What happened? : This happened in the mid-70s. It’s not particularly dramatic story, more an example of how institutionalized was sexual harassment. I was employed as part of a summer archaeological field crew on a site in Southern Ontario. Everyone on the crew was either an undergraduate or graduate student, and there were slightly more males than females. Our boss was a doctoral candidate in his mid-30s. His assistant was a MA student in his late 20s. The site was the basis of their dissertation and thesis research projects. We were housed in shared rooms in a rented farmhouse, which also served as our field lab. Meals were taken in common, and cooking and cleaning tasks were part of our duty roster. In August, the dissertation supervisor (I’ll call “Dr. FullProfessor”) arrived for a weekend stay, officially to check on how his graduate students were doing and ensure the dig was proceeding properly. An influential archaeologist in his 50s, Dr. FullProfessor was given sleeping quarters in the same house with us, he on the main floor, we mostly in shared rooms upstairs.
On the first night, Dr. FullProfessor proceeded to get very drunk and lecherous, asking the males who was sleeping with who, commenting on female’s bodies (“nice buns”, “big tits”), trying to get the female students to dance with him, touching any who tried to pass by him, eg, if squeezing around his chair at the kitchen table. We students mostly went to our rooms, claiming field notes that needed transcribing or sleepiness. Dr. FullProfessor and his two senior graduate students drank late into the night, Dr. FullProfessor eventually passing out on the kitchen floor. We cleaned his vomit up prior to making breakfast the next morning. That day, Dr. FullProfessor roamed the site wearing nothing but blue bikini underwear which he excused as “equal to a speedo”. As we were excavating, he leaned over our shoulders or stepped into pits we were excavating, his genitals at the same height as our heads. He left late that afternoon, I think at the suggestion of the doctoral candidate.
I know all of the students felt uncomfortable with this behaviour, and were unsure as to how to respond or behave. Dr. FullProfessor was famous. He was also very tall, loud, verbally and physically intimidating. Everyone on the crew planned to work in archaeology, something we believed he could influence even if we went to a different university, because he held sway in organizations beyond our own institution. To the best of my knowledge, no one was sexually assaulted that weekend. However, the following September, Dr. FullProfessor recognized me in the department hallway. Not long after that one of the female field crew, who was early in her Masters program, was suddenly denied access by Dr. FullProfessor to a site she’d previously had arranged for her MA research. Around the same time, I and some of the other field crew were advised that ‘what happens on a dig stays on a dig’. A year later, I asked another prof (also male but non-archaeologist), about Dr. FullProfessor and was told that this behaviour was not unusual, was part of the “culture of archaeological digs”, and that I should be prepared for that “old boys club”. There was never any hint that this was a form of harassment, or that Dr. FullProfessor would be reprimanded, or even advised to treat female students with respect.
I switched my major to cultural anthropology.
What was your academic status at the time of the incident(s)? : Undergraduate
What was the academic status of the perpetrator(s) (relative to you)?: Full Professor, influential at the national level
What is your gender? : Woman
What was the perpetrator’s gender? : Man
If you would like to indicate how your sexual orientation and/or gender identity played out in the incident(s), do so here. : N/A
If you would like to indicate how your ethnicity and/or cultural background played out in the incident(s), do so here.: white, middle class
Describe the institution(s) where this happened?: A top tier research-intensive Canadian university
What were the institutional responses to the harassment (if any)?: covert warnings to avoid the person; nothing official
What were the institutional/career consequences for the perpetrator(s) (if any)?: None
What was the impact of the incident(s) on your academic career?: None that I know of
What was the impact of the incident(s) on your (mental) health?: I worried; I distrusted male professors, and archaeologists.
What was the impact of the incident(s) on your life choices/ trajectory?: I became a cultural anthropologist instead of an archaeologist
What happened? : I arrived in Nepal for four months of ethnographic fieldwork in the high Himalayas for the first time in the late spring of 2015. It wasn’t my first extensive bit of anthropological fieldwork. I had been in the field before, in India for a number of months prior. But as these things go, my first trip to Nepal was quickly followed by a second trip for an additional 12 months of long-term fieldwork. However, what I am writing for you today isn’t an account of a young anthropologist’s first excursions onto a new and exciting field-site, it’s the kind of account we don’t talk about when swapping fieldwork stories. The account that far too many people experience, anthropologist or not, and never speak of.
I was sexually assaulted in the field.
The temple site where my work is focused lies at nearly 4000 meters in the high Himalayas of Nepal; situated some several kilometers north of the Annapurna massif near the Tibetan border and as you might imagine, it takes a great deal of time and travel to get there. I had stopped for a couple of days in a town called Pokhara just 180km from my destination and, as is typical of this kind of travel, I took a room at a local guesthouse where I could eat, rest, and begin again early the next morning. It was something I had done many times before and I had no reason to think that this time would be any different. Guesthouses in Nepal are typically family-owned affairs and are always welcoming with a hot meal and warm bed. But late that night, after I had gone to sleep, I was unexpectedly awoken by a half-naked man (a friend of one of the guesthouse owner’s sons I would later learn) climbing through my outside window. He had broken the inner latch and it was the sound of the wood scraping against the sill as he forced the window panel that alerted me. I instinctively went for the door, but there wasn’t enough time. He grabbed ahold of me and tackled me to the floor before I could fully turn around or reach the latch.
I’ll spare you the worst of it, but I will tell you that, some agonizing moments later, I was able to reach my field knife while he was momentarily distracted. With it, I was finally able to fight him off. Even then, though I had severely injured him in the first attack, he quickly came back for a second; trying to batter the knife out of my hand screaming at me to shut up, but thankfully my yelling had already awoken the rest of the guesthouse and he attempted to flee back out my window before being caught by the owners of the house. The entire ordeal probably lasted no more than a few minutes but it changed a great many things afterwards.
The man was sent to the Nepali police and I don’t know what became of him after that. I left the next morning, and went on to my field-site as though nothing had happened. It wasn’t that I was in denial or trying to pretend it had never occurred (though I can completely understand the want to do so); no, in my case it was more that I was running up against two problems I was unsure how to address. The man had been taken into local police custody, but where to go from here? The first problem was that, as a graduate student working alone far far afield in a foreign country, I didn’t think there was anything anyone back home could do about it. So, what would be the point of calling home? I could have contacted my advisors certainly and I knew that they would have been as supportive as they possibly could be, but that would do little for me where I was aside from the emotional solidarity. And if I am being completely honest, I am sure that, deep down, I simply figured I was on my own either way. It was up to me to just deal with it as best I could and carry on with the project as planned (a mental habit of graduate students I am sure goes a long way). The second problem was that, if I did call someone at my university, I was immediately concerned about the work I was there to do and the field-site that I had fought so hard to finally get access to. Would they force me to come home? Would I lose my grant? Would I lose all the data and contacts I might gain during the coming months? Would my trajectory towards my degree be set back somehow? Would I face a stigma that might lose me opportunities in the future because I would now become the student *that* happened to? And then I realized, even if I wanted to report it, I hadn’t the slightest idea who I would call? My advisors? Someone in administration? Where should I start?
I didn’t tell anyone about my assault until after I had returned home. In fact, by that point, it hadn’t even occurred to me to mention it to anyone at my university at all until I was taking a TA course the following fall designed to help combat sexual assault on campus. They spoke a great deal about what to do in the case that a student of mine, an undergraduate, might report an assault to me and I felt, in that moment, compelled to finally ask the question I still didn’t have the answer to. “What if that student is me?” But even more so, “What if it wasn’t on campus? Or, for that matter, anywhere remotely near campus?” Was the university still there for me?
I was referred to the Rape Crisis Center, and their help, support, and understanding in that moment was utterly invaluable. They gave me the option to report under Title IX, even though we both acknowledged that there could be little in the way of follow-up. My attack had happened in a foreign country, at the hands of a foreign national, and I wasn’t part of a university or government-led program that might have intervened in some way (as is more often the case with undergraduates abroad than graduate students). In other words, there didn’t seem to be any rules to fix! As we talked, it became even more apparent in fact, that my situation was unusual for them and in some cases, they weren’t really sure what they might have offered me in the moment if they could have offered me anything it all. I knew that my situation wasn’t unique though. I am certainly not the first female anthropology graduate student to have faced something like this while in the field and I won’t be the last. It can happen to anyone. As graduate students, we often work solo and we have a tendency to fall through the cracks.
It was precisely this lack that spurred me into action before I was to leave again for my dissertation fieldwork. I needed to advocate for myself but even more so, I knew I also needed to advocate for the rest of us. No one else should fall through the cracks if I could prevent it. I spoke at length with the Rape Crisis Center, started researching other university plans for student safety abroad, a new taskforce was formed, and new educational plans started. But this is just a beginning.
It is my hope that, at least in small part, that the awareness being raised here and elsewhere among anthropologists can benefit from the events that took place that cold Himalayan night. I’d like to think that the outcome was, ultimately, for the good. If this account prevents even one more incident like it, I would gladly tell it a thousand times more. This is because, when I reflect back on that moment and ask myself what I would have wanted, I come up with a pretty short list. I would have liked to have contacted someone in the days after the event; someone who could have suggested concrete options, strategies for continuing my work post-assault, or possibilities for an escape plan if I needed one. All the things I hadn’t even thought about before I left. But I didn’t know who that might be.
Then, it struck me as somewhat odd that it hadn’t been brought up at any point before I left. No one, in my time as an anthropology graduate student, had specifically spoken about the potential for assault or harassment in the field and what our options were should one occur. Should I have asked my advisors? Should they have asked me? Is there a seminar I should have taken or an additional course section? And in the end, that’s what I realized I had been missing: I didn’t know what my options were or what resources were available to me if I wanted to take advantage of them. I know much more now, of course, but even still; most resources I found remained geared towards undergraduates, on-campus sexual assault, and university-led study abroad programs. I had an idea of what I could do once I was home in the United States, but what could I have done abroad? That’s what I needed to get out there.
For that reason, aside from what can be recorded on this site, what I truly want to leave students with is this: Think about it. Think about what you would do in the event of the unspeakable. Once you have gotten to immediate safety, who can you contact? What can they do for you? Where could you go? Are there special resources available in your field country? Do you have sufficient phone or internet access to contact RAINN.org, a university Rape Crisis Center, or another assist line? Is it safe to contact the police or not? If you needed to leave, do you have the funds and transportation? Can anyone intervene on your behalf and to what degree?
This is by no means meant to scare anyone off of fieldwork or to imply in any way that my work in Nepal hasn’t been amazing, awesome, and academically profound. Or that other people’s experiences won’t be equally amazing. In all likelihood, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to do great. For me, this is but one story in much longer, richer, and more encompassing experience that isn’t defined by a single, if terrifying, moment. Though I acknowledge, it could have been. So, think about it. Have a plan, even if you don’t end up following it in the moment. There are people who can help you. There are people waiting to help you. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a long walk home.
Your academic status : Graduate
Their academic status : None
Your gender : Woman
Their gender : Man
Name of the institution(s) : N/A In the field
What were the institutional responses to the harassment (if any)? : Related in story above. In short, there was very little my home university could do. Which is why I started our “A Long Walk Home” student/faculty task force–to begin addressing the gaps in supporting social science students in the field.
What were the institutional/career consequences for the perpetrator(s) (if any)?: N/A
What was the impact of the incident(s) on your academic career? : So far, negligible
What was the impact of the incident(s) on your (mental) health? : I still think about it and worry about it when I am in the field. It makes me mistrustful of men who act overly friendly or who want to spend a lot of time with me even when we have only just met.
What was the impact of the incident(s) on your life choices/ trajectory?: Thankfully, very little. I’m still defending my dissertation on time. My fieldwork was completed on time and I have still been able to work my PhD program without delay. I would say, it has had far more impact on my approach to fieldwork and how I plan for research than it has on my actual trajectory.
What happened? : I was the co director of an archaeological project at the time. My graduate advisor and I were excavating with workers shoving looking on- my grad advisor slapped me on the ass as I was bent over excavating. He had done that once before in a joking manner but this time was particularly demeaning in front of men I was supervising.
Your academic status: Graduate
Their academic status: Advisor
Your gender? : Woman
Their gender: Man
What happened? : As I was interviewing a male anthropology professor for a research project, he unbuckled his pants, put his hand into his pants, and adjusted himself. His lack of respect for me was then compounded when he suddenly told me to leave the room so that he could talk to someone else for 15 minutes. I left, instead of finishing the interview. I reported the incident to my supervisor but nothing happened because my supervisor believed I was “too sensitive” for being rattled by this…and she, herself, was in a precarious academic position. This incident happened within a larger abusive work culture – I was pretty demoralized by this point in my research, and didn’t bother to speak out about it.
Your academic status : Post-graduate
Their academic status: High – head of a different department than me but full professor of long standing at the school
Your gender : Woman
Their gender: Man
Institution: A small elite liberal arts college
Institutional responses to the harassment (if any)? : None
Institutional/career consequences for the perpetrator(s) (if any)?: None
Impact of the incident(s) on your academic career? : Negative – no possibility of a full time job in the department
Impact of the incident(s) on your (mental) health? : It was just one of many awful incidents during this post doctoral position (bullying, personal attacks, demeaning treatment, and micromanaging). I had insomnia and depression and my PTSD was triggered regularly.
Impact of the incident(s) on your life choices/ trajectory?: I left academia indefinitely.