The exchange of women is an element of alliance theory — the structuralist theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists who see society as based upon the patriarchal treatment of women as property, being given to other men to cement alliances.[1] Such formal exchange may be seen in the ceremony of the traditional Christian wedding,[citation needed] in which the bride is given to the groom by her father.


The structuralist view of kinship was laid out in Lévi-Strauss' grand statement: Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (The Elementary Structures of Kinship). In this, he combined Mauss' ideas about the importance of gifts in primitive societies with the role of the incest taboo in forcing exchanges of mates outside of closely related family groups. The resulting exchange of women is asymmetric in that men have power over women which is not reciprocated. The resulting social structures provide a framework for treating the oppression of women as a social construct rather than being a matter of biology.[2]

In "The Traffic in Women," Gayle Rubin articulated a feminist analysis of kinship, gender roles, sexuality, the incest taboo and taboo against homosexuality, as part of a historically evolving "sex/gender system."[3]

Biblical patriarchy

Men in ancient Hebrew culture established and negotiated their relations with other men through the exchange of female relatives. This is seen in Old Testament narratives such as the stories spread across the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.[4]

Criminal treatment

In Afghanistan and remote areas of Pakistan, women may be exchanged in compensation for a debt or offence such as murder. This practice is known as swara. Pakistan's constitution prohibits this with a penalty of 3 to 10 years of imprisonment but the custom still persists.[5]

In art

The exchange of women in the course of male bonding appears as a theme in the novels The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn.[6] Indecent Proposal and other female-barter movies were criticized for promoting this theme.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Regina Schwartz (1990), The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory, Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-16861-3
  2. ^ Gayle Rubin (2006), "4 The Traffic in Women", Feminist Anthropology, pp. 92–95, ISBN 978-1-4051-0196-7
  3. ^ Rubin, Gayle. 1975. “The Traffic in Women: Towards a Political Economy of Sex.” In Towards an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna Reiterc. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  4. ^ Kenneth A. Stone (1996), Sex, Honor and Power in the Deuteronomistic History: A Narratological and Anthropological Analysis, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 1-85075-640-6
  5. ^ Sohail Chaudhry (July 16, 2008), Trapped by traditions
  6. ^ Raoul Ibarguen (1989), "7. Desire in the Waste Land A generalized exchange of women", Henry Miller and the Rise of New Critical Modernism
  7. ^ Patrick Goldstein (April 18, 1993), "A flurry of recent women-as-barter movies looks like a disturbing trend to feminists ... Are these movies merely a manifestation of the fantasies of the men who run the studios-or do they represent something much more serious?", Los Angeles Times, p. 8