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Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society

Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society

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by Holly Wardlow

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Written with uncommon grace and clarity, this extremely engaging ethnography analyzes female agency, gendered violence, and transactional sex in contemporary Papua New Guinea. Focusing on Huli "passenger women," (women who accept money for sex) Wayward Women explores the socio-economic factors that push women into the practice of transactional sex, and asks how


Written with uncommon grace and clarity, this extremely engaging ethnography analyzes female agency, gendered violence, and transactional sex in contemporary Papua New Guinea. Focusing on Huli "passenger women," (women who accept money for sex) Wayward Women explores the socio-economic factors that push women into the practice of transactional sex, and asks how these transactions might be an expression of resistance, or even revenge. Challenging conventional understandings of "prostitution" and "sex work," Holly Wardlow contextualizes the actions and intentions of passenger women in a rich analysis of kinship, bridewealth, marriage, and exchange, revealing the ways in which these robust social institutions are transformed by an encompassing capitalist economy. Many passenger women assert that they have been treated "olsem maket" (like market goods) by their husbands and natal kin, and they respond by fleeing home and defiantly appropriating their sexuality for their own purposes. Experiences of rape, violence, and the failure of kin to redress such wrongs figure prominently in their own stories about becoming "wayward." Drawing on village court cases, hospital records, and women’s own raw, caustic , and darkly funny narratives, Wayward Women provides a riveting portrait of the way modernity engages with gender to produce new and contested subjectivities.

Editorial Reviews

Social Anthropology

“Rich . . . . would be analytically useful within all fields seeking intelligibility of complex social relations.”
Reviews In Anthropology

“Provokes new questions while addressing concerns of longstanding in Melanesianist ethnography.”

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Wayward Women

Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society

By Holly Wardlow


Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93897-7


"Tari is a jelas place"

The Fieldwork Setting

We were sitting high up on a craggy ledge from where we could just see Tari town in the distance—the sudden bare stretch of land that was the airstrip, corrugated metal roofs glinting in the sun. Tai Bayabe was telling me—somewhat boastfully, somewhat matter-of-factly—of how he had orchestrated the armed holdups of a convoy of politicians' trucks, and, on a separate occasion, of the local luxury hotel. He himself had not actually participated, but he had given the young men in his clan tacit permission to carry out these thefts. When I asked him why he had done these things, he flatly stated, "Tari is a covetous place. Resentment did it" (Tari em jelas ples, ya. Madane piyita). Indeed, whenever something went wrong in Tari—when an expatriate store manager was killed by an employee he had fired, when the small bank was held up by an armed gang, when people were robbed—someone was sure to comment darkly that "Tari em jelas ples," or, as the younger, more hip (and literate) generation says, a "J place."

Although clearly derived from the English word, jelas does not refer to jealousy—that is, a feeling of hostility toward a rival or toward someone who is perceived to have an advantage. In fact, there is a Huli word, "pono," or "ponana," which means exactly that. Rather, jelas means something more like covetousness or an inordinate and dangerous feeling of desire—for money, for things, and sometimes for people. Huli people often say that this is the fundamental difference between the past (variously defined as either before colonialism or before the arrival of the road in 1981) and the present: everyone is "jelas" now; everyone is plagued by desire (also see Robbins 1998; LiPuma 1999; Gewertz and Errington 1998). Indeed, some Huli say they have no word for the way desire is experienced now, their own word for desire, hame, being inadequate.

Madane, the second part of Tai Bayabe's terse explanation of his behavior, means something like resentment at having been disappointed or betrayed, and it refers to a situation in which one's sense of entitlement to something—a sum of cash, a job, a pig—is violated by the giver's refusal or failure to abide by a promise or obligation. Thus, when Tai Bayabe said that he had acted out of madane, he was implying that the politicians and the hotel managers had reneged on some implicit or explicit promise. The politicians had promised the development of roads and the use of their discretionary funds to subsidize school fees, but they had failed to keep these promises. The hotel managers had not hired the number of local people they had promised, the wages were too low, and they didn't provide meals for their employees. They too had failed in their obligations. (Tai Bayabe was also likely giving me a pointed message: he had arranged for young men in his clan to assist a geologist friend of mine in collecting samples of volcanic rock, and through these stories he was probably cautioning us to treat these workers well.) It is disconcerting to arrive as an inexperienced anthropologist, with little sense of what one's social obligations might be, and to be told repeatedly that bad things have happened to people—particularly those who have more wealth or power than others—because they failed in their social obligations. And, it is difficult after the fact to write about people who often characterize themselves as covetous and resentful. But I begin my representation of my field site with these charged affective descriptors—rather than with more material or demographic facts—because this was the way Tari was often narrated to me, both by Huli people and others.

When I first arrived in Tari, it did not appear to me as a place that would inspire unmanageable feelings of desire. Tari consists of an airstrip with a hospital and primary school on one side, and government buildings, the main market, and a few stores on the other. Walking on any of the few dirt roads leading out of town brings one immediately to sweet potato fields. And yet, the longer I was there, and particularly the more time I spent in rural areas where people owned very few things, the more I myself was intoxicated by the one big store in town that displayed knock-off Levi jeans from Thailand; shiny, lacy little girls' dresses from the Philippines; CD players from Japan; thick soft acrylic blankets in tiger-print patterns from China; and steel-toed leather work boots from Australia. And the longer I was there the more I noticed the way in which desire is materialized in Tari: the long line of dart boards set up adjacent to the main market where men can pay 10 toeia per dart for a chance to win a can of Coke (1 Papua New Guinea kina was worth approximately 80 cents US at that time, so each dart cost about 8 cents); the circles of people squatting in the dust to play high-stakes card games; the crowds of people who gathered whenever a plane landed, straining to see what kinds of cargo passengers had brought back from the capital city; the women milling through the biggest store in town, frisked on their way out by security guards to see if they had tucked packets of instant noodle soup or bars of soap into their babies' diapers. I quickly came to feel the acute palpability of commodity hunger in Tari.

There are probably many places in the world that have developed a discourse about desire in the wake of global economic restructuring, so perhaps Huli discourses about jelas are not unique. But to claim that one's society is madane (resentful, angrily disappointed) may be less common, and the fact that jelas and madane are so inextricably bound in Huli discourse may also seem curious. Madane is an emotion term that encompasses a complex social scenario: it is about feeling entitled to a particular thing because of another person's explicit promise or implicit social obligation, the failure of that person to follow through, the consequent sense of having been let down or betrayed, and the potentially destructive acts one does in response to these feelings. In contrast to Western conceptualizations of emotion as individualized, internal feeling states, madane is very socially engaged: it arises in response to others' acts (or failures to act), and it necessarily entails consequent actions toward those others. Madane always refers outward to specific others, and at the center of madane is social obligation, particularly the failure or refusal of social obligation. When salaried workers refuse to contribute to kin's compensation payments and then find their gardens dug up, this is attributed to madane. When the owners of PMVs (public motor vehicles, public buses) refuse to let relatives ride for free and then find the tires slashed, this too is attributed to madane.

Although it is awkward to discuss an "epidemiology of emotions," Huli people assert that madane has increased and that this is because jelas has also increased: people have become more selfishly desirous, and this causes them to lose sight of others and to fail them more often, which, in turn, leads to increased feelings of dashed expectations and resentment. Aletta Biersack has discussed a similar predicament among the neighboring Paiela:

Property is an asset its owner deploys to meet obligations ... If the word "right" is applicable at all, it is something that the would-be recipients of property (kinsmen and affines) rather than its owners have. Rights are in the first instance rights of request, and owners have not so much rights of consumption, but obligations to respond morally to such requests ... Someone who has a right of request and is denied is justifiably angry and may seek justice in litigation, withdraw his or her support, even resort to violence. (1992: 2)

This description might overstate the case for the Huli, who recognize "rights to keep" as much as "rights of request." Nevertheless, the Huli value and actively socialize reciprocity: among the first few words taught to children are "ngi" (give me) and "ma" (here, take it), and children are regularly told that if they aren't generous or don't show appreciation for others' generosity then they will "only have their own shit to eat," a graphic and repugnant representation of pure individualism.

People's attempts to maneuver between the poles of selfish desire and social obligation can make for unexpected contradictions. The morning I arrived in Tari I was met by a young Huli man who had been assigned to pick me up at the airstrip and take me to the flat on the hospital compound where I would stay until I decided on a rural field site. He had important business to take care of first, however. He quickly explained that there was a liquor ban in Tari, but not in Tabubil, where the plane was headed next. The plane would go to Tabubil, then turn around and go back exactly the way it had come, stopping in Tari a second time. We therefore needed to go to the post office to wire money to friends in Tabubil so that they could buy a case of Gold Cup (cheap whiskey), box it up and label it "paint," and then send it on the return flight. He had already bribed the Tari police so that they wouldn't scrutinize the "paint" cartons as they were off-loaded, but we did have to meet his teenage cousin, who was going to buy the liquor from him at the wholesale price, and who would then sell the liquor at three times this price to men in Tari. His cousin needed the money to pay his school fees at a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) high school located in another town. If we didn't take care of this business immediately, his cousin would be unable to attend school the next year.

Wasn't there a high school in Tari? I asked. Yes, but it was a Catholic school, and SDA students needed to attend their own school so as to avoid being corrupted by non-SDA students who had "pasin nogut" (literally, no-good ways, immoral behavior). Wondering if he saw any irony in this Byzantine scheme, I teasingly asked whether bribing the police and illegally selling alcohol might count as pasin nogut, and wasn't alcohol forbidden to SDA people anyway? He laughed. And, I persisted (lurching immediately into the gadfly mode of ethnographic inquiry), if these didn't count as pasin nogut, what sorts of pasin nogut was he so worried about in non-SDA students? They would teach his young cousin to steal, write love letters, smoke, frenim meri (literally, to befriend women, which can mean anything from flirting to having sex), go to "bush discos," and be "jelas tumas" (to be overly desirous and covetous), he replied. (Bush discos, a recent innovation among the Huli, are controversial late night dance parties, where a local string band plays and fees are charged for entrance and food.) Selling something banned by the provincial government was not wrong, he asserted, because the Southern Highlands provincial government, based in Mendi town and headed at that time by a Mendi premier, blatantly favored the Mendi cultural group. Disobeying laws legislated by a government that deliberately marginalized the Huli people could not be considered wrong. Theft and illicit sex, on the other hand, were pasin nogut, he explained, as were the behaviors which promoted them, such as smoking in mixed-sex groups, writing love letters, and being jelas tumas. In this complicated scenario, and its rationale, one sees a preoccupation with desire, both the need to control it through the cultivation of particular moral selves (SDA in this case) and the impulse to exploit it (by selling alcohol) in order finance the possibility of controlling it.

Of course one should not take Huli assertions of "jelas" and "madane" at face value. It is important to ask why Huli people engage in this brand of "auto-orientalism"—representing themselves as excessively desirous, too easily failing each other, and too easily embittered by others' similar failures. First, one should note that this discourse always has a temporal dimension—Tari is a jelas place now; the past is portrayed as a more disciplined, orderly, and relational era. Second, self, place, and material environment are imbricated in this discourse: the desiring self has become more difficult to manage, but this change has occurred as Tari itself has changed. Tari is said to be a place where commodities are on display, eliciting desire within people; thus, the emotional terrain has changed in synchrony with the material lifeworld. If there is a new episteme of desire instantiated within people's selves, it cannot be disentangled from the external environment which provokes and sustains this desire; in other words, the discourse of jelas and madane is not one of an essentialized, timeless Huli identity.

Perhaps most important, the pervasive discourse about madane and jelas can be interpreted as an expression of the tensions the Huli are experiencing between relational and more individualistic modes of social interaction, particularly in a context of increasing economic disparities. Many narratives I heard in which jelas or madane featured prominently were stories in which one person expected another, more powerful person to act relationally—by giving a gift or fulfilling a presumed obligation—only to find that the other had acted in a fashion interpreted as selfish, individualistic, or antisocial. Such tensions are exacerbated in a contemporary context in which there are more things to want, in which money is increasingly needed for everyday life, and in which some people have money and others do not. And since madane exists primarily in its material manifestations, it is a means of punishing those who are perceived to be selfish and reminding others to be attuned to the demands of reciprocity. Moreover, as will be seen, concerns about greed, individualism, and the failure of reciprocity are projected onto the figure of the pasinja meri, who is said to epitomize a perverse mobilization of selfish desire. Pasinja meri are said to be jelas tumas (overly desirous)—for money, for sex, and for autonomy—and they therefore "treat their vaginas like market goods" (putim tau olsem maket).

In the remainder of this chapter, I describe my fieldwork settings—both Tari town and the more rural areas I lived in—but I do so through the problematic or "compelling concern" (Wikan 1989) of desire. I first provide a brief history of the area, and then take the reader on a walk through the Tari area, pointing out the ways in which the problem of desire is instantiated and managed in the social landscape.

Historical Context

With a population of approximately 90,000, the Huli are one of the largest cultural groups in Papua New Guinea and are generally considered "fringe" highlanders (Biersack 1995a). Like other groups of the New Guinea highlands, they are primarily subsistence horticulturalists who raise pigs; however, departing somewhat dramatically from "core" highland groups—the groups first "discovered," settled, and studied by (respectively) prospectors, plantation owners, and anthropologists—they do not engage in elaborate cycles of competitive exchange.

The Huli practice a flexible system of land tenure and residence that allows individuals to claim rights to land through connections to both male and female ancestors (discussed in greater depth later in this chapter). This practice has facilitated the redistribution of people during times of famine or warfare, or in response to increasing population pressures. However, as Ballard (2002) points out, this complex and highly negotiable system also engenders conflicting claims, which may in part explain the impressive generational depth of Huli dindi malu—literally, land genealogies—a genre of knowledge about lineage and land usage employed to resolve territorial disputes (Allen 1995). Extrapolating from dindi malu and oral histories, Ballard (1995, 2002) hypothesizes that during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a pattern of Huli expansion, often aggressive in nature, out from the fertile valley where Tari town is now located into more marginal valleys and the mountainous areas north of Tari. Ballard also suggests that there was a gradual but dramatic change in the structure of Huli society associated with the adoption of the sweet potato during the seventeenth century (see also Modjeska 1982; Watson 1977): prior to the adoption of sweet potato, Huli society appears to have been dominated by hereditary leaders who were the eldest sons of eldest sons in a clan's senior lineage, a genealogical strategy still used today to assert superior claims to land (Wardlow 2001). Over time, perhaps spurred by increases in food and pig production made possible by sweet potato, leadership among the Huli shifted from being ascribed to achieved, and was, moreover, decentralized into a wide range of prestigious male roles (military leaders, ritual experts, orators, traders, mediators, and men of wealth).


Excerpted from Wayward Women by Holly Wardlow. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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"Rich . . . . would be analytically useful within all fields seeking intelligibility of complex social relations."—Social Anthropology

"Provokes new questions while addressing concerns of longstanding in Melanesianist ethnography."—Reviews
In Anthropology

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Holly Wardlow is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

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Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Holly Wardlow’s Wayward Women captures the entirety of life as a woman in a third world country. Based in Papua New Guinea, Wardlow’s ethnography outlines the progression of females from wives to prostitutes. The women of Papua New Guinea have strong perceptions of independence, referred to in this book as female agency. When women fight with their husbands, they will go to extremes such as finger lopping or even suicide. These actions are indications of rebellion against the subordination of women. Women are perceived as objects to men as well as their families. They are ranked by a concept known as brideswealth. Brideswealth is the center of a woman’s self-worth and is influenced by the way a woman behaves. Many women use sex as a way to betray and exploit their families, ultimately lowering their self-worth. The introduction and chapter one of Wayward Women contain a description of the author’s fieldwork, her reasons for choosing to study in Papua New Guinea, and the concept of fencing in women. After hearing a story of a woman’s tragic death, Wardlow became fascinated in Huli passenger women (prostitutes) and how self-identified they are. She developed an interest in how they used sex as a resource for female agency. However, Wardlow’s fieldwork was more challenging than she had ever imagined. Not only was she robbed several times, but she also found herself having more of role in her community than she had first intended. “My fieldwork was also difficult because I found myself inadvertently engaging in the “participant” side of participant observation more than I planned for or wanted…” (27) Throughout the book, Wardlow describes the great difficulty she encounters being an ethnographer in the Huli community. Having been a member of a Papua New Guinea household, Wardlow encountered many women at different stages in their lives. It was living within the community that she was exposed to the concept subordinate women. In chapter two, the author describes concepts of body and agency and she relates them to Huli women. Men and women are viewed very differently; men being seen as the dominant sex. Women however are looked at as being bodily because of their ability to grow and nurture others. “… they breast-feed babies and clean their bottoms; they grow and cook the food that others eat; manage their menstrual fluids to protect the bodies of men in their lives; they care for the pigs that enable multiple social interactions…” (67-68) Although men are viewed as the dominate sex, women are responsible for maintaining a functional household. Women, therefore, have more power than they are perceived to have. Women are the ones with the ability to reproduce and the knowledge of how to care for pigs. In Papua New Guinea, a woman’s agency is often narrowed to the way she uses her body for social projects. “…since many avenues of agency are closed to women, it is not surprising that women’s own discourses about their social efficacy tend to emphasize bodily actions. Using the body- either in a nurturing way or in more resistant ways- is often the only recourse.” (72) Thus, women use negative agency, such as self-harm and the resistance to reproduction to express betrayal. The idea of negative agency extends to the topic of chapter three, brideswealth. Brideswealth, the social-worth of a woman, is a secure way for a man to ensure reproductive materials and