By Marley Duckett and Mika Rathwell, University of Saskatchewan
Few events in recent history have had such far-reaching social impacts as the #MeToo movement recently popularized in media. Originally coined in 2006 by African American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, and more recently defined by the 2017 allegations against famous Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement now signifies a noticeable and collective shift in social consciousness away from the normalization and silence of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Given the wide-spread publicity of the movement, more feminist perspectives are beginning to influence academic channels and discussions of #MeToo. Anthropologists are contributing to these influences.
Media and other grey literature have played significant roles in the dissemination of information and stories of #MeToo survivors and advocates. The portrayal of #MeToo in popular media and its relevance in our anthropological fieldwork, however, are often at odds with one another. Despite our academic training and familiarity with research ethics, new anthropologists still feel ill-prepared to handle real-life situations where women identify painful experiences detailing various abuses.
Having completed graduate field work not long before the hashtag took off, in the summers of 2016 (Marley Duckett) and 2017 (Mika Rathwell), the popularity of the movement created space for reflection upon our own experiences as feminist anthropologists and women. The following ethnographic excerpt was written by medical anthropologist and Masters Candidate, Mika Rathwell describing an encounter during her fieldwork at a local HIV agency in Saskatchewan. As colleagues and friends, we have discussed, at length, the following events over the last year and feel it describes sentiments and reflections that apply to both of our researcher experiences:
The interview began well. She seemed nervous, sitting quietly on the couch and keeping her backpack in her arms. She answered the first few questions quickly with little detail. I wondered how I could get her to open up. It was not long, however, before she burst into tears. Unsure of what to do, I moved from the chair across from her to where she sat on the couch and she leaned against me. I asked her what was wrong. She told me that her and her partner had been homeless recently, and the resulting stress was causing him to lash out on her both physically and emotionally. She told me she could not go anywhere without him, and this interview was the only time she had been alone in weeks. “What can I do to help?” I asked, while at the same time scanning my own brain for what I could do in this situation. Nothing I had been taught in the classroom seemed to be relevant as she continued to cry. “No,” she responded, “please don’t tell anyone”. Our time came to an end. She wiped her tears and so did I. I know there is little I can do that would not put her in more danger. I had to respect her wishes for privacy.
This experience highlights criticisms of the #MeToo Movement that have been articulated elsewhere. While the movement has empowered many women to step forward with their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault, the repercussions of doing so can be dangerous. Our experiences in the field highlighted the participant’s real fear of sharing her experience; she felt that the consequences of outing her story were more severe than internalizing the pain that often accompanies victims and survivors of assault. This is significant because it focuses on a running theme that is critical to understanding why some women find healing through the movement and others do not. Despite the similar experiences of abuse, some women are more privileged to come forward with their stories because they have better access to resources and tools of support. As new anthropologists, and particularly graduate students, we did not have the tools or training to work with women in crisis and offer the support we wish we could.
As women and feminist students working and learning in the discipline of Anthropology, we argue for more robust training on the realities students often face in fieldwork. We recommend that crisis and sensitivity training be introduced into graduate programs so that students are better equipped to handle stressful situations. Partnerships with campus centres and local sexual assault information centres create important learning opportunities. These opportunities could be extended to fieldwork preparations, providing resources for how best to respond to the accounts of assault and harassment that participants entrust to us. Further, candid discussion within classroom settings normalize sensitive topics, making them less daunting, or even less taboo, when confronted in the field. As the number of women in University continues to increase, feminist perspectives are imperative to education as the lived experiences of women are increasingly integral in contemporary social narratives.