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Chic, chèque, choc

Françoise Grange Omokaro
Fenneke Reysoo

Through the looking-glass: sexual-economic exchange

Paola Tabet

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  • 1 For a fuller discussion of the points presented here, see Tabet (2004).

1My specific object of research is sexual-economic exchange, or in other words the relations between men and women involving some kind of compensation given by the man for the sexual services of a woman1.

2To clarify from the onset, my object is not what people would generally consider when they read or hear this definition. I am not talking primarily about “prostitutes” or “whores”. A first question to be asked in fact is: What is a whore? Is there any clear and universally accepted definition of who can be termed a whore? And here comes the first surprise: when we look across cultures and societies, when we consider, say, European history, we see there is no agreement as to what defines a whore. Indeed, there is no universally held definition. It is not defined for instance in terms of “the many and the money”. A culture may have a perfectly legitimated ritual whereby a newly-wed bride must sleep with the young men in her husband’s age group on her first night of marriage, without being considered a whore in her own society. But on the other hand, this case is chosen by Encyclopaedia Cattolica (1953) as an example of prostitution thus including the traditional lending of a wife to a guest in Eskimo societies. We clearly have here a situation in which what is normal and legitimate in one society and in one culture, is considered wrong and illegitimate in another.

3There are societies, on the other hand, where women are supposed to give sex in exchange for material benefits, where for instance a woman is set to marry several men so that her father may receive bride-wealth from each husband. A wife may also be allowed to sleep with her husband’s partners as well as members of his family, but these same women would be in serious trouble should they become involved with a man outside their husband’s or father’s choice set: they would then be stigmatised as promiscuous, or whores. So neither the multiplicity of partners that we tend to consider as a necessary element for this definition, nor receiving money (i. e. the exchange of money or other objects or property for sexual services) defines in all cultures and in all times the whore or prostitute, nor necessarily sets her apart from other women. Ethnologists and historians have made this quite clear.

4Maurice Bloch (1989, 166), commenting on the cultural differences in meanings attached to money for sex, stresses this point:

5In Europe the linking of monetary exchange and sexual or familial exchange is seen as either typically immoral or as a source of humour and dissonance. By contrast, in Madagascar the need to keep the two areas separate is not present. The right thing for a man to do is to give his lover a present of money or goods after sexual intercourse. This applies not only to pre-marital or extra-marital sex, but also to marital relations, though on a less regular basis.

6Consider then this case drawn from European history. Ruth Mazo Karras who has studied “common women” in Medieval England states: “The modern Western notion of a prostitute as a woman who takes money for sex is a creation of particular understandings of sexuality and money. It is not a category automatically meaningful in any other culture” (1996, 10). And indeed “late medieval English culture had no conceptual category reserved for women who engaged in sex for money” (131). In fact economic transactions are not a peculiar specific feature of prostitution: “A women was not considered a whore because of or on the basis of economic exchange as this exchange concerned all women” (emphasis added).

7What is more: “Medieval English culture assumed that all women ought to belong to some man. […] Any woman who was not a wife, a daughter (directly under her father’s control) or a servant […] was suspect, and impugning her morality was one way of keeping her in line” (135). She was considered to be “out of control”, “out of place” and for this reason she could be considered a “whore”. And the menace of the whore label or “whore stigma”, that G. Pheterson (1996, 65) considers a gender stigma, was used in Medieval England as in so many other situations (Pheterson 1996; Tabet 1987) to keep her under control. The same holds for France before the French Revolution, where taking money for sex was not always the qualifying element even in juridical definitions of prostitution (Benabou 1987).

8What in fact is at stake in the definitions of a woman as whore is not a specific concrete behaviour: situations that comprise sexual-economic exchange, as well as others that do not, may both be considered illegitimate and stigmatised. There is actually no universally held definition. The only universal element that encompasses the different definitions is something else: it is the transgression of the rules concerning the property of women’s bodies, the rules establishing who has the right to control women and decide what use is to be made of women’s bodies in that specific society (Tabet 1987; 2004). Transgressing these rules entails punishment. And one punishment for women is being stigmatised as a whore. And indeed: “The menace of the whore stigma acts as a whip holding female humanity in a state of pure subordination. Until that whip loses its sting the liberation of women will be in check” (Pheterson 1996, 89).

  • 2 Though of great interest, I will not deal here with relations where the economic exchange in gifts (...)

9So we have to leave aside our common sense ideas about prostitution and turn to this different object of research: the conceptual field defined by all relations of exchange of sexuality between men and women, whether they are transgressive or not, in which on the man’s side there is some form of payment in exchange for some form of sexual service from a woman2. This field covers “illegitimate” situations (as with prostitution in most societies) as well as institutions that are central to a society like marriage (in whatever form it may take in different societies) – and here one element of the exchange may be not only a financial compensation but also legitimacy and name or social prestige.

  • 3 In Haiti, for another example: “Women’s sex is explicitly perceived to have economic exchange value (...)

10What must be stressed is that there is a continuum of forms of sexual service given by women and not a dichotomy between marriage and the other relations that imply sexual-economic exchange. In any situation where the woman is giving sexual service and the man is paying, he is giving a compensation that can vary in size and kind: whether it involves money, food, clothes, housing, access to jobs or generally access to resources (for instance, access to farming land in societies where agriculture is the economic basis, and women’s access to land depends on their marriage). For “sex is women’s work” they say in Niger, “a woman’s sex is her land”; “it is her capital”, they say in many other places3. Italian prostitutes jokingly say: “We are sitting on our capital”. And how much a man cares about the relation is assumed to be shown in the amount he gives, that is to say, how well he treats the woman. So in Ghana, for example, the amount of “chop money” or money for food that a woman receives shows how well a husband or lover supports her and is a frequent cause of domestic trouble (Abu 1983). Clearly, to understand the prevalence of sexual-economic exchange, we must keep in mind what the sexual division of labour means in all known pre-industrial societies (Tabet 1979; 1982). We have to consider the enormous difference between men’s and women’s access to resources, and also the well known fact that over 90% of the world’s resources, capital, etc., are in men’s hands, while women do far more than half of the working hours (but earn less than one per cent of the wages paid in the whole world). And remember too that, also in industrialized countries, salaries for men and women and access to jobs are still unequal.

11There are several aspects of sexual-economic exchange I want to deal with here. It is important to keep in mind, as I said, that we do not have a dichotomy between marriage and prostitution but that they are placed in a continuum with variations at almost every level. I’ll briefly enumerate some of these variations:

    • 4 As in Ethiopia, for instance, where the temporary wife has an agreed-upon fixed salary and can sue (...)

    Relations differ in time length along a continuum going from lifelong marriage at one end, to forms of institutionalised “temporary marriage”4, to many kinds of relations varying in time length and form of negotiation (more or less explicit) such as the relations with “mistresses” or “kept women”, to – at the other end of the continuum – the few-minute stint as with some forms of prostitution.

    • 5 In the case of Great Britain at the end of the 19th century, Walkowitz has clearly shown how workin (...)

    The continuum also concerns the women involved in the exchange. Instead of accepting as a given the currently held absolute separation or division of women into wives and whores, it is possible to show a continuum ranging from marriage to the modern forms of sex work. Women in fact may alternate in their lifetime between types of sexual-economic relations, going from marriage to having steady boyfriends, more or less steady clients, and “sugar daddies” or boyfriends who pay with gifts or fees. It is a situation well known and stressed by sociologists working in African cities (illustrated through recent research in Mali, presented in this conference by Françoise Grange Omokaro et Fenneke Reysoo, as well as in Morocco presented here by Mériam Cheikh). Renée Pittin (1979; 1983) and others (Echard 1985) have studied this life pattern, which is particularly clear in the case of the “free women”, “femmes libres” or” karuwai” (to use the Hausa name) of Niger and Nigeria, who alternate periods of marriage and periods of sexual service to one or more men upon whose “gifts” they depend. As Renée Pittin notes, giving sexual service in return for an economic compensation does not distinguish a “free woman” from a wife: in fact “any woman expects to benefit economically from her man be he husband or suitor or lover… Women do not bestow their bodies, their time, and their lives gratis; they expect some recompense” (Pittin 1979). I found this same pattern in my fieldwork in Niger. Moving between forms of sexual-economic exchange has been noted among working class women in 19th century London in the ground-breaking work of Judy Walkowitz5 (1980). Peiss (1986) and Stansell (1987) describe analogous situations in New York.

  1. There is a continuum also in the kinds of services women give: from a global service (as with marriage) implying anything from domestic labour (Delphy 1998; 2001), reproduction (Tabet 1985; 1998), care and relational service and sexual service, to situations where only sexual service is exchanged. But even overt sex work can be far from the idea of just a service within a fixed time period, at a fixed fee and where specific sexual services are explicitly negotiated. Here again we are faced with a great variety of situations. Some forms of prostitution may in fact include domestic labour, as well as some form of relational labour. White’s study on prostitution in Nairobi between 1909 and 1950 (White 1990) gives a rich documentation of this and other forms: in one form of sex work, women – called malayas – did not give only sexual service, they cooked food for their clients, prepared their bath water and could even offer a place to sleep; they would also receive a client just for a chat and a cup of tea. But other malayas in more recent years (the 1970s) tend to refuse this kind of service: “I love it [sex] with a man I am attracted to, but I never let a man stay in my room until daylight. If they stay, they start wanting tea, and then food, and then before you know it, you are washing his clothes. I don’t have time” (Nelson 1977, 154, emphasis added). And indeed, though malayas consider their work, even the very short sex relation called “quick service”, as a sort of mini-marriage, one of them clearly spelled out its limits: “a malaya is a wife that doesn’t clean for her husband” (Nelson 1977, 17).

    • 6 A relation of personal dependence, of private appropriation of women or what Colette Guillaumin cal (...)

    Negotiation is an absolutely basic point in this continuum as here we are dealing not only with the possibility that women can decide on the type of compensation they receive, but also the type of work and work conditions: the possibility of fixing an amount of work time as well as the scope of tasks and payment in fact defines the status of a relation, whether it is a relation of personal dependence and subordination akin to relations of slavery or serfdom6, or a contractual relation. And here again we have a whole range of situations: from the frequent impossibility or at least difficulty for wives to negotiate and quantify their work or services, whether they be sexual, domestic or procreative, as with the relation of marriage (especially marriage for life), to situations where you have explicit negotiation. Negotiation can be done in a semi-covert way, using seduction as a means to obtain things, or in explicit ways by fixing a price (and time period) for a specific service, as with sex work assumed as such. Forms of compensation also vary, from gifts or up-keep left to the man’s will, to fees contractually decided upon.

12I am talking about a continuum but does it involve any breaking points? And where? Most importantly, what differences are crucial to women? How do women themselves make their decisions and choices? When and how can they and do they decide about their lives? As important as this point may be, I can only call your attention to it. Women’s choices, women’s forms of resistance, in Africa and elsewhere, can be noted when they leave their marriages, for instance, particularly in the case of forced marriages. Women might then migrate to cities where they seek out ways of surviving in order to gain some sense of personal and economic autonomy, and may live by giving sexual services beyond the bonds of marriage. Women’s migrations, with the purpose of escaping unbearable subordination, forced sex and forced pregnancies, “too much work – as one ‘free woman’ in Niamey told me – and a husband that beats” for “you can’t keep men from beating” (Morokvasic 1986), have been seen as an alternative form of class struggle.

13Let us turn then to an essential question: what place does sexual-economic exchange have in the social relations between men and women? My interest and my research on the exchange of sexuality began more than two decades ago (Tabet 1987), after reading Malinowski’s well known book The sexual lives of savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929). Malinowski shows that the Trobrianders are very free in their sexual habits starting from when they are children. In all sexual relationships, women are “paid”, that is to say they receive “gifts”. This is something puzzling to Malinowski, something he can’t explain, that he in fact considers as quite “illogical”. “Considering the great freedom of women”, says Malinowski, “and their equality with men in all matters, especially that of sex, and considering that the natives fully realize that women are as inclined to intercourse as men, one would expect the sexual relation to be regarded as an exchange of services in itself reciprocal”. But no: “Custom, arbitrary and inconsequent, here as elsewhere, decrees that it is a service from women to men, and men have to pay”. And indeed “the gift is an essential part of the transaction” to the point that “in the course of every love affair the man has constantly to give small presents to the woman”. What’s more, this “need of one-sided payment” is “self-evident” for the Trobrianders as they consider that “sexual intercourse, even where there is mutual attachment, is a service rendered by the female to the male. As such it has to be repaid in accordance with the rule of reciprocity, or give-and-take, which pervades tribal life”. Based on this rule, any service received (as the building of a canoe for example or magic) has to be repaid, and the payment is called mapula, a word used to describe “equivalence” or “repayment”. The gifts or payments (called buwa), given to women in all sexual relations vary from tiny presents given to girls by little boys, to more substantial presents given from time to time to lovers in longer relations, or to presents a husband gives his wife “for the permanent sexual accommodation” she offers him. And Malinowski insists: “This rule [giving a regular ‘reward for sexual favours’] is by no means logical or self-evident”. (Malinowski 1929, 319-321).

14The question Malinowski raises makes sense: why is women’s role in sex considered a service if women and men are equal? If Malinowski’s premise on equality is correct, then the payment is not “logical”. But it is easy to show, using Malinowski’s very data, that the relation is not equal in many aspects (starting with who has the right to choose the partner). I would say that Malinowski does not take his own ethnological data sufficiently into account; it is quite clear that the islanders know more about their gender relations and the power relations between the sexes than he does.

15What seems to be a problem for Malinowski is not at all a problem for Marcel Mauss, nor for Claude Lévi-Strauss. Quite the contrary!

16Mauss (1950) considers that a very important contribution of Malinowski, a contribution that “throws a brilliant light on all sexual relations in all mankind”, has been to “liken the mapula, the ‘constant’ payment a man gives to his wife, to a sort of salary for the sexual service given” (268), or as Mauss writes elsewhere to “a sort of salary-gift for the service given by the wife when she lends what the Coran still calls the field ” (190). This is “a great discovery that sheds light on all the economic and juridical relations between the sexes in marriage” (190, emphasis added).

  • 7 See Rubin’s critique (Rubin 1975).

17For Lévi-Strauss (1967), Malinowski’s “anomaly”, i. e, the payment for women’s sexual acts (the buwa) can be explained by situating it in a larger social context. Placed in the context of the general theory on the exchange of women, Lévi-Strauss argues that what Malinowski considered to be an anomaly becomes self-evident: “The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman, but between two groups of men”, and “the woman figures only as one of the objects of exchange, not as one of the partners”. Considering this global relation7, the allegedly illogical situation raised by Malinowski – that for Trobrianders the sexual relation is a service from women to men, a service men have to pay – can be explained quite simply: the relation cannot be reciprocal as women are not partners but objects of exchange. There is one area where women can have a margin of authority, “a category that depends principally upon her good will: personal services, be they domestic or sexual” (Lévi-Strauss 1967: 134-135). So all is clear. There being no reciprocity, sex, as Lévi-Strauss himself states, is a service the woman gives (depending upon her good will!).

  • 8 For the different levels of knowledge dominants and dominated tend to have about the mechanisms of (...)

18So here we have two renowned anthropologists who define unambiguously – just as an obvious fact – women’s sexual acts as services for which clearly men pay. And, allow me to emphasize, they are talking about marriage, not about prostitution. Clearly, what so often tends to be hidden or obfuscated for those who are dominated is revealed as self-evident and quite obvious for those on the other side8.

19But if sexual-economic exchange is the general pattern of men’s and women’s relations, what does this mean for women? And how is it linked to other aspects of male-female relations? And specifically what does sexual-economic exchange mean for the construction of women’s (and men’s) sexuality? How is women’s sexuality conditioned, we could say built, into becoming a service? How do you make a woman? Because as Simone de Beauvoir says, “On ne naît pas femme” (or one is not born a woman). These questions are too complex to deal with in a short presentation. How such conditioning plays out in different societies and in different historical periods needs specific research, but I want to provide here one example from a life story that illustrates some of its possible elements, that we can first summarize.

20First of all, let us consider the link between the sexual division of labour, the differential access of men and women to basic resources, and women’s subordination. Add to that the pressure and cultural conditioning starting from childhood that forces girls and later women to submit to male domination, and specifically to their husband’s requests. And third, how necessity and submission can be turned into gratification.

  • 9 The present tense is used here to convey the time of Nisa’s childhood, as some! Kung were still liv (...)

21The story of Nisa, a! Kung, woman of the Kalahari desert in Namibia can be used as an example of how these elements play out (Shostak 1983). The! Kung are a population of hunters and gatherers9, with a strict division of labour between the sexes: women do the gathering and men the hunting; use of hunting tools is forbidden to women, making women dependent on men for this most precious form of protein food, and relegating them to the difficult task of collecting roots and meagre vegetables from the desert, forming the staple food of the! Kung. During Nisa’s childhood, her father tells her that a husband is like a father, that he kills animals and gives her meat to eat, that the wife depends on him. Like other!Kung girls, Nisa is forced to marry very young, before puberty, still a child and very much feeling like one. (Nisa’s own daughter, years later, will die from having her neck broken: the husband had tried to rape her just after her first menstruation and had violently thrown her to the ground).

22The whole family continuously tries to persuade Nisa to accept her husband. Her mother says: “Now, take this man as your husband, this strong man who will get food, for you and for me to eat. Is your father the only one who can find food? A husband kills things and gives them to you; a husband gets meat that is food for you to eat”. Finally, Nisa leaves the husband she never accepted, but is forced to marry again and goes through several trial marriages. She tries to run away, hides in the bush, but is found and taken back. Though at first the!Kung view such actions with some tolerance, as the girl becomes older societal pressures become stronger, including threats of violence, to oblige her to conform. And the whole family goes on insisting: “A man is not something that kills you, he is someone that marries you, who becomes like your father or your older brother. He kills animals and gives you things to eat.” Nisa is forced to have sex against her will. She makes herself a sort of protective device in the form of a leather belt, to avoid having sex, but her husband manages to rape her. And, she says, she finally “understands”: “When Tashay wanted to lie with me I no longer refused… We lived and when he wanted me, I didn’t refuse… I thought: ‘Why had I been so concerned about my genitals? They aren’t that important, after all. So why was I refusing them?’”. So Nisa submits to the sexual conditioning imposed on her. She accepts as a priority what her husband wants and she begins to love him.

23And eventually she also manages to get something for herself. Nisa talks about enjoying sex and having lovers, and also how she enjoys the gifts she receives from them, whether food, beads or money. When a husband leaves for some time, Nisa says, a woman sees her lovers: “If one of her lovers lives in a village nearby and an animal is killed, he’ll cut some meat and bring it to her… He’ll sit with her, cooking it until the broth is rich and heavy. She will drink it and her heart will be happy. She’ll think: ‘Oh my husband has just left and here I am, drinking this wonderful broth’.”

24Gifts from lovers are sought after and are clearly a source of self-gratification and pride. A woman, Nisa tells the anthropologist, “should have lovers wherever she goes… Because each one gives her something. She gathers from one man one thing, from another something else, and from another, yet something else. It is as though her genitals were worth money – Pounds! Rands! Shillings! (Nisa laughs)”.

25We have come full circle.


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1 For a fuller discussion of the points presented here, see Tabet (2004).

2 Though of great interest, I will not deal here with relations where the economic exchange in gifts or money etc. goes in the other direction, from the woman to the man, as in the example of Barbados “beach boys” and women from wealthier countries studied by Phillips (2002). Nor will I deal with sexual-economic exchange in homosexual relations.

3 In Haiti, for another example: “Women’s sex is explicitly perceived to have economic exchange value, to be her “assets”. Women […] may refer to their genitals as tè m (my land) or byen’m (my assets)” (de Zalduondo and Bernard 1995).

4 As in Ethiopia, for instance, where the temporary wife has an agreed-upon fixed salary and can sue the man if she is not paid. The children born from this marriage are considered legitimate and recognised by the father.

5 In the case of Great Britain at the end of the 19th century, Walkowitz has clearly shown how working class women who gave paid sexual services out of marriage for some period of their lives, were ghettoised, separated from their class and forced to remain in prostitution for longer time periods by laws against venereal deceases.

6 A relation of personal dependence, of private appropriation of women or what Colette Guillaumin calls “sexage” (Guillaumin 1992; 1995). Guillaumin gives a special importance to measures (or absence thereof) as a central element in defining the relation.

7 See Rubin’s critique (Rubin 1975).

8 For the different levels of knowledge dominants and dominated tend to have about the mechanisms of domination (specifically between men and women) see Mathieu (1985; 1991; 1999).

9 The present tense is used here to convey the time of Nisa’s childhood, as some! Kung were still living at that time and during Shostak’s field work in settlers farms as farm labourers.


Anthropologist, University of Calabria, Italy.


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