#MeToo: A Crescendo in the Discourse about Sexual Harassment, Fieldwork, and the Academy (Part 1)

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Bianca C. Williams.

Sunday night, October 15, I watched women across my social media timeline bravely and vulnerably share their stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment as part of the collective conversation tagged #MeToo. I contributed my own #MeToo post after reading the initial three shares by friends, writing that I did not think I knew a woman who had not experienced some form of sexualized violence. Within two hours, hundreds of my friends, colleagues, and former students had added their voices to the orchestra of rage, sadness, disappointment, indignation, frustration, and stoic resolve accompanying #MeToo. I experienced it like it was an atmosphere-piercing, discursive crescendo. As a Black feminist anthropologist who studies, teaches, and experiences the intricate ways patriarchy, misogyny, and misogynoir shape our educational institutions and lives, you would think I wouldn’t have been surprised by the sheer vastness of the stories this hashtag brought to the digital surface. But I was. And I simultaneously wasn’t. I knew the boundless reach of sexualized violence, and yet seeing its pervasiveness in the most-heartbreaking narratives of those in my communities made it more real. And then to see a few men in my timeline express shock, disbelief, and dismissive sentiments—as if they haven’t been listening to us for decades, generations—made me angry. However, it was the silence from the majority that made me livid. But isn’t silence part of how oppression works?

I went to sleep. And then I woke in the middle of the night in a fright, uncomfortable with my post so clearly being visible online. Initially, I posted my #MeToo in solidarity with my sistas and sibs who wanted to share their stories, and to support those in community who were hesitant because they thought they were the only ones. But as I thought about the stories of rape and sexual assault of those closest to me, I wondered if my “tame” encounters with sexualized violence even counted in comparison to theirs. I took my post down, giving myself permission to be unsure and unresolved. I’m usually pretty transparent, even in a profession that values obscurity and inaccessibility as intellect. I attempt to practice radical honesty in discussions, writing, and teaching, believing that narrative as truth-telling is a form of resistance. But for the first time in a while, leaning into the truth didn’t feel right. Not yet.[1] All I could do was lay there in my bed, wondering if the experiences of unwelcome attention; touching; uncomfortable conversations filled with sexual innuendo were enough to validate my public #MeToo. That might seem foolish, but again, isn’t this how oppression works? Isn’t it a force that would ask one to quantify and qualify one’s pain, wondering if it is “bad” enough to count as sexual assault?[2]

My mind ran across: The times in high school, when discussions about my body parts were regular fodder at the lunch table. That most of the girls I knew learned how to walk through our very crowded hallways strategically covering our butts and breasts during class changes, just in case someone picked that time to grab something they felt they should have access to. And the moments that we fought back or were silent when they did. As we got older, this training prepared us for parties and clubs where the same thing happened, but the frequency was higher as liquid-courage emboldened boys (and grown men) who wanted to prove their masculinity tried to do so by conquering our bodies. The violations that happened in those social spaces weren’t much different than those that take place at department parties or wine and cheese receptions at conferences like the AAA, where men with increasingly red, blotchy skin use their eyes to undress you and their anthropological expertise to exoticize you. Others slip their hands down your back, and you feel your whole body grow tense with fear as you try to move away without drawing too much attention. I thought about the times when as a graduate student and as a professor, the interactions with academic men push past that moment of verbal appreciation of one’s beauty (which some of us like) to that awkward, uncomfortable place where you’re having to weigh the potential damage to your career against the damage to his super fragile, yet powerful ego when you say “no.” Even now, as I write this, there are stories that I type, and then I erase. Trying to decide whether it is revealing too much; whether there will be long-term professional consequences; whether or not it is appropriate to tell; whether or not it counts as violence; even though the memories have not left me, and I’m sure the men who have done the damage don’t think twice about it.

But somehow I have made some peace with these stories at home; or at least over the years I have created a tool kit, a range of coping mechanisms, and a supportive crew that hold each other down as we experience the sexualized violence and patriarchy that color women’s (and gender non-conforming and trans folx’) everyday lives. In some ways the stories in the previous paragraph have become normalized for me. What kept me up that Sunday night was remembering the helplessness and isolation I felt as I experienced sexual harassment in the field, while doing my job as an ethnographer.

(SEXUAL) HARASSMENT IN THE FIELD

While the controversy surrounding film producer Harvey Weinstein’s bullish, disgusting, sexual violence has spurred a national discussion in the past week, anthropologists like Robin G. Nelson, Julienne N. Rutherford, Katie Hinde, and Kathryn B. H. Clancy have been pushing our discipline to address these concerns for the past few years. The AAA highlighted the group’s work in an October 16 press release titled “A Call for Better Conduct in Field Research.” This report, published online by American Anthropologist, presents findings from in-depth interviews with 26 women scientists, detailing the impact sexual violence, sexual harassment, and a general toxic work environment can have on their careers. “Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories” is a follow-up from the co-authors 2013 survey of 666 individuals where participants discussed academic field experiences. Those taking up Nelson et al’s work have often focused the conversation on the conditions and climates in field schools and spaces relevant to biological anthropologists and archeologists.

It was reading “I had no power to say ‘that’s not okay’’: Reports of harassment and abuse in the field,” by Clancy a few years ago that encouraged me to freewrite about my experiences with sexual harassment in the field as a cultural anthropologist. None of those pages made the final version of my book, but writing about it helped me process it and pushed me to have discussions about potential gendered and sexualized violence in the field with students that I train to do ethnography. In the field, I had a job to do. My job was to conduct ethnographic research that required connecting with community members, gaining people’s trust, participating and observing cultural practices, and asking the right questions to learn about cultural norms, while documenting people’s stories, belief systems, and meaning-making processes. Unlike the everyday adage that one should not talk to strangers, talking to strangers in a space that was “foreign” to me and far from the comforts of home was my actual job.

In “’Don’t Ride the Bus!’: And Other Warnings Women Anthropologists Are Given During Fieldwork,” I use humor and sarcasm to talk about some of the tough times I had during those initial months of long-term field research. When I sat down to write that article (published in 2009), I was drafting the dissertation and trying to make sense of my own personal experiences in the field while analyzing the data from my participants. I wasn’t ready to really dig into the ways certain gendered and sexualized forms of harassment had influenced which individuals and communities I ended up engaging (or not), and the spaces I made my research home (or not). To be honest, I probably haven’t completed that processing, and probably will choose not to. Thinking about all of it and sharing it is exhausting. But the increase in the discourse related to sexual violence in the past week encourages me to at least share three stories about what I experienced in the field, with the hope that it contributes to the crescendo in our discipline. Stay tuned for Part 2 on Thursday…

 

 

[1] “So, why are you writing about it here, in this very public forum?,” you might ask. This medium provides me a bit more space to frame and share my story the way I want, instead of being confined to what can feel like a limited digital space on social media. And because I believe in radical honesty as Black feminist praxis, I find that I’m always braver in sharing my story if I think it can put something into action that might help someone else. Here, I’m hoping that my story can contribute to the increasing discourse on sexual violence within anthropology and the academy.

[2] Even still, I cannot fathom the physical, mental, and emotional trauma that surviving rape or an explicit sexual assault causes in one’s life. While there may not be a hierarchy of pain related to sexual violence, there certainly are layers. And I wish nothing but the most sincere hope for healing to my sibs who have experienced these forms of violence.

 

 

 

Bianca C. Williams

I am a feminist cultural anthropologist whose research interests include Black women & happiness; race, gender, and emotional labor in higher education; feminist pedagogies; and Black feminist leadership and organizing, particularly in relation to #BlackLivesMatter. My book, "The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism," examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing happiness and leisure; creating intimate relationships and friendships; and critiquing American racism and sexism (Duke University Press, 2018). I have the pleasure of teaching at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

5 thoughts on “#MeToo: A Crescendo in the Discourse about Sexual Harassment, Fieldwork, and the Academy (Part 1)

  1. We never stop wondering do we? Why? What should I have done, said? Is it safe to say it now? Were my experiences “bad” enough to count? Am I finally safe as a greying older person?

  2. We will never be safe as long as we feel that we may be somehow responsible for another persons bad behaviour. The perpetrator could be a greying older person too. Be brave, be vigilant, and raise a little hell if someone even thinks it’s okay in this day and age to sexually harass anybody. The silence has ended.

  3. A quick note to follow-up on one comment you made in this excellent blog post.

    You mention that you were livid at the silence of the majority of the men in your social media feeds regarding the #metoo tidal wave by women. You remind us that that silence is how oppression works. Of course, I generally agree…but I want to point out, as a man who did not post on social media (so far) regarding the #metoo campaign, that silence on social media is not necessarily actual silence. I did not post on the topic (although I did click on “like” or other reaction icons a few times) because I thought that my voice would distract from the voices of women — it seemed best to just get out of the way. In other words, my silence was meant as solidarity. In a world where men often take over when women speak and try to get credit for whatever they say, or where men’s speech often silences women, I thought maybe it was just time to be quiet and let others speak.

    But that was only on social media. In real life, I had long conversations about the campaign with my wife, my daughter, with colleagues, and with my students — we had a very intense discussion in one class that I think was very helpful and important. And on one of my regular (mostly male) weekend bike rides, I even called out one of the other cyclists for making a very obnoxious comment to a woman who was running near us, which led to a discussion of the #metoo campaign. I am not sure my criticism changed his mind, but it was an act of solidarity that would not be visible on social media.

    I would expect many of the men I know to behave as I have — to shut up and get out of the way, as women speak up about sexual violence, but also to act in solidarity when necessary. Men are not the victims here and our voices and experiences have not been suppressed, ignored, or belittled. So even as I express solidarity, I think getting out of the way of women in this case might have been the best thing to do. And I hope that has not been misinterpreted by too many people around me. And now I am going back to shutting up.

  4. Yes David, I hear you. I was mostly referencing the men who sat back and were silent as women were doing battle in comment sections of people’s social media posts and news articles. While I understood the choice some men were making in not inserting their voices to validate and affirm #MeToo, or to take over the discussion, I did see many places where men who work to be in allyship could’ve used their voices to engage with and pushback other men. Men calling in other men was where I observed a dangerous silence. That’s mostly what was making me livid.

  5. Bianca, were there in all of that dangerous silence a few responses from men that you found supportive. If so, it would be very helpful to guys like me if you would share them. Our silence may reflect, as I am quite sure it does in my case, both shame and confusion. We don’t know what to say.

    Was it culture or biology or more likely a mixture of both, given what we know about primate and other vertebrate mating rituals, in which a mixture of sex and aggression is typical? Growing up white and male in Virginia in the 1950s-60s, I went through adolescent phases that included rape and other fantasies but also grew up in a conservative religious family where such things were never spoken about. Well, almost never. My grandmother once told me a joke that goes to the heart of my confusion. It had two parts, of which I will give you the second first. “If a politician says, yes, he means maybe. If he says maybe, he means no. And if he says no, he is no politician.” The first part, more relevant here went, “If a lady says no, she means maybe. If she says maybe, she means yes. And if she says yes, she’s no lady.” The outcome of these influences was a mostly extremely inhibited but eager participation in dating and courting rituals where the boundary between yes and no was always in play. How far I/we can/should go was always a fraught question.

    Now I am seventy-three. I have lived through the sixties. I consider myself a feminist. If the issue is equal rights or equal pay regardless of gender, I am totally on board. My wife founded our company and now, as an owner-partner, I get paid what she does, and both our names are on our bank and investment accounts. We are as equal as equal can be. Still I find myself confused when it comes to questions like when does flirting cease to be harmless or when is complimenting a woman on her new haircut or the dress she is wearing become offensive. Erring on the side of inhibition usually seems the better choice. So does keeping my mouth shut when women are talking about their concerns. Is that a good thing? No. I could sure use some training in how to be helpful without falling into either the “Me white knight, I defend you” or mansplaining traps.

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