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Reviewed by:
  • Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society
  • Laura Zimmer-Tamakoshi
Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society, by Holly Wardlow. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. ISBN cloth, 978-0-520-24559-4; paper, 978-0-520-24560-0; xi + 284 pages, maps, photos, tables, notes, references, index. Cloth, US$55.00; paper, US$23.95.

Wayward Women is everything we’ve come to expect from Bruce Knauft and his former graduate students. Holly Wardlow has written a richly theorized and detailed ethnography on Papua New Guinea’s “passenger women.” Her account of Huli women who accept money for sex is moving and compelling reading. When a Huli wife is angry with her absent husband for failing to adequately support her or refusing to come home and avenge her rape (148–150), we excuse her decision to sell “her” body for sex at the same time as we worry over likely consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases and violence against her. Engaging in twenty-six difficult months of fieldwork in Tari and several rural areas in Southern Highlands Province, Wardlow observed numerous female victims of change in a particular postcolonial context fighting back with their most valuable “possessions”—their sexuality and reproductive capacity. Estranged from her father after he killed her mother, a young unmarried “passenger woman” decided to “ruin herself” so her father would never profit from receiving bridewealth for her (150). With Huli society’s increasing reliance on cash and many women treated like market goods when their kin seek huge bridewealth payments for them, the traditional bridewealth system and the meaning of women in it have changed in ways that cause some women “to repudiate the system altogether and withdraw their sexual resources from sociality by exchanging sex for money” (150). By thwarting the system, Wardlow argues, Huli passenger women are enacting a form of negative agency against their male kin, disrupting social reproduction, and raising the possibility of “a world in which women are no longer exchanged, valuables are no longer distributed, affines are no longer created, and the identities of children become indefinite” (151).

Throughout, Wardlow deftly blends her ethnographic account with theoretical questions, raising and then answering them, and never simplifying the issues regarding passenger women’s main motivations. The three conceptual frameworks underpinning Wardlow’s analysis are agency, sexuality, and incipient individualism. Drawing on practice theory, Wardlow asks why do passenger women do what they do? What configuration of cultural norms, social relations, and historical processes move them to accept money for sex? Focusing on asymmetrical relations of power, Wardlow describes how Huli women’s desires, goals, and imagined possibilities are normally encompassed within the bridewealth system, and how women’s lives are part of other people’s (mostly men’s) projects. In the Huli gender system, “women” are for transactions beyond themselves (13); their agency is encompassed, and their actions produce effects—“but effects whose ends are beyond the individual’s actions and for a wider [End Page 493] purpose” (13). In such a context the only agency possible is negative: the refusal to be encompassed, literally self-destruction (14), or, in the case of passenger women, wayward sexuality or refusal to participate in bridewealth transactions and “compulsory heterosexuality.” Wardlow convincingly demonstrates how passenger women’s practices both emerge from and are a response to structural contradictions in the context of the commoditization of Huli society and marriage. As Western ideals of private property, Christianity, commodity consumption, and wage labor promote an incipient individualism and a bridewealth system that is no longer satisfying for and protective of women, Huli passenger women treat their own sexuality as an individual possession. While most passenger women attempt to keep one foot in the relational economy by paying children’s school fees and helping other women in their gardens, many Huli women feel they are no longer important actors in the work of social reproduction (22). Husbands who work for wages see their paychecks as theirs to spend—some buying sex outside of marriage, a behavior that angers wives, depriving them as it does of a feeling of complete partnership with their husbands. While most women do not...


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pp. 493-495
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