Why #MeToo Is Complicated for Female Anthropologists

Author: Dr Elizabeth Watt, who finished her PhD in anthropology at the ANU in 2016. Her doctoral thesis explores recent shifts in Aboriginal welfare policy in relation to broader themes of race, class and Indigeneity, based on ethnographic research conducted in the town of Hope Vale on the south east of Cape York. She has been developing these interests since taking up the role of Research Fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Globalisation and Citizenship within Deakin University, working with Professor Emma Kowal to explore the current and potential impact of genetic ancestry testing on Aboriginal identification and recognition. 

Way back at the start of 2017, when Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour was still one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets, The Familiar Strange’s Julia Brown and I got chatting about unpleasant experiences with the opposite sex that female anthropologists tend to have while doing research. After I’d regaled her with some of my best (read: worst) sexual harassment stories, and told her how ill-prepared I’d felt to handle these situations, Julia asked me to come on the TFS podcast and reflect on my experiences for the benefit of other female fledgling ethnographers. Six months later, we recorded the episode airing next week.

A few months on, while our podcast was still in TFS pipeline, the #metoo movement hit the streets. As famous men fell like dominos, the ramifications were felt far beyond the glamorous world of movie making – reaching even the Ivory Towers of academia. Using the #metoophd and #metooanthro hashtags, female graduate students began sharing their stories of powerful older male academics behaving badly. Indeed, commentators went so far as to argue :

sexual predation is endemic to the power hierarchies of the academy in ways that almost perfectly parallel Hollywood: powerful older men are gatekeepers to vulnerable younger women, use their power for sexual predation, and are then protected by other senior men and women invested more in preserving the power structure than in defending victims.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: this shake-up seems like a perfect prelude to the release of our podcast, right? An ideal time for a conversation between two young women about creepy older, white, male Professors, yeah? The only problem is, I’ve actually never had an issue with an older, white, male Professor. Indeed, people of this demographic have been vital to my early academic career:  offering invaluable support, employment, career advice, publishing opportunities and friendship, and never behaving in a vaguely inappropriate way.  

No, our conversation was not about my experiences with powerful, white males – the universally accepted target for feminist indignation that they are. It was about my experiences with a group of people who the average young, liberal Australian feels far less comfortable criticising: the Aboriginal men from a remote community in Far North Queensland (FNQ), who I encountered while doing fieldwork for my PhD.

The demands of the jobs

In a large part, the problems faced may reflect the nature of the work I was doing, rather than the particular men I encountered. As many female anthropologists before me have noted, ethnography tends to expose women to the risk of sexual harassment and assault more than other research pursuits. As Bianca Williams points out, our prerogative to gain social access often puts us in uncomfortable positions – “pushing oneself to talk to people, go to locations, and navigate situations you would never openly embrace at home or in your everyday life.” She goes on:

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.

One woman for whom the consequences were particularly costly was a brave Swedish ethnographer, who – using the pseudonym ‘Eva Moreno’ – has written about her experiences of being raped while conducting fieldwork in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Moreno notes that female anthropologists like herself are often ill-prepared for the risk inherent in their line of work, because of “the factiously ‘gender-free’ life we lead at university”, and our reluctance to “damage to our identities as anthropologists” by talking about issues specific to our gender. “After all”, she points out, “who wants to be a female anthropologist when it seems possible to be a ‘real’ anthropologist?”

Cultures of masculinity

As Moreno’s moving story also highlights, not all female ethnographers face the same risks – the likelihood of harassment and assault varied depending on the culture of masculinity in the context that they’re working. Coming from Sweden, she claims to have been relatively innocent when it came to the opposite sex: “my generation of young women in Scandanavia felt safe, and were safe, in our own counties”, she notes, and “We carried our insouciance with us from the Arctic circle to the Sahar, fearing nothing, and usually getting away with it.” Meanwhile the Ethiopian women, who provided Moreno with support and consolation in the wake of the assault, had a very different experience. “Their lack of trust in men was absolute”, she found out. “For many women, the prospect of a happy life was the possibility of life without permanent bonds to men”.

While I faced issues far less life-threatening that Moreno’s experience, I also would have found them difficult to deal with had it not been for the support of the local women. While my Aboriginal friends’ distrust of men was perhaps not as strident as her Ethiopian ones, they offered regular warnings about particular men, and some shared experiences with me that were just as horrific as Moreno’s. These pieces of advice and complaints encouraged me to gradually raise my guard over the thirteen months I was living in FNQ. In turn, I became aware that my own innate trust in the opposite sex – which I’d brought with me to ‘the field’, and which had got me into many of the sticky situations I discuss with Julia – reflects my enormous privilege, as a middle class white girl whose personal, family and professional life has been full of sensitive new-age men.  

#MeToo for the privileged vs marginalised

My awareness of this privilege has made it difficult for me to jump wholeheartedly into the #metoo movement. While I agree that the stories of sexual misconduct being shared are appalling, and need to be addressed, they don’t resonate with my personal experiences with men in places like Canberra and Sydney’s inner west. My own #metoo experiences are primarily with men who I’m very wary of demonising, and who – my own experiences and statistics suggest – tend to behave much worse toward their “own women” than they ever did towards me. Experience also suggests that many of these Aboriginal women were not nearly as prepared to call out sexual harassment and assault as I, because abuse is relatively normalised in their social domain, and accusations often activate kinship solidarities and fuel conflict between family groups.

So, how do we make room for their voices in the movement, alongside the outspoken, affluent women who’ve started it? How do we ensure that the #metoo movements reach beyond both Hollywood’s red carpets and academia’s Ivory Towers, to areas where a shake-up is arguably most needed? How do we approach community solidarities that provide both victim and perpetrators meaning and comfort, at the same time as perpetuating the problem sexual abuse? And how can we do this all while ensuring that the risks to our own individual gendered bodies are not too great?

[Image by Elizabeth Watt]

Listen to Dr Watt’s conversation with Julia Brown, “#9 Calculated risk: Elizabeth Watt talks sexual power, politics, and vulnerability in the Field” on The Familiar Strange podcast.

2 thoughts on “Why #MeToo Is Complicated for Female Anthropologists

  1. Pingback: Ep. #9 Calculated risk: Elizabeth Watt talks sexual power, politics, and vulnerability in the field | The Familiar Strange

  2. I think to really talk about the abuse in the societies of color (including the diaspora in the West), inevitably you have to address the cultures from where those people come from… which is close to impossible to do in a climate of political correctness. To demonize white men is “safe”, to demonize black men is “inappropriate”.

    There is a certain conflict of values… yes, we see the ethnic cultures as “equal”. But what if rape is a part of that culture? Are we still comfortable to leave it be as equally valuable experience? What about all the other issues then, do we judge them by Western or by the local law?

    Also, I am rather skeptical about the results of naming and shaming practice in general. What concerns me in it, is the incredibly destructive power such practices tend to have over the online groups, regardless if the crime actually was done or not. It creates the feeling of “unsafe” social interaction, among things, user starts to feel that he/she can be called an offender without an actual crime, also it does not solve/reduce the actual “crime”, in that sense that whomever does it, they do know they break a law. There are serious reasons why in community management (for example, in computer games) the golden rule is not to allow naming and shaming in the community rules.

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