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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Commentary by Molly Stevenson

Graduate student, Department of Anthropology

San Diego State University

4/19/2002
Comment on W.P. 2.6: Allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships

 

In response to Jane Hill’s piece on the potential ethical dilemma posed by sexual relations between anthropologists and subjects, I would like to add a few words:

 

Simply because of the Western framework within which many anthropologists position themselves, there exists a power dynamic between anthropologist and subject. Sometimes subtle, sometimes more overt, this dynamic can only be equalized if both anthropologist and those he or she studies approach one another as agents in dialogue. Only then can both be afforded respect and dignity.   I believe that sexual relations between anthropologist and subject negate any respectful and dignified relationship, for the following reasons:

 

The perception of sexuality is culture-specific and thus one argument has gone something like, “If it’s okay with them, why not have sex?”   I counter this argument, however, by restating the anthropological axiom that (and I use Western anthropologists as an example) we carry our culture inside us.  Sexuality, more so than our other Western ways of knowing, connotes power – we “give in,” we “put out,” we “dominate” or “submit,” we “seduce,” we “abuse.”  Regardless of whether or not we as individuals subscribe to any one of these aspects of sexuality, we nevertheless take these things with us into the field as part of our cultural baggage.   And any sexual relations we have with our subjects will necessarily be tainted with the color of Western sexuality.    

 

Jane Hill cites Jacques Lizot, who “has implied that his involvement in this [sexual] life was entirely that of a neutral observer” (Hill 2002).  But we can never be neutral, especially in matters of sexuality. And even if our objective is to admit that we are subjective (as I personally feel ethnographers should do), despite our best efforts to be self-reflexive we cannot ever deny that for us, the fabric of sex will in some way have a power dynamic woven into it.   If we truly want a meeting of the minds with our subjects, those “others” with whom we desire a relationship of agency and respect and dignity, we must at all costs abstain from sexual relations with them.    

 

 

Hill, Jane.  2002.   W.P. 2.6 Allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with Yanomami by anthropologists .  AAA El Dorado Task Force website.