Sex work and the construction of intimacies: Meanings and work pragmatics in rural Malawi

Iddo Tavory, Michelle Poulin

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This article focuses on Malawian sex workers' understandings of exchange and intimacy, showing how multiple historically emergent categories and specific work pragmatics produce specific patterns of relational meanings. As we show, sex workers make sense of their relationships with clients through two categories. The first is sex work; the second is the chibwenzi, an intimate premarital relational category that emerged from pre-colonial transformations in courtship practices. These categories, in turn, are also shaped differently in different work settings. We use narratives from in-depth interviews with 45 sex workers and bar managers in southern Malawi to describe how the everyday pragmatics of two forms of sex work-performed by "bargirls" and "freelancers"-foster distinct understandings of relationships between them and men they have sex with. Bargirls, who work and live in bars, blurred the boundaries between "regulars" and chibwenzi; freelancers, who are not tethered to a specific work environment, often subverted the meanings of the chibwenzi, presenting these relationships as both intimate and emotionally distant. Through this comparison, we thus refine an approach to the study of the intimacy-exchange nexus, and use it to capture the complexities of gender relations in post-colonial Malawi.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)211-231
    Number of pages21
    JournalTheory and Society
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - May 2012


    • Exchange
    • Intimacy
    • Malawi
    • Sex work
    • Sub-Saharan Africa

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • Sociology and Political Science


    Dive into the research topics of 'Sex work and the construction of intimacies: Meanings and work pragmatics in rural Malawi'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this