Briefing Paper for Consideration of the
Ethical Implications of Sexual Relationships between
Anthropologists and Members of a Study Population
AAA Committee on Ethics
Prepared by Joe Watkins
Preface: In November 2000 the Committee on Ethics was asked to draft guidelines and a plan of action concerning the ethical implications regarding sexual relationships between anthropologists and members of communities or organizations with whom research is being conducted. The end result of the implementation of this plan would be a recommendation as to whether the AAA should develop specific guidelines for its members concerning sexual relations with minors, relations between consenting adults, and the rights of those who are exposed to unwanted sexual advances, or whether existing legal and organizational guidelines are sufficient. This briefing paper is NOT addressing the issue of sexual harassment, since that issue is addressed in legal guidelines.
Official Sources of Guidelines: The Committee on Ethics recognizes the need for the anthropological researcher to be aware of the ethical implications regarding sexual relationships between the anthropologist and members of the communities or organizations with whom research is being conducted. As such, the Committee recommends that anthropological researchers read and become increasingly familiar with various codes of ethics as they relate to the study of human populations, particularly the Ethical Guidelines for Practitioners of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology; the National Association of Social Workers (http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.htm), and the AAA Code of Ethics. Additionally, there are various organizations which offer information and guidance on specific subsets of this question. For example, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (http://www.unhchr.ch/map.htm) offers guidance in the form of Fact Sheets, Covenants and Conventions on the rights of the Child ("Fact Sheet No. 10, revision 1, the Rights of the Child") and the rights of women and the girl-child ("Fact Sheet No. 22, Discrimination against Women: the Convention and the Committee").
Background Information on the Ethical Implications of Sexual Relationships between Anthropologists and Members of a Study Population: The AAA Code of Ethics pays scant attention to this issue. In the Preamble (Section I), it states merely that "... fieldworkers may develop close relationships with persons ... with whom they work, generating an additional level of ethical considerations." Additionally, the Code notes that researchers have primary ethical responsibilities to those studied and "To avoid harm or wrong ..." The topic is addressed in a more general sense under Section III, Research, Part A(6), where the Code of Ethics notes that anthropologists "... must not exploit individuals ...". Section IV. Teaching speaks to the responsibility of the anthropologists as teacher/mentor to students and trainees, and, in (1), encourages them to "... conduct their programs in ways that preclude discrimination on the basis of sex ...sexual orientation ... or other criteria irrelevant to academic performance." More specifically, however, the anthropologist as teacher/mentor in (5) is reminded to "... beware of the exploitation and serious conflicts of interest which may result if they engage in sexual relations with students/trainees for whose education and professional training they are in any way responsible." The Code of Ethics, however, is quiet concerning sexual relationships between the anthropological researcher and the population under study. As such, the Committee on Ethics is initiating discussion regarding sexual relationships between the researcher and members of the population under study.
How should the anthropologist consider the ethical implications of sexual relationships with members of a study population? The anthropological fieldworker must be aware of the actual or perceived difference in economic and social "power" between the researcher and the population studied. In many field situations, the anthropologist is an exotic "other" whose presence may be disruptive to the local cultural group and who is often perceived to be from a world of wealth and power. As such, it is imperative that the anthropological researcher understand the implications of becoming involved in a sexual relationship with members of the population under study. Humans are sexual animals, and the possibility exists that the researcher may be placed in an ethical dilemma should a sexual relationship develop in a field situation. It is equally important that the anthropologist be aware of the health implications of such a relationship to the researcher as well as the population under study.
Therefore, anthropological researchers should be aware of and consider the ethical implications of sexual relationships with a study population prior to undertaking a relationship, especially in relation to the fact that:
- All cultures define sexual relationships in differing manners. What is not perceived as a sexual relationship in the researcher's culture might be perceived as one in the population under study.
- The cultural milieu in which each culture operates (that of the researcher and the culture under study) can impact the perceptions of sexuality and the sexual relationship.
- The relationship between the anthropologist and the population under study is one that hinges on trust. As such, sexual relations may act to undermine that trust by placing the anthropologist in conflict with portions of the population or institutions within the local population.
- Sexual relationships with individuals under the local, national, or international age of consent should NEVER be undertaken. In situations where such age of consent is variable, the anthropologist should exercise common sense and control in determining which age of consent should be followed and should likely follow the most stringent code possible.
- Any sexual relationship between the anthropologist and members of the study population should at all times be consensual and be of free choice, with no explicit or implicit threat of retribution for failure to comply.
- Cultural displays of sexuality (i.e., flirting) vary by population and should be placed within their proper context. Such actions should not be misconstrued by the field researcher to indicate either sexual interest or social acceptance.
- Since the institutional meaning of sexual relationships is integrated into cultures in different ways, the role of sexual relationships as a part of a specific culture should be identified and understood prior to the initiation or consummation of a sexual relationship with members of the culture.
- The anthropological researcher should be aware of the cultural implications of the sexual relationship beyond the physical act itself. For example, a researcher might view a sexual relationship as merely physical, while the other party might consider it paramount to marriage. Sexual relationships between consenting adults still carries with it an implied contract whose articles have different meanings within each culture.
- The researcher should be aware that what is perceived as a sexual relationship by one culture might be perceived as prostitution in another.
- Gender relations vary within each culture, as do the rights of each gender. It is imperative that the researcher understand the cultural limitations placed on each gender prior to the initiation or consummation of a sexual relationship and be aware of the impacts of such on the exercise of free choice.
- The researcher should not facilitate or ignore the sexual misconduct of others either through direct participation or non-action.
- The researcher must recognize that the population under study might try to enlist the real or perceived "power" of the researcher through the encouragement of a sexual relationship. Such actions should be discouraged.
- The anthropological researcher should be aware of the possible impact of a sexual relationship on social and cultural institutions upon the termination of the field research.
- The researcher should be aware of the perception of "sexual favors" by the culture under study and should act however possible to minimize that perception.
- The researcher should be aware of the impact of the implications of the reporting on the sexuality of a culture in professional and public media on the members of that culture and the perceptions of the general public.
- The researcher should resist the urge to "go native" to the greatest extent possible so as to prevent the risk of improper relationships.
- Researchers should be aware of the economic implications of sexual relationships in that they might lead to the unequal distribution or access to material goods or be perceived as such.
- Researchers should be aware that a sexual relationship between the researcher and a member of the population under study might be misconstrued by members of the population under study to indicate a conscious choice of one portion of a population over another.
- Marriages that might result from a sexual relationship should be recorded in the cultures of each participant and should be acknowledged by whatever means necessary in both cultures.
- The researcher should be aware that some aspects of a sexual relationship may be culturally inappropriate in one situation while not in another, but the researcher should endeavor to avoid getting placed in situations without adequate preparation.
- The researcher should avoid joking about sexual matters to the extent that those jokes may be misconstrued.
- While a sexual relationship carried out between the researcher and a member of the population being studied may be totally acceptable, consensual, and between adults, it is important that the researcher recognize that such a relationship might impact the objectivity of the anthropological study.
- Sexual harassment in any form is NOT an acceptable part of any anthropological program, study, research, or other endeavor, and may vary by culture. As such, the anthropological researcher should operate under the most stringent code possible in order to minimize the threat of real or perceived sexual harassment.