Anthropology and (Feminist) Collective Action: Naming and Eliminating Sexual Harassment in Anthropology and Global Health

by Gelya Frank (University of Southern California)

The April 2019 Statement by Participants of the Global Health Fieldwork Ethics Workshop led by anthropology and public health scholars Rachel Hall-Clifford (Agnes Scott College) and Arachu Castro (Tulane University) makes a significant contribution to anthropology’s self-awareness as a profession and expectations for ethical conduct.[1] The Statement calls for “increased attention to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender-based violence of all forms across global health.”[2]

The Statement argues that “Women and people of all gender identities and expressions have the right to safe workplaces, and we have the right to be acknowledged without judgement when our safety has been compromised.”[3] Importantly, it extends the sphere of anthropology’s concern to all women who participate in global health—”the program managers, fieldworkers, researchers, local promoters, and community members.”

The Statement asserts that global health workers “have not been appropriately acknowledged as susceptible to gender-based violence, potentially made more so through their global health engagement.” It notes that “prominent media coverage of sexual abuse within the humanitarian aid sector has highlighted the reality that global health workers can also be perpetrators of gender-based violence.”

Where has the American Anthropological Association stood with respect to sexual harassment in its ethical guidelines?  Despite the fact that feminist anthropologists put the critical analysis of culture, gender and power on the map, the usual abuses persist in our profession.

The #MeToo movement reminds us that we are hardly exempt from broader cultural and institutional influences. . . . and that we can use moments such as this one to make needed change.

According to the 2014 Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) study,[4] led by biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, women trainees in anthropology and other science fields were the “primary targets” of reported sexual harassment in field work. Among 666 self-selected internet-based survey respondents from various scientific fields in which field work plays a key role, about 75% were women, about 75% from the United States (representing 30 countries of origin) and about 75% were anthropologists and archaeologists.

Sixty-four percent of SAFE respondents reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, inappropriate or sexual remarks, or jokes ranking physical appearance and putative cognitive differences between males and females. The perpetrators were “predominantly senior to the women professionally within the research team.” Explicit rules or guidelines had been posted at the field site in fewer than half the cases. About 20% of the incidents reported involved sexual assault. Of those who filed sexual harassment reports with their institution (36 women, 1 man), only 19% were satisfied with the outcome.

The SAFE authors do not comment statistically on the intersection of sexual harassment and sexual assault with race. Although the respondents represented a diversity of racial identities, about 87% identified “solely as Caucasian.” The authors accounted for the low rate of participation by non-whites as “due in part to their under-representation in the Life and Earth Sciences in the United States.”

The American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics adopted in 1998 explicitly raised the issue of sexual misconduct in the profession’s guidelines for ethical behavior. [5] The Code called on teachers and mentors to “beware” of sexually exploiting students and trainees that they supervise. The language remained the same when the Code was revised in 2009.[6]

At first glance, the 1998 Code and its 2009 revision seem to recognize sexual harassment and give this sharp warning:

Teachers/mentors should beware of the exploitation and serious conflicts of interest which may result if they engage in sexual relations with students/trainees. They must avoid sexual liaisons with students/trainees for whose education and professional training they are in any way responsible (IV, 5).

With the SAFE study in mind, however, this language now seems overly generous to potential exploiters. While the Code warned responsible senior anthropologists to monitor their own behavior, it did not give guidance for those who were exploited or who witnessed exploitation. Moreover, the genteel phrasing limited the discussion to “sexual relations” and “sexual liaisons,” terms that were inadequate since they implied mutual consent.

By 1998, there really was no good reason for failing to identify sexual harassment for what it was. Anita Hill’s confrontation of US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991 made the term ‘sexual harassment’ part of broad public discourse. President Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual affair with a female intern similarly filled the news all through 1998, leading to Clinton’s impeachment in December.

A bit more history is in order.

In 1974, feminist journalist Lin Farley coined the term ‘sexual harassment’ to describe the abusive experiences reported by her women students at Cornell University.[7] When, in 1995, the New York Times reported her use of the term in testimony before the New York City Commission on Human Rights, its usage spread beyond feminist circles. Farley recounted in 2017, “It was as if a light had been turned on in a dark room. . . The solidarity that women felt for one another was contagious; sisterhood in the workplace suddenly seemed doable.”[8]

In the late 1970s, feminist lawyers and activists worked hard to gain recognition of sexual harassment in employment situations as an actionable federal civil rights violation.[9] They first achieved this in Barnes v. Costle which recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.[10] This interpretation was adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] in 1980 and recognized by the US Supreme Court in 1986.

In 1997, the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights issued a detailed guidance on sexual harassment of students.[11] It declares that “Sexual harassment of students is a form of prohibited sex discrimination” under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.

Yet when the AAA adopted its current ethics guidelines in 2012, the Principles of Professional Responsibility, all mention of specific offending behaviors, including sexual misconduct, was eliminated. A brief set of seven general principles—the first was “Do No Harm”—replaced the quasi-legal language of the 1998 and 2009 statements. The result was more than bland:

There is an ethical dimension to all professional relationships. Whether working in academic or applied settings, anthropologists have a responsibility to maintain respectful relationships with others. In mentoring students, interacting with colleagues, working with clients, acting as a reviewer or evaluator, or supervising staff, anthropologists should comport themselves in ways that promote an equitable, supportive and sustainable workplace environment.

This anodyne rephrasing and erasure of sexual misconduct as a specific concern in 2012 came on the heels of a debate in the AAA Council on Ethics about a grievance procedure that operated from 1973 to 1995. Janet Levy, Chair of the CoE wrote that the procedure had been “dysfunctional,” “potentially dangerous to the association and to individuals,” and “labyrinthine.”[12]

Levy cited the lack of clear categories of potentially unethical actions, the onerous workload imposed on AAA member volunteers who processed the grievances, and the difficulty of assessing nuanced decisions taken by anthropologists in the complex situations in which they work. For all these reasons, the CoE took pains to distance itself from the previous Code of Ethics and also made clear that: “The American Anthropological Association does not adjudicate assertions of unethical behavior.”[13]

Now, feminist scholarly practice and the #MeToo movement are converging to swing the pendulum.

The AAA Executive Board has endorsed a Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault, posted online June 15, 2018, to supplement the existing Principles of Professional Responsibility.[14] The new 15-page Policy makes up in every way for the deficits of its predecessors. It defines sexual harassment and sexual assault, provides a comprehensive background of laws and legal remedies, makes explicit a set of expectations and practices for the profession, and provides resources. Expectations posted for the 2019 AAA Meetings in Vancouver include, for example, that professional interviews be held only in public spaces, not private hotel rooms.

The role of Ombudsperson has been established within the AAA on an ongoing basis, with two appointees to receive complaints and help to steer complainants to further resources and actions.[15] Similarly, support personnel will be present and identifiable on site at AAA Meetings. These are smart culture-changing initiatives for the profession that do not conflict with the existing AAA stance of not adjudicating ethical complaints.

The Statement by the Global Health Fieldwork Ethics Workshop goes further by opening up substantive discussions of sexual harassment and sexual assault as threats to the safety of anthropologists and global health workers in the field. Exploiters and perpetrators in such situations may come from other professions or they may be non-professional associates, including local people in the community, as Rachel Hall-Clifford courageously describes in examples from her fieldwork in Guatemala.[16]

Every woman fieldworker that I know has experienced or at least had to prepare herself to deal with sexual harassment or sexual assault in the field. Somehow, on her own, she had to deal with them. Stories circulate privately but we need to compile and make them more available in the form of case studies for teaching and analysis. The stakes and our responsibilities to students, colleagues, associates and ourselves are much too high for the profession to ignore.

A final note.

The momentum needed to name and eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault in anthropology and global health originates in society and does not ‘naturally’ emerge from within the discipline. The #MeToo moment is an opportunity to think about collective action in the public realm as a tool to influence anthropology’s norms and procedures.

At the same time, we need to keep thinking critically. Legal scholar Riva Siegal notes that the sexual exploitation of women and racial oppression are intertwined in American history and in judicial reasoning. Collective action takes place when aggrieved parties are moved to act together. Race cannot be left out of the discussion of power and abuse of women.

Let’s not waste this moment!  Let’s get it together!


[1] Participants of the Global Health Fieldwork Ethics Workshop include: Rachel Hall-Clifford, Agnes Scott College; David Addiss, The Task Force for Global Health; Peter Brown, Emory University; Arachu Castro, Tulane University; Mary Clisbee, Zanmi Lasante and Partners in Health; Robert Cook-Deegan, Arizona State University; Dabney P. Evans, Emory University; Arlan Fuller, Harvard University; Aubrey Graham, Emory University; Michelle Grek, Emory University; Deirdre Guthrie, University of Notre Dame; Olusimbo Ige, United Methodist Committee on Relief; Arthur Kleinman, Harvard University; Stephanie Larson, Emory University; James Lavery, Emory University ; Deborah McFarland, Emory University; Dave Ross, The Task Force for Global Health; Adam Weiss, The Carter Center; Breanna Wodnik, Emory University; Christopher Woods, Duke University.

[2] Global Health Fieldwork Ethics Workshop. (2019). #MeToo Meets Global Health: A Call to Action. A Statement by Participants of the Global Health Fieldwork Ethics Workshop. Health and Human Rights Journal, 21(1) (June).: 1-7.

[3] Ibid., p. 1.

[4]  Clancy, Kathryn B. H.; Nelson, Robin G.; Rutherford, Julienne N.; Hinde, Katie (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLoS One. 9 (7).  Lead author Kathryn Clancy (Women’s Studies and Biological Anthropology, University of Illinois), runs an “intersectional feminist biology lab” on women and gender reproductive physiology, minority health and wellbeing and is a public intellectual widely quoted on the issue of sexual harassment in the sciences.

[5]  See all past and present AAA ethics documents and supplementary resources at


[7] Swenson, Kyle. (2017). Who Came Up with the Term ‘Sexual Harassment’? The Washington Post, November 22.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Siegel, Reva B. (2004), Introduction: A Short History of Sexual Harassment Directions in Sexual Harassment Law. Catharine A. MacKinnon & Reva B. Siegel, eds. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[10] Barnes v. Costle, 561 F.2d 983, 993 (D.C. Cir. 1977).

[11] Office for Civil Rights. (1997). Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties. US Department of Education.

[12] Janet E. Levy, 2009, Life is Full of Hard Choices: A Grievance Procedure for the AAA? Anthropology News (September), pp. 7-8. ).

[13]   The Principles of Professional Responsibility are squeamish about venturing into law, morality and politics.  The document states: “While moral, political, legal and regulatory issues are often important to anthropological practice and the discipline, they are not specifically considered here. These principles address ethical concerns.”

[14]American Anthropological Association’s Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault,

The Policy was drafted by the Members Programmatic, Advisory and Advocacy Committee (MPAAC) Gender Equity team (Dianna Shandy and M. Gabriela Torres) with guidance and input from MPAAC, the Sexual Harassment Working Group (Kathryn Clancy, Sarah Ihmoud, Alix Johnson, Vivian Chenxue Lu, April Petillo, Jennifer Wies), AAA Executive Director Ed Liebow, and other AAA staff members, and AAA Counsel David Frantz.

[15] As announced in January 2019, M. Gabriela Torres (Wheaton College) Bernard Perley (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) were appointed to serve in these roles. They can be contacted directly at

[16] Rachel Hall-Clifford. (2019). Sexual Assault in Global Health Fieldwork (or Where There is No Hashtag)




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