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Anthropology Has a Rape Problem

Another risk of doing field research in remote locations.

by Michael Byrne
Apr 13 2013, 10:01pm

Within the sciences, anthropology is fairly unique in its reliance on distant fieldwork. Going to some remote, isolated site in a remote, isolated country to do research/dig stuff up is normal at some point in the careers of many if not most anthropologists. It's risky, and not just for the usual reasons hanging out in far-off undeveloped places might be. A new report out from a team at the University of Illinois (being presented at the 2013 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology) finds that anthropoligists working in the field are subject to super-depressing levels of abuse from their own peers, in the form of sexual harassment, physical abuse, or sexual assault.

The team, led by anthropology professor and blogger Kathryn Clancy, interviewed 122 men and women and found that nearly half of them had experienced abuse at a research site at the hands of project directors, peers, and site managers, including "any kind of inappropriate physical contact, unwanted physical touching, assault, all the way up to rape," Clancy says. About 19 percent of those surveyed reported specifically sexual assault, most of it coming from superiors. That number is in the same neighborhood as reported (reported, read: barely comprehensive) sexual assult rates within the U.S. military.

"Overwhelmingly, we're seeing junior women being targeted by senior men," Clancy says. "59 percent of respondents have experienced sexual harassment. Women are 3 times more likely to experience harassment than men. And 19 percent of respondents have been sexually assaulted."

Clancy notes that protections for researchers in the field are currently barely existent, relative to the protections that exist in a lab setting. "If we want to fund a postdoctoral researcher, we have to write a postdoc mentoring plan so that we prove that this postdoc isn't just going to be a lackey for us and that we're actually going to mentor them and train them and help them get a job," she says. "I have to make sure my students have access to certain kinds of vaccines if they're working with blood. We have to go through Institutional Review Boards to protect our research subjects. We have to go through animal protocols to protect our animals. But we don't have to protect our researchers in the field."

In a well-worth-reading Scientific American blog post today, Clancy adds this hopeful bit:

Biological anthropology has a long, feminist tradition of women and men interrogating sexism in the workplace, as well as researching and prioritizing female behaviors and friendships and reproductive strategies in human evolution. If there is any field-based science that has the tools to look at the chilly climate at field sites, it is us.

Heading back in time on her blog isn't so hopeful, however. Since 2012, Clancy's been posting anthropologists' sexual assault stories from the field. She's been bombarded with them, she writes in today's post. "Another day another story." It's a bleak picture. A quick sample:

My professor often joked that only pretty women were allowed to work for him, which led me to wonder if my intellect and skills had ever mattered. He asked very personal questions about my romantic life, often in the presence of the male students. His inappropriate behavior was a model for them, making it not only acceptable, but the norm. My body and my sexuality were openly discussed by my professor and the male students. Comments ensued about the large size of my breasts and there was speculation about my sexual history. There were jokes about selling me as a prostitute on the local market. Once I mentioned that I admired a senior female scientist and they began describing scenarios in which she and I would have sex. Pornographic photos appeared daily in my private workspace. What started out as seemingly harmless joking spiraled out of control. I felt marginalized and under attack, and my work performance suffered as a result.


In moments of discomfort, I kept my feelings to myself.  At our research site in a foreign country, my professor and the male students often made lewd comments about the local women.  One day early in my training, my professor took us on a tour of a rural town.  We came across a friendly young pregnant woman and her husband.  My professor chatted with the couple in their language then turned to me. In English, he commented approvingly upon the woman’s breasts.  Her husband realized what he was saying and ordered his wife to cover up.  The young woman quickly drew her shawl across her chest, eyes cast to the ground. My professor seemed unconcerned about the humiliation he caused them. I was put off by his lack of respect, but I said nothing.  The incident has nagged at me for years.

Clancy's 19 percent statistic isn't all that far off from more general academic life sexual assault statistics, which are startling: one in four women will be sexually assaulted during their academic career. Are we dealing fucked-up college campus culture chasing students and researchers into the field, or something else? Both the field and the academic institutions both lend themselves to ugly power dynamics but, in the field, isolation can only stand to make bad situations worse. In any case, one might expect the field dedicated to studying human behavior through history to not have to provide its own cautionary examples of people being horrible to each other.

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Image: Wikipedia Commons
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