Sexual Harassment In the Field: On Academic Assholes (Part II)

A few days ago, I talked about academic assholes and elaborated on supervisor assholes. Today, I want to talk about those saddening peer assholes.

Everyone met them. Competitive, judging, arrogant, selfish, self-centered, self-involved (basically every word that begins with ‘self’), nonempathic. The list is endless. I started avoiding these people, but sometimes, you don’t have a choice.

I did my research in India. As lovely as many Indians are, it’s the only country I visited where sexual harassment became an everyday experience for me. I think I could even say that I got used to it, but it never became less burdening.

Everyone who did (extended) fieldwork knows that fieldwork can be emotionally and mentally challenging at times. A lot. So when I did my PhD fieldwork, I was glad to learn that, for a few months, I would live in the same city as an old colleague. (I was alone during my entire M.A. fieldwork which was fine, but at times I had wished for sympathetic company.) But I quickly understood: most of the times, ours was a one-way support system and I didn’t mind being alone again.

But this experience is just the background story to the peer assholes story. Back with my peers. She was there. And a few others of our colleagues. One of them had just finished her PhD and was thinking about a postdoctoral project in India. She wanted to know if sexual harassment in India was as bad as the media makes us believe. And I narrated my experiences. My field colleague snorted. ‘But you also flirted with them.’ I couldn’t believe it. I did not.

Or so I believed. My therapist and I are working on this topic and apparently, I subconsciously seemed (and sometimes still do) to signal a certain openness and/or availability to be flirted with. But: even if I did send signals that is not an invitation to sexual harassment. What does ‘no’ mean? It means ‘no!’ Period. (I really like Simra Mariam’s article on consent, “‘No’ Means ‘No’: It Really Is That Simple When It Comes To Consent.”)

The sexual harassment I experienced was bad enough. But this conversation with my colleagues was the worst part. I came to accept that I, even though subconsciously, made a mistake. But I can hardly accept that a woman born and raised in a ‘Western culture,’ working on a PhD in cultural anthropology, honestly believes that sexual harassment is the woman’s fault.

Doing a PhD is challenging. Fieldwork is challenging. And sometimes, we meet additional challenges during fieldwork such as sexual harassment. Why can’t we be supportive of each other? Even more so amongst us women. We should lift each other up. Not put each other down. There are enough people doing that already.

For now.


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