From Gift to Commodity . . . and Back Again: Form and Fluidity of Sexual Networking in Papua New Guinea

In this essay I want to contribute to longstanding discussions about sexism and marriage, gender relations and sexuality, and prostitution and public health in Papua New Guinea (PNG). My contribution is aimed at two overlapping developments and discourses. First, since at least the late 1970s, calls have been made for the PNG state to erect and regulate brothels, ostensibly as a ‘public health’ measure to prevent the transmission of STDs, but also to sequester the signs of sexuality away from public view. Sex is bad, but prostitution is lust, being both unproductive and wasteful. Prostitution-related topics appeared throughout the 1970s in newspapers such as The Independent, the Post-Courier, and the Wantok (in Tok Pisin). They set the stage for the first several years’ worth of AIDS-related coverage and the current struggles over the question of brothels. Four of the first six articles published in the Post-Courier, after the first HIVab+ case had been reported (in 1987), implicated prostitution (July 2, 3, 6, 10, 22, and 24). As would be the case throughout the following 20 years, letter-writers, editors, and public health officials blamed prostituted women for the growing HIV crisis without presenting any evidence of transmission dynamics. Nor did they show concern for the women, their sexual partners and families, or the conditions under which they might have been infected, including through rape.

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