Elizabeth M. Olsson | 18 February 2019
My name is Elizabeth. I am a woman in academia and I was sexually assaulted and harassed while conducting fieldwork. What follows is a both a very personal story and one that other academics need to hear. This is because what I am about to describe happened to me, it is my story, but it is remarkably similar to the stories of thousands of woman employed at universities around the world as researchers. In this sense, it is our story and one that demands reflection and action. If #MeToo has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that collective action is a powerful force for empowerment and change.
My story begins in the summer of 2010. I was master’s student who had recently fallen in love with the notion of ethnographic fieldwork and who was bound and determined to travel to a distant locale to collect data for my master’s thesis. This, in and of itself, is profoundly problematic, but that is a story for another time. This story is about living, working, and researching in a place far from my home university. It is a story about lack of preparedness and the everlasting emotional and professional consequences of sexual harassment and assault. You see, I set off on my fieldwork intellectually prepared for the culture, language, circumstances, and even the physical environment in which I planned to immerse myself. I had read every relevant book that I could get my hands on. I had taken every relevant course offered at my university. I had even spoken to everyone I could find with any knowledge of where I was going. But this preparation mattered very little when I arrived.
While I cannot recall the number of times I was catcalled, sexually demeaned, followed, and inappropriately touched while conducting fieldwork, there is one instance of sexual assault that lurks in the back of my conscience memory, changing how I understand and interact with the world around me to this day. It happened two or three days after I arrived. It was early in the morning, and I was visiting two friends who were staying at a local hotel. I had been to the hotel before and knew that the stairwell was ill-lit and isolated so I decided to take the elevator. I walked into the elevator and an older man I had never seen before walked in behind me. He noticed that I was wearing a shirt embossed with the logo of a well-known NGO. He touched the logo which was located on my left breast and said, "Peace, peace." I was confused and uncomfortable by the interaction and extremely relieved when the elevator reached my floor. I rushed to leave the elevator and the man blocked my way and ran his hands down my body. I don’t remember what happened next, all I remember is that I got out. The elevator doors closed and I never saw him again. But that interaction served as a trauma that has affected me ever since.
I couldn't make sense of the situation and I didn't know what to do. In all of my extensive intellectual preparation for fieldwork, I had never considered what I would do if I were assaulted. This isn’t terribly surprising for a novice, master’s level researcher. What is surprising is that my university did nothing to prepare me for this event or to help me work through it. Before leaving, I was given an insurance card. That’s it. I don’t blame my university for my lack of preparedness because this was not an over-site on their part. It was just how things were done. (I should add that in recent years several leaders in this particular department have made real strides toward preventing and addressing situations such as mine. Nonetheless, this lack of preparedness was and remains a real problem in need of immediate attention.) And, in many ways, it's still how things are done. There are academics out there at this moment conducting fieldwork without any knowledge of the risks they are facing or what they can do in a crisis situation. What resources are available? Where is the support? Who can they contact? We need answers to these questions and we need them now.
The #MeToo Movement is significant for me because it helped me find my voice and my community. Before October 2017, I did not have the words to describe what I had experienced and I did not know that so many others had experienced not only similar situations but ones that were far, far worse. Before #MeToo, I was silent and alone. Now I can say that I was sexually assaulted. Now I realize that I am not alone. Now I know that something can and should be done. It’s time to take #MeToo more seriously in the context of academic fieldwork.
Elizabeth M. Olsson is a Ph.D. student at the School of Global Studies. She previously worked as a classroom teacher in the United States, Japan, Sweden, and the Occupied West Bank. Her research interests include constructive classroom conflict, the school's democratic mission, and resistance among educational actors. She has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork since 2010.