Anger, Economy, and Female Agency: Problematizing ‘Prostitution’ and ‘Sex Work’ among the Huli of Papua New Guinea

Women’s studies, anthropology, and international health all share an intellectual and, albeit in different ways, an activist or applied interest in prostitution/sex work, and this interest has recently intensified amid concerns about the AIDS pandemic and global “trafficking” in women. These three fields have also shared an evolution in the terminology naming their object of study: from prostitution to sex work to, most recently,sexual networking and survival sex. This evolution reflects a desire to shift the discursive fields surrounding monetized sexual exchanges from moral to economic terms. In other words, while there has been heated debate both within and among these different disciplines about how prostitution should be understood, whether and how national and international bodies should intervene in its practice, and who should represent it or speak for it, there has been some basic agreement that of the various terms to choose from, sex work, in particular, is a better label—better in that it may more accurately represent what women feel they are doing when they engage in monetized sexual exchanges (i.e., working) and their reasons for doing so (i.e., economic need).

It is questionable whether researchers within these disciplines mean the same thing when they use the term sex work. For some it may simply seem a more culturally neutral term than prostitution, which may conjure up images of nineteenth‐century streetwalkers. For others, the term sex work is a political assertion that monetized sex is a kind of labor that—like other forms of labor—should be remunerated, safe, and legal. Still others prefer the term sex worker because, unlike the term prostitute, it suggests an income‐generating activity rather than a totalizing identity. And finally, for some researchers, the term sex work speaks directly to causality; it implies that women resort to the exchange of sex for money because of the structural violence that feminizes poverty and prevents women from engaging in other financially viable ways of feeding their families.

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