so because they are angry at the “failure of their kin to pursue traditional justice.” That justice, as should be clear at this point, is a justice that consists in realizing, creating, and maintaining specific relationships tied to the bridewealth system: those of parents and children, siblings, affines, and spouses. The crucial place of relationships in this model of justice is driven home by Wardlow’s observation that while women become angry when they are attacked sexually or in other ways, it is when their kin fail to make the relationships involved right by demanding recompense for the damage done to those relationships by the attack that this anger turns to the kind of rage that leads women to become sex-workers 7. The institution of sex-work, then, is some women’s response to their inability to realize relational values in a world more and more defined by the market and its individualist models of the good life.

In rebelling against the failure of the traditional social system structured by the value of relationalism, passenger women align themselves with that value and appear as conservative figures, unlike women from Ranon and Urapmin, both of whom align themselves with processes of change. One reason this might be so is that the new value of individualism has not as fully reorganized the socioeconomic sphere in Huli as the new values of individualism and female models of action have in the religious sphere of Urapmin and Ranon respectively. There is more of a traditional order for women to defend in Huli than there is (at least in the religious domain) in the other two places. But the absence of a strong Christian input in the Huli case also seems likely to have contributed to its specificity. For in both of the other cases, it is Christianity that has encouraged women to understand themselves differently than they did in the past, something socioeconomic ideologies have not done for Huli women—at least not in ways they value. I do not have the space or data here to detail all of the ways Christianity has done this, but the stark difference between the way change has effected women in Huli and the way it has done so in Urapmin and Ranon indicates the promise of future research along these lines.

(Photo by PNG Tourism Promotion Authority)

  1. Wardlow Holly, Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society, Berkeley, University of California Press. (2006) []
  2. Ibid., 59 []
  3. Ibid., 167 []
  4. Ibid., p. 151 []
  5. Ibid., p. 25 []
  6. Ibid., p. 150 []
  7. Ibid., p. 147 []

Categorized in: