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Sex and Salvation

Imagining the Future in Madagascar

Sex and Salvation chronicles the coming of age of a generation of women in Tamatave in the years that followed Madagascar’s economic liberalization. Eager to forge a viable future amid poverty and rising consumerism, many young women have entered the sexual economy in hope of finding a European husband. Just as many Westerners believe that young people break with the past as they enter adulthood, Malagasy citizens fear that these women have severed the connection to their history and culture.

Jennifer Cole’s elegant analysis shows how this notion of generational change is both wrong and consequential. It obscures the ways young people draw on long-standing ideas of gender and sexuality, it ignores how urbanites relate to their rural counterparts, and it neglects the relationship between these husband-seeking women and their elders who join Pentecostal churches. And yet, as talk about the women circulates through the city’s neighborhoods, bars, Internet cafes, and churches, it teaches others new ways of being.

Cole’s sophisticated depiction of how a generation’s coming of age contributes to social change eschews a narrow focus on crisis. Instead, she reveals how fantasies of rupture and conceptions of the changing life course shape the everyday ways that people create the future.


Sex and Salvation is an exceptionally insightful and vivid ethnographic chronicle of young women’s encounters with the brave new world of commoditization and consumption that is neoliberal Madagascar. In an unusually thoughtful and sensitive account, Cole reveals how controversial new habits ranging from transactional sex to Pentecostal worship can be understood only by challenging taken-for-granted tropes of rupture, decay, crisis, and destruction to grasp instead the way that such practices seek both to imagine and to create futures, in the process providing the means through which viable new forms of value and sociality emerge.”

James Ferguson, Stanford University

“This is a brightly original book that builds on Cole’s earlier work in a wonderful way while breaking new empirical ground. Using a rich combination of archival and ethnographic materials, Cole addresses an important set of issues in contemporary African society—including the changing life course, globalization, sexuality, religious change, and economic hardship—and reveals the dense interrelations among them.”--Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, University of California, Berkeley

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks

Table of Contents


ONE / Imagining the Future: Theorizing Generational and Historical Change

TWO / Making Modern Life in Tamatave: Shifting Paths to Social Mobility

THREE / Disembedding and the Humiliation of Poverty

FOUR / The Changing Social Economy of the Female Life Course

FIVE / Jeunes: The Future in the Present

SIX / Finding Vazaha? Navigating the Sexual Economy

SEVEN / Other Futures: Women, Suffering, and Pentecostalism

EIGHT / How the Future Comes into the Present


Works Cited



Women's Caucus of the African Studies Association: Aidoo-Snyder Prize

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