#MeToo: A Crescendo in the Discourse about Sexual Harassment, Fieldwork, and the Academy (Part 2)

UPDATED 10/29/17, 9:50 am: Edited to include links to helpful resources

During the first few months of ethnographic research, many cultural anthropologists recognize that the training you received in the classroom seldom prepares you for the spontaneous, erratic, and frequently daunting task of actually completing field research. You are (oftentimes, but not always) away from friends, family, and home—people and spaces that make you feel safe and empowered. You may be learning a new language, new geography, and trying to gain access to communities and institutions that are cautious about letting you in. Fieldwork is a process that one submits to—sometimes throwing caution to the wind and pushing oneself to talk to people, go to locations, and navigate situations you would never openly embrace at home or in your everyday life.

Unfortunately, because this fascinating and complex process does not happen in a vacuum, ethnographers must create relationships in the context of all the oppressions that operate in the world. In their call for a “fugitive anthropology,” Berry et al (forthcoming 2017)[1] demand that we acknowledge and theorize the gendered, racialized, and sexualized violence that often constitutes the field and fieldwork for women of color and queer ethnographers. They write that speaking of “fieldwork as an individualistic rite of passage often obscures its constitutive and interlocking racial and gender hierarchies and inequities” and favors “the emblematic racially privileged male anthropologist” (1-2). The writers offer fugitive anthropology as a tool for resistance to anthropology’s “implicit masculinist ‘shut up and take it’ mentality in reference to gendered violence in the field” (2). Recognizing that women are three times more at risk than men for experiencing sexual harassment or assault in the field,[2] I share three fieldwork stories here hoping to contribute to the discussion about the politics of gendered and sexualized violence in the field and fieldwork, particularly for women of color ethnographers.


Story 1

Whenever potential visitors ask me where they should go in Jamaica, I always say “Negril.” It’s a beautiful city, filled with the beaches, food, and music, tourists are usually looking for when they think of vacationing in the Caribbean. My first trip to the area to do preliminary research in 2003 went well (even though it ended early). I spent days eating my heart out, learning the geography of the nine-mile beach zone, while observing folx at tourist attractions and beachside bars. My presence garnered men’s praise and attention, some similar to what the African American tourist women I studied would later describe. Generally, I was able to shut down most advances, laugh at the lyrics[3] presented, and move on without much incident.

However as I started long-term fieldwork in Negril, the space began to feel differently. I planned to be stationed in Negril for about six months, but instead I left for Ocho Rios after a few weeks. As most ethnographers learn, living somewhere every day is different than simply visiting, and the attention that didn’t bother me much during that first, shorter trip became stressful as I stayed longer. In small communities people are almost always aware of who is new to the space, especially in tourist areas where one’s livelihood depends on it. Even when I was read as a Jamaican and not a foreigner, residents were still clear that my clothing, my walk, the questions I asked, marked me as someone not native to the area. This means I was a potential customer for vendors, merchants, and romance tourism workers alike, in a location where tourism dollars are central to the city’s economy. I couldn’t take the constant attention, the aggressiveness of some interactions, and the feeling that eyes were always tracking my movement. Most significantly, the sexual advances and harassment I experienced on the street and at clubs was relentless. Even some male friends that looked out for me, showed me around, and got to know me as a person (more than a body), would still sometimes look at me with a gaze that said, “One day she’s going to say ‘yes’.” The pressure to constantly assert myself and reject advances is what led me to return to this fieldsite minimally, restricting most visits to the times when I could accompany the tourist group I studied. It took too much energy to navigate the space by myself.

I’m uncomfortable writing this now because I know that it could be read as contributing to the narratives of Black men, particularly Jamaican men, as hypersexual and not in control of their sexuality. And it also might imply that I didn’t like some of the attention I received in the field. The lyrics by Jamaican men are oftentimes clever, masterful forms of gendered performance and beauty appreciation, and I fully understood why the women I studied reveled in some of this praise, because I did also. However, there were many times when I didn’t want to leave my hotel room or apartment because I didn’t want to have to police my body, look out for my safety, or be forced to clearly state to a man passing by that I was not interested in the sexual activities he was describing to me. While some of the same things happened in my other fieldsite of Ocho Rios, the fact that there were less all-inclusives and hotels geared towards international tourists led to a calmer environment and allowed for some relief from the constant sexual attention and harassment. For a while I carried some shame about ending my solo research in Negril, feeling as though I had failed at a key aspect of being an ethnographer because I didn’t “toughen it out.” I hadn’t heard of anyone leaving (at least temporarily) a fieldsite for the reasons I was choosing to leave. But at some point I decided my wellness and my safety mattered more.


Story 2

I couldn’t get away from the dancehall music pulsing into my room from the club down the street. The African American tourist women I studied were back home in the U.S. and per my methodology, I stayed in Jamaica for a few more weeks to interview and connect with some Jamaicans they had engaged during their vacation. On nights like this, I frequently stayed home to relax my tired brain or write out the fieldnotes I’d taken during the day. However tonight I decided to venture out on my own in Ocho Rios, figuring that the music was already distracting me and I couldn’t do “fieldwork” in my room.

I walked into the club, ordered a drink, and planted myself in the corner of the dance floor, where I could see everyone walking through the entrance. About an hour in, I saw some of the Jamaican fishermen that I befriended over the past few months walk in, and I gave a wave. After a couple of songs one of the fishermen, Everett, came over to say “hi” and check on me. As we caught up on the events of his day, he looked behind and around me to see if I was there with anyone else as he was used to seeing me with a group of tourist women. “Nope, I’m rolling solo tonight,” I said. He raised his eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. Two of his friends joined us, and we spent the next little while vibing and singing to old school dancehall tunes the dj played.

At some point, Everett’s friends saw some women they wanted to give lyrics to, and Everett went to go get another drink. In my peripheral vision, I saw a man that had been trying to lock eyes with me all night walk up beside me. I had noticed him from other parties and clubs that I’d attended with the Girlfriends (the tourist group I studied), but hadn’t given him much thought. (It wasn’t rare for me to see some of the same people at the tourist parties I went to, as many Jamaican men who participated in romance tourism went out almost regularly to gain the attention and affection of tourist women.) He stood very close and whispered in my ear that he had seen me around and had been watching me. Immediately, my body tensed. “Uh-huh,” I replied as to acknowledge that I heard him, but I kept my eyes straight, facing away from him hopefully indicating that I was not interested in carrying this conversation forward. He continued, offering me a drink at least twice (which I refused), before plunging into a very detailed description of the type of sex he wanted to have with me. As mentioned above, Jamaican men offering to do sexual things, or talking about parts of my body on the street was generally commonplace during fieldwork. But what made me feel like I was in the scope of danger this time was how his voice grew increasingly angry the more I refused him my full attention, and the awareness that he had been watching me the past few times I’d been out. He eventually grabbed my arm, trying to get me to turn to him. Within seconds I heard Everett’s voice chatting angry patois to the man harassing me, and the guy walked off. Apparently, Everett had seen the arm grab from his spot at the bar.

“Ya good?,” he asked. I nodded yes.

“B, why didn’t you cut him?! You should’ve given him one lick[4]! You can’t let men go on like that with you,” he said.

“You don’t understand, Everett. Where I come from you have to be careful about how you turn men down. In Orlando, if you gave a man a phone number, he would dial it in front of you. And if it was fake, they punched a woman in her face. You had to turn them down nicely, or it’s dangerous,” I replied, as I scanned the room to see where the guy went.

“B, don’t worry. He’s not coming back. And you! You’re being too nice. You know Jamaican women aren’t putting up with that. They would’ve cursed him! Man licking women in public? Here??!! Nah man. Curse him out!”

I sighed. “I hear you, Everett. Don’t worry. I got it. Next time.”

I finished my drink and moved further onto the dance floor where Everett taught me one of the latest dancehall moves. For the rest of the night, he or one of his friends were by my side ensuring that no one bothered me. They eventually walked me up the hill to my apartment to make sure I got home safely.

The next week as I waited in line for food at a restaurant, I saw the guy again. He walked in, saw me, and smiled. Remembering Everett’s words, I girded myself up, ready to confront the guy if he decided to come closer. The recognition that the gendered scripts and practices that guided my interactions with men at home weren’t exactly the same as those in public[5] tourist spaces in Jamaica helped. He must’ve sensed that I was ready for the confrontation because he ordered his food, waved at me, and left without coming close. I didn’t see him again during the rest of my fieldwork.


Story 3

Early in my long-term fieldwork, there was a day where I found myself without shelter. I’d made reservations at a locally-owned short term rental property, but when I arrived the person at the desk insisted that the price I had budgeted for was way below the actual price of the rental. I couldn’t afford the price they were charging. I calmly explained my predicament. Then I argued with tears welling up in my eyes, but to no avail. I called several friends and family at home in the U.S., but no one had anything extra to spare that they could send me. And every other housing location I contacted was way over my budget. I was stressed, worried that I’d be stuck with nowhere to rest that night.

I called some friends I had made in Montego Bay to see if I could crash at their place. Although their home was an hour and a half away from where I was doing research, and it was going to cost me a good amount of money to travel there, at the time it was the one place I felt I could stay for a week without imposing too much. The MoBay Crew (as I called them) were the first group of friends I’d made during my research and I had stayed at their “bachelor pad” once in the past. I trusted them—well, as much as I trusted folx I didn’t know very well doing fieldwork in a country I was still learning. Two of the men in the Crew were in intimate relationships, and the other two had taken my refusal well when they let me know they were available. When I called with my urgent ask for shelter, Sean told me that Orin was actually near me, renting a room in town for a work training. He rang Orin and explained the situation; and then he rang me back to give me Orin’s information, letting me know I could split the cost of housing each night until I found another place to reside. Grateful for the offer, I met up with Orin.

Nothing bad happened during my stay. In fact, Orin and I had some of the best conversations about our families, his vision for his life in the U.S. when he married his Jamaican American fiancé, the politics at his job, and how it felt for me to do ethnography in the country of my mother’s birth. It was a highlight of that particular leg of my multi-sited fieldwork. But that first night, when I laid my head down to sleep in a room with a man I barely knew—alone, without the comfort of the rest of the MoBay Crew—I was anxious. My gut told me Orin was good peoples, but the constant sexualized attention and harassment I’d experienced was making me question my gut. In addition to the pain and trauma women experience, this is one of the many sad things about the prevalence of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and unhealthy masculinities. It makes us question which men are going to choose NOT to do harm to us in a world where sexual violence is accepted and sometimes encouraged.

Contrary to stereotypical depictions of Jamaica as a place filled with irrational and constant violence, I generally felt safe as I navigated the country. I was never a victim of any physical violence, and I made friends (mostly men) who looked out for me when I needed them. But I woke up most mornings knowing that sexual innuendo and sexual harassment would likely show up in my day, and I just had to roll with the punches. The danger of sexual violence was one that I had to be aware of as I entered into friendships, partnerships, and researcher-participant relationships with those around me.

For the first little while, my eyes remained open in the darkness of the room Orin and I shared. But as I heard his breathing deepen, signaling that he was asleep, I closed my eyes and said a prayer.

Sexual harassment made me change my fieldsite and made me wary about building relationships in the field. For many of my friends and family, this is the first time they’ll hear these stories. And for most of my time doing fieldwork, these incidents didn’t necessarily stick out as things I should report or reasons to stop doing the research. That probably demonstrates how insidious and normalized sexual harassment and sexual violence becomes for some women. At the time, I felt like these were things I would have to deal with being a young woman of color doing ethnography (I was 23 when I started fieldwork). I wasn’t prepared with an effective plan for addressing these forms of violence before they began to happen in the field. And I understood from my experiences at home in the U.S. that this type of sexual harassment and violence was part of what it meant to live as a woman. But just because this violence is normalized does not mean it should be acceptable.

The field and fieldwork are essential to anthropologists, especially those who are ethnographers. Getting intimate with the cultural practices, beliefs, and performances of communities requires us to step out of the places that we have made safe for ourselves (or as safe as possible), and open ourselves up to situations we might never encounter or engage at home. Getting into cars with people before we truly trust them; entering people’s homes for meals and interviews as a path to relationship-building; going to sites some participants refuse to visit to gain access to data; blurring the lines between research, friendship, mediation, and confession are sometimes the nature of ethnography. In the interest of getting that interview, observing that practice, gaining entry into a hard to access place or person’s community, we are oftentimes met with ethnographic curveballs that we are unprepared for. The demands of the job sometimes require us to throw caution to the wind. But for some of us this has more costly consequences than others. While men may be able survive and thrive in the midst of ethnography without much consequence for their vulnerability, women—particularly young, women of color—often find themselves navigating the danger, awkwardness, shame, discomfort, and violence of unsafe or not-yet-safe spaces, or previously safe and now suddenly, threatening individuals.[6]

We must have discussions about all the ways that racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence impact the field and fieldwork, and provide training on how ALL ethnographers (including those with more racialized, sexualized, and gendered privilege) should do ethnography in the context of this. We must also seriously consider how our vision of anthropology and ethnography shift as we take into account these experiences, instead of editing them out of the discipline’s theory, methodological training, and production of ethnography/ethnographic research. Women and queer folx should not be the only ones initiating these conversations and disciplinary changes. Cis gender (white) men who are central to the imaginings of the normative and traditional ethnographer we are trained to become need to also participate in these transformations.

Links to Resources:

*A definition of sexual harassment: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm

*Introduction to #MeToo by creator Tarana Burke: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T5eTD5llNs

*”The Thrill and Fear of ‘Hey Beautiful'”: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/opinion/trans-sexual-assault-black-women.html

*”The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture”: https://norasamaran.com/2016/02/11/the-opposite-of-rape-culture-is-nurturance-culture-2/

*A Simple List of Things Men Can Do To Change Our Work and Life Culture”: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/oct/16/a-simple-list-of-things-men-can-do-to-change-our-work-and-life-culture





[1] Berry, Maya J., Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Ruth Elizabeth Velasquez Estrada, “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field,” Cultural Anthropology, 32(4): pp. 537-565, forthcoming 2017.

[2] Clancy, Kate, “I had no power to say ‘that’s not okay’’: Reports of harassment and abuse in the field,” Scientific American, April 13, 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/safe13-field-site-chilly-climate-and-abuse/.

[3] As I write about in my book The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism, throwing “lyrics” was how many men I came across passed time during the day, particularly those long hours of boredom as they waited for tourists to utilize their taxi, tour guide, or other services. “Lyrics” is a word that Jamaicans and veteran tourists employ to describe the pick-up lines Jamaican men use to compliment, come on to, or begin intimate or romantic relationships with women of all nationalities, including Jamaican women. Most Jamaican men attempt to create beautifully poetic lines, filled with metaphors and similes that make the woman at the receiving end smile and blush. These lines are known to be so lyrical that they are compared to lyrics of a song, hence the slang term.

[4] “Lick” means to hit or punch.

[5] I emphasize “public tourist” spaces here because I am aware that similar to many other countries, sexualized and gendered violence happens in private spaces in Jamaica all the time. My own family, originally from Jamaica, has a history of this trauma. But I also recognized the validity of Everett’s words—in the public tourist spaces I frequented, engaging in physical violence against women seemed to be unacceptable, even if sexual harassment was embraced as part of the everyday. It seemed that to be violent with women in public did not earn you the same masculine “privilege” points it did in the U.S. There were several times I observed Jamaican women speaking back to and/or cursing men out that they felt had violated their space, and while the men might curse back, eventually they left or moved to the other side of the club. But I recognize that this was how things went in predominately tourist locations, where violence is disruptive to profitable business ventures. I wonder if in cities and towns that are not tourism-centered if the same gendered rules of agency and resistance apply.

[6] I recognize that many people do not experience sexual harassment and sexual violence at the hands of strangers, but by those who are most intimate, friendly, and trusted within their communities. This includes those individuals who are supposed to provide shelter, sponsorship, access, and safety during fieldwork. Additionally, I want to state clearly that I am in no way attempting to place the burden of responsibility and blame on women, queer, and trans ethnographers who survived sexual violence. While I believe we could better prepare ethnographers to think about these issues before they go into the field, one who is on the receiving end of sexual violence is never at fault. The fact that we oftentimes silence, dismiss, and neglect to address these issues as an integral part of the fieldwork experience for many is a central issue.

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.

One thought on “#MeToo: A Crescendo in the Discourse about Sexual Harassment, Fieldwork, and the Academy (Part 2)

  1. Bianca, bravo! Stories like these bring the issues to life. They are, at least in my case, far more effective in engaging both attention and empathy than the feminist theory I have read, to which it is far too easy for my aging, white male brain to respond, “Yes, but….” and turn to some other topic.

    I am moved to wonder if there are any men offering stories from the other side of the gender divide. In my own case, I was newly married when my wife and I traveled to Taiwan for my fieldwork and, instead of my moving in with a Taiwanese family, we found an apartment that became our private space. I was, moreover, a boy brought up in a conservative Lutheran family. We started fieldwork in 1969, the Vietnam War was still underway, and Taiwan a major R&R destination for US troops on leave from the war. But both newlywed and inhibited, I never availed myself of the numerous opportunities available for sexual contact with local partners this context made possible. I was, of course, enormously privileged, but reading about your encounters in Jamaica recalls for me the embarrassment of being hit upon by pimps and prostitutes and rejecting their offers in a state of confusion about how I should respond.

    I offer this confession with no intention whatsoever of rejecting the argument that women and especially black women anthropologists confront situations from which race and gender shield their white male counterparts. There may, however, be common ground in feelings of awkwardness and moral confusion that transcend gender boundaries.

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