Do I Have to #MeToo? The Productivity of Silence in Instances of Sexual Harassment and Assault in Field Research

This piece was first published on EPIC on February 18, 2020.

– How did you two meet again?
– Let’s head back to the yacht club for sunset.
– What happened to that bottle of champagne?
– Please don’t fall off the boat.
– Live music doesn’t have the same raw character here.
– Tahni, go deal with your friend.
– What happened to that bottle of champagne?
– Please stop touching me.
– Haven’t you been paying attention to the news?
– You really shouldn’t drink anymore.
– We would make a beautiful couple.
– She’s an influencer in Korea, I hate that shit.
– His job is so cool!
– What happened to that bottle of champagne?
– I used to be polyamorous.
– I’ll call you whatever I want to call you.
– They act so adventurous, they didn’t even sit in the sand.
– You need to get in a taxi, now.
– WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE?!

What did happen to that bottle of champagne, I wonder. In fact, I never knew of it in the first place. That bottle whose presence, or rather—whose absence—persists months later. That miserable hour, the one which was punctuated by an even more miserable half-of-an-hour, sways cold and creaky in the memory of my bones, brutal in its relentlessness. I sat next to him on top of the drink cooler, rife with anxiety over the way he was touching me and speaking to me, incessantly asking for that elusive bottle of champagne. I could no more escape the necessity of professionalism during fieldwork than I could flee the boat as it crawled through the water towards shore. Or that was the lie I told myself. I thought I was being brave, strong. And I’m not here to say that I wasn’t, or that someone else isn’t, brave and strong for enduring sexual harassment and assault in the name of protecting their work. I’m writing this, making a story public that I really don’t want to make public, being honest when I really don’t want to be honest, because even as I ignored my safety and my mental health in the name of the research, I didn’t want to be strong then and I don’t particularly want to be strong now.

I wanted to pretend that it didn’t happen, at least professionally, because I didn’t want the name of anthropology to be drug through the mud at the company I was doing this project for. I didn’t want to risk that the company would never again invest in ethnography because of the messiness that could ensue. Moreover, I did not want to risk the relationship with our other participants, and I certainly did not want the whole project to go bust. But I did not have the opportunity to contemplate the ethics of my silence for too long, as my story unwittingly made its way into the hands of both HR and senior employees at the company.

Silence, you see, does not make one a heroine. Silence is not generally considered a healthy coping strategy, as I was reminded by HR and the kind and gentle prodding of close friends who encouraged me to find healing by talking about what had happened. While I struggled with my own need for silence, the Kavanaugh trial raged on, and Christine Blasey Ford was rendered suspect because of her own choices regarding silence and vocalization. Between HR, well-meaning friends, and the entirety of the American media, #MeToo was too much. It exacerbated the anxiety.

A few years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Gent—The International Symposium on Gender and Sexuality—where I heard anthropologist Rachel Spronk speak about the desire for silence in the context of Ghanian same sex erotic practices (Spronk 2016). In her gentle yet authoritative way, Spronk contended that though silence is commonly understood in the West to connote suppression and destructiveness, silence could also be productive. Silence, she said, can be protective. She rightfully critiqued the Western tendency to construct the one-without-a-voice as the victim, in need of a hero (in her case, LGBTQI activists who sought to emancipate those they saw as “closeted” lesbians). But silence, Spronk reinforced, is productive, allowing her participants to have control of their knowledge and making space for them to occupy ambiguous and shifting positions in a way that made sense in the context of their lives.

I recognize the irony in the act of making public my desire for silence. As I debated whether or not to share about what I experienced, and if so, how I would communicate all that swirled within me, it came down to this: as much as I desired silence, very few anthropologists had written about sexual assault encountered in the field, and fewer still would have the audacity to suggest that sometimes what we need is to safeguard our silence. It basically goes against what anthropologists and activists alike stand for. However, I believe enough in the elasticity of our discipline to suggest that making voices heard is not always the answer.

The genesis of this reflection is exactly that: what is the answer? Between my attempts to block my aggressor’s advances, the moments of solitary emotional release in the lobby of the yacht club, and the contemplation I have done since, over and over I question what I should have done and how it is possible that I didn’t have a clue in the first place. While I had been excessively trained to recognize the constellations of power that explicitly or implicitly influence my research and the discipline of anthropology as a whole, I had never remotely considered what it might be like to be powerless in a tangible, bodily way, particularly during fieldwork. What’s more, I’m embarrassed to admit it.

I’m embarrassed about the whole thing actually.

My intention was to have the answers, spun brilliantly into a thought-provoking piece before EPIC2019, so that what I had to say could potentially make its way into conversations, if not into a salon discussion. I punished myself for not being able to get this piece written in time—another weird manifestation of the shame surrounding sexual assault—though others have been patient and kind towards me. This brings me to the first of my recent insights: there is permission to take time to process, and to process in the way that one needs to.

EPIC2019 did, in fact, end up being a turning point in my post-assault journey. I’m not sure if it was the wine that supported me in letting my guard down, or the striking sensation that I was in a safe space surrounded by other researchers and anthropologists who, by design, listen intently and treat others with gentle curiosity and empathy, but I was finally ready to invite others into my solitary dialogue. In doing so, I was able to dispel the self-myth that my choice of silence was somehow unhealthy or worse, selfish.

It started with a conversation about gender (because, of course) that led to my admittance that I don’t exactly feel female. I wasn’t trying to say that I feel male, but rather that I often don’t identify with feminine tropes like women’s empowerment, the glass ceiling, and #MeToo. This is not to say that I don’t find these concepts and experiences true or valuable, but only that they do not resonate with me personally. My listeners pressed graciously for more, and I felt the freedom that comes with knowing that when you speak, you will be understood.

Bringing up what happened to two new, yet trusted, friends began to give me space to settle into the silence I needed. I wasn’t pushed to talk; in fact, I was told that my response was a legitimate way to cope with and heal from what had happened. And there it was: legitimate. Legitimate was the sensation I hadn’t been able to allow myself. Was my experience of pain even legitimate? I hadn’t been through the true horrors that some women and men suffer at the hands of others. Was I legitimate in not wanting to tweet #MeToo, not wanting to pursue counseling via HR at the company, or not wanting to talk to all my close friends about it? I was, they said. One friend remarked that in our contemporary culture of outrage, we are expected to perform our outrage to our audiences—in person and online—in order to prove our alignment to a cause, a belief, a community. To have a cause, must it be shrouded in outrage? Do we have to publicly demonstrate our outrage for our experiences to be valid?

I no longer think so.

The morning following this conversation, I participated as an audience member in the panel discussion “Representation and Representative-ness.” We spent over an hour discussing who gets to represent whom and whether or not in practices of representation we are marginalizing others, even unintentionally. By the time we reached the Q&A, I started thinking about the practices of representation and the power dynamics present in my ongoing struggle to come to terms with my experience. By all observable standards, as a generally outspoken woman and an anthropologist perpetually concerned with reconfiguring existing arrangements of gender and power, it seems that it should be my role to speak up and speak out, willingly accepting a representation of myself as a victim of sexual assault. I wasn’t settled on this option, but my curiosity was piqued. This panel conversation put words to the question that existed within me, pre-symbolically, for a little over a year. I spoke it out loud.

“How do we think about the moments when voices do not want to be heard, when there seems to be an imperative to speak up and demand representation?”

Throughout the audience could be heard “hmms” and “huhs,” sounds that echoed a sense of realization and affirmation. My question was met with validation by a number of people during and after the session. The panelists interpreted the question in two ways: the first was to refer to victims of trauma for whom it may be difficult to speak to researchers, and the second concerned intersectional identities that one may not always want to represent. I found both interpretations to be insightful. One of the panelists in particular, spoke of the work of Audra Simpson on voice and refusal. In her work with indigenous communities in Canada, recognition and voice implicate the histories and legalities assigned to bodies, on which multiple sovereignties stake claims “to protect, to limit, to entrench” (Simpson 2007, 74). At stake for Simpson’s participants are matters of recognition tied to community membership, state citizenship, and the apportioning of subsequent rights—many of which are determined on the basis of bodies relating to other bodies—the ‘whiteness’ or ‘Indianness’ of mothers and fathers. Recognition requires a particular knowing of who one is or how one belongs, and articulating that knowing explicitly—structuring ‘voice’ according to a legal regime. According to Simpson, her participants’ refusal to speak is generative in that it accounts for the ways in which power delimits what counts as recognition. Refusal to speak is a critique on the relationship between ways of knowing, recognition, and power. Moreover, it both opens up and dignifies alternative forms of having ‘voice.’

In my case, power did not so much define recognition as it demanded it. Here again, legality mediates the relationship to voice in that I became legally obligated, vis-à-vis another colleague’s report, to make myself and my experience known to HR. As a person who had encountered danger, I was rendered a potentially dangerous person in the eyes of HR—the threat of a legal nightmare always looming. Voice, rather than being a conduit of agency, became a method of disempowerment. Physical violence had engendered symbolic violence. The sovereignty taken up by my employer assigned a particular form of recognition and voice based on the relation of my body to other bodies—that is, the other body that violated my own. Furthermore, such an act required a form of legal recognition and an undesired visibility and admittance into the community of those who had been assaulted in a work setting. Visibility was certainly the last thing I desired from the whole situation. In this way, my experience deviates from that of Simpson’s participants in that belonging and recognition was not my aim, yet refusal to establish voice on the matter is the means by which I sought to achieve my sense of security and path to healing.

This brings me to the heart of the matter and reason why I decided to publish my reflections and anxieties: I want to problematize the notion that agency always equals visibility (or recognition or voice), or that it always means representation. The work of Rachel Spronk and Audra Simpson endow my argument with a theoretical backbone while encouraging us to think about the ways in which we understand our participants and their potential desires for silence or refusal. What they do not touch upon is how we may also negotiate our representations as researchers who bring our bodies and our multitudinous identities with us into and out of the field. Reflexivity, speaking truth to power, and ethical representation remain core anthropological values and as those who have the privilege to engage with the human experience in such an intimate way, we must be committed to these values. But how can we productively think through the moments when the voices that don’t want to be heard, or the identities and narratives that don’t want to be taken up, belong to us?

References

Greene, Amber, Jordan Kraemer, Donna Lanclos, Ruchika Muchhala, & Autumn Sanders Foster. 2019. “Representation and Representative-ness.” Panel convened November 11 at EPIC2019, Providence, RI. https://www.epicpeople.org/panel-representation-representative-ness/

Simpson, Audra. 2007. “Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ And Colonial Citizenship”. Junctures: The Journal For Thematic Dialogue 9: 67-80. https://junctures.org/index.php/junctures/article/view/66/60.

Spronk, Rachel. 2017. “Invisible Desires In Ghana And Kenya: Same-Sex Erotic Experiences In Cross-Sex Oriented Lives”. Sexualities 21 (5-6): 883-898. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716677284.