Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. Holly Wardlow. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. 284pp.
Article first published online: 11 MAR 2010
© 2010 by the American Anthropological Association
Special Issue: Rethinking Autism, Rethinking Anthropology: Guest Editors: Nancy Bagatell and Olga Solomon
Volume 38, Issue 1, pages 1–3, March 2010
How to Cite
Martin, R. J. (2010), Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. Holly Wardlow. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. 284pp. Ethos, 38: 1–3. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2010.01116.x
- Issue published online: 11 MAR 2010
- Article first published online: 11 MAR 2010
In Wayward Women, Holly Wardlow presents an ethnographically rich exploration of passenger women (pasinja meri) from Tari New Guinea who engage in sexual relations oftentimes for money and outside the framework of marriage. Positioning her ethnography as a culturally-nuanced corrective to insights proffered in Foucault's History of Sexuality (1978), Wardlow sets out to explore the relationship between sexual subjectivity and agency. Wardlow's concerns include the subject position of the passenger woman, sexuality as resource for female agency, and the interrelationship between the two. These themes figure prominently throughout the chapters, and help make sense of cultural phenomena such as finger-lopping, bridewealth, and the Dawe Anda, a ritual house wherein men competitively sing, vying for the sexual attentions of the women present.
Formulating feminist anthropological concerns about female agency in terms of Melanesian notions of relational selfhood, Wardlow puts forth a theoretical conceptualization of agency as “positive” or “negative”. Whereas positive agency consists in “the ability to initiate, contribute to, take credit for and shape transactional, relational endeavors” (227), negative agency manifests “as the refusal to cooperate with others' plans and expectations as well as a kind of excision of a woman's energies and skills from the social body” (24). The acts of passenger women are understood in terms of negative agency. By exchanging sex for money, these women deny their male kin access to bridewealth to which they would otherwise be entitled. Suicide and finger- lopping, or the self-removal of a portion of a digit in an act of rage, are likewise presented as acts of negative agency, because they remove women from the domain of productive labor.
Wardlow reports that self-inflicted violence is often a response to being wronged by male kin, particularly brothers and husbands: domestic violence, rape or false accusations of adultery catalyze these acts of negative agency. Whereas much of the literature on sex workers emphasizes victimization, Wardlow demonstrates that motivations for becoming a passenger women are narrated, if retrospectively, as emancipatory and emotional rather than economic. In so doing, she presents the reader with a thought-provoking reconsideration of the nuances and complexities of treating sex work ethnographically. Her thought-provoking analysis makes impossible any simplistic or reductive reading of these women's lives; motivations and desires are considered carefully and critically vis-àvis their cultural milieu in a manner that is truly exemplary.
Wardlow emphasizes the cultural constraints Huli (passenger) women face in constructing and negotiating subjectivity. In a cultural framework in which men take ultimate credit for social projects, despite an acknowledgment – both by Wardlow and her interlocutors – of the integral roles women play in the execution thereof, “good women” (wale ore) are “fenced in” by men, so that it seems as if women's expressions of individualized agency are always already “negative,” outside of and in opposition to dominant societal interests. Saba Mahmood's (2004) work on Muslim women in Egypt challenges traditional liberal feminist notions of agency through its depiction of women exercising agency precisely through active conformance to the socially prescribed, rendering their actions “positive” in Wardlow's framework. In the instance of passenger women, where notions of relational selfhood stipulate collective ownership of female sexuality (16), autonomy and individualized action are both cast in a negative light and associated with “wayward” women (cf. Strathern 1987: 205-6). Just as Marilyn Strathern points to the dangers of theoretically mapping-on conceptual frameworks from one context to another, by identifying agency as positive or negative Wardlow addresses the need for new analytical approaches to grappling with cultural incommensurability: the potential for “positive” agency such as that described by Mahmood does not seem to find parallel in the social milieu passenger women inhabit; in that cultural framework, it seems that women's agency is always already negative.
In the concluding pages of the monograph, Wardlow argues that the Huli framework provides “interventions” into theoretical conceptualizations, particularly those of Foucault and Bourdieu. Taking issue with the former, Wardlow contends Huli sexual subject formation is the result of “monetization, wage labor, migration, Christian missionization and even pornographic media” (233) rather than the disciplinary regimes around sexuality with which Foucault was concerned. Further, she argues for a model of the subject more sensitive to gendered specificities. As for Bourdieu, Wardlow finds dissatisfaction with the implication that as a result of habitus, agency becomes illusory. Thus, she posits that “although external structures are internalized, and indeed fundamentally mold subjectivity and the imaginable possibilities for action, room for other practices exists, and actors can choose to act otherwise even while operating within the dominant categories that make social life meaningful” (228). Interestingly, this point resonates with a Butlerian reading of Foucault (Butler 1999).
One place where a more thorough consideration of Bourdieu would have been profitable would be an exploration of the insights proffered in Bourdieu's Masculine Domination (1998): how do schemes of perception color the ways in which passenger women see themselves, to what extent are they attuned to dominant categories? Does the symbolic violence enacted through such schemes render their agency always already negative? Does this characterization of negativity indicate a complicity in the valorization of societal norms as positive? While further grappling with Foucault and Bourdieu would have been productive, the fact that the ethnographic analysis presented in this book raises and complicates so many exciting questions is testament to its achievement. This intriguing work, an outstanding contribution to the field, will both challenge readers seasoned in anthropology and spark the interest of students encountering ethnography for the first time.
1998 Masculine Domination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
1999 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (10th Anniversary Edition). New York: Routledge.
1978 The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.
2004 Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
1987 “No Nature, No Culture: The Hagen Case” In Nature, Culture and Gender. MacCormack and Strathern, Eds. New York:Cambridge University Press.