Encountering Sexual Harassment during Research

By Bruna Kadletz (Contributor)

Is there a right response to improper and unwelcome sexual suggestions in the workplace? How do women researchers respond when their dignity and rights are violated during research? How do students, interns and volunteers deal with the bitter disillusion of being sexually harassed in a humanitarian setting? Is reporting worthwhile when an individual’s entire research (or even career) may be put at risk? Am I overreacting?

I first came to contemplate these questions when I experienced sexual harassment during research within a humanitarian organisation in South Africa (SA). Instead of performing his supervision role, my research supervisor took advantage of his position in order to sexually harass me on several occasions. Besides being exposed to a number of uncomfortable situations involving a senior project manager, and feeling distress about the direction of my research, I had to digest the disappointment that such violence took place within an organisation which purportedly promotes a vision of a just, equal and peaceful world.

Crushed excitement: a peaceful walk invaded with harassment

My story begins in April 2015, when I travelled to Africa to carry out research with refugees and undocumented migrants. I was extremely excited by the prospect of spending 2 months in Africa, working in partnership with an organisation that promotes a culture of unity and facilitates social assimilation of refugees and migrant communities in SA.

I arrived in SA in the midst of the 2015 xenophobic outburst. Refugees and migrants inhabiting informal settlements were under attack—shops were looted, families were displaced and lives were lost [i]. The violence propelling the xenophobic attacks was countered by social movements—from peaceful marches to community dialogues. Four days after my arrival, local activists and my host organisation worked together to mobilise a peaceful walk through the attacked areas. My experience, however, was not that peaceful. The celebrative atmosphere was undermined by a sequence of awkward sexual comments made by my research supervisor.

After the walk, I was waiting for a lift home, along with other members of the organisation. I was by myself when my research supervisor approached me. ‘Are you tired?’—he asked me. I said ‘yes’. Then, unexpected words came out of his mouth. He said he wanted to take me to a Jacuzzi so he could massage me. The comment sounded so surreal; it didn’t belong to a peaceful walk. I had nothing to say, so I laughed out of discomfort and left.

He was not done though. He came closer after a few minutes and asked me if I was married. I said ‘no’. So he said ‘you should try an African man before you leave the continent’. By try, he was clearing implying have sex. He continued: ‘Africans are different and spicy’. Again, out of discomfort, I laughed. I then judged myself for not making it clear that those comments were improper and unwelcome. Mentally, on several occasions after that day, I criticised myself because of my reaction—or lack of reaction.    

Why I stayed 

When I look back at those moments and ask myself, ‘why have I stayed? Why didn’t I report him after his improper behaviour?’, four possible answers come to mind.

First, I wasn’t immediately, consciously aware of the power dynamics existing between us. As he was my designated supervisor, and therefore represented a figure of authority, I occupied a lower position in our interactions. This temporarily limited my ability to realise that he was using his authority to intimidate and abuse me.  

Second, I didn’t know his behaviour was legally labelled ‘sexual harassment’ and, as a consequence, I wasn’t aware of my legal rights.

Third, I didn’t feel safe and comfortable enough in the organisation to bring the matter to the table. I was scared of exposing the situation and being judged. Moreover, I was concerned that my story and feelings might be disregarded.

And finally, I prioritised my work and research, jeopardising my safety and well-being. The comments occurred during my first week in SA. I didn’t want them to define my experience in the country nor interfere with the work I had committed myself to delivering.

Naively, I tried to suppress my feelings and the memories of what happened by pretending nothing had happened.

Fabricating the opportunity to harass

While I was working on an important report, another improper comment erupted out of nowhere. When I was about to leave the office, my supervisor told me he wanted to check my work and urged me to finish it that evening. As a result, I stayed after hours with him and two other colleagues.

It was a cold and windy evening, and he mentioned that - in this kind of weather - he needed someone to ‘warm him up’. He then looked at me and asked if I wanted to go back to his place. I declined his offer and reminded him that he had a girlfriend to keep him warm. His answer was: ‘one is not enough’. Filled with disgust, I said he should ask someone else.

Once more, I felt uncomfortable with my reaction. Although I said a clear ‘no’, I thought I should have been rude, but certain aggressive reactions are not part of my nature. I questioned my overall friendly and polite attitude, but concluded that I had never given him space for sexual offers.

Why I left

On that night, I was fed up. I was flooded with questions and dilemmas, and I knew a drastic decision had to be made. Even though I felt his behaviour to be offensive, I wasn’t sure whether or not his comments characterised sexual harassment. I checked the definition of sexual harassment on the internet. Still, I remember thinking: ‘maybe it is culturally acceptable in SA’s patriarchal society; maybe I am overreacting; maybe this is a cultural misunderstanding’.

All these justifications crossed my mind in a failed attempt to invalidate my feelings and intellectual reasoning. I was resisting the reality of the facts in an effort to protect my initial expectations and my research. I thought of my research and all the effort I had put into it. Leaving the organisation in my fifth week would impact my research because I would have to redesign it and work even harder to finish it in time.

For hours I questioned what to do. My initial excitement was long gone. This challenge was quietly draining my energy and well-being. Not to mention that I was carrying the burden in silence.    

After hours of reflecting upon my situation, I had two critical realisations about that evening. On a personal level, I wasn’t willing to accept my supervisor’s behaviour anymore, nor was I disposed to subordinate myself to a third moment of embarrassment. On a moral and ethical level, and as a woman researcher, I strongly felt the obligation to expose the situation. I thought of other women researchers, students, interns and volunteers in similar (or worse) situations. My silence would not prevent violence against women. My silence would not stop him sexually harassing other interns and students who regularly volunteer in the organisation. My silence would not encourage researchers to share and report cases of violence against women during fieldwork. I realised that, on an unseen level, my silence would endorse sexual harassment and would not change the abusive reality many women go through.       

To speak out, on the other hand, could trigger change: both in that particular organisation and other research settings. By reporting him to the organisation, an appropriate response might be invited, which could prevent recurrence of sexual harassment within that institution. By sharing my story and self-doubt, women could identify their harassment experiences in my words, which could empower us to turn the table. By pointing out that sexual harassment occurs in fieldwork and humanitarian organisations, this issue could be properly addressed and changed. More than responding to the instinct to protect my safety and well-being, to give voice to my sexual harassment experience during research in a humanitarian organisation was a social responsibility.

Communicating the issue

After communicating the issue to the right people, my doubts and dilemmas were solved. My intuition confirmed that yes, I was being sexually harassed and yes, I should detach myself from the organisation. The support I received was essential. Without the appropriate guidance, I would have been stuck with my inner dilemmas, internalising my feelings and dismissing my safety. Without the receptive platform offered by my educational institution, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my experiences and most intimate thoughts. Although I’m still healing from the emotional wounds left by this experience, the support and compassion I’ve received kindled courage within me, courage to report him, leave the organisation, and find new avenues to successfully continue my research in SA. This outcome, in my perspective, highlights the importance of offering women a space in which they feel safe and comfortable to share cases of violence and abuse during fieldwork.

The need for dialogue

I write about violence against women not only as an object of research but also as a subject of personal experience. There are many forms of violence against women—sexual harassment is one of them. Even if the harassment does not develop into sexual assault or physical harm, unwelcome sexual comments and suggestions are similarly violent and oppressive, and therefore must not be overlooked. In my personal experience, I felt invaded, confused and ashamed of myself. I confronted the subtle psychological dimension of sexual harassment—I questioned my perceptions, I thought that maybe I was overacting to his sexual suggestions and, more seriously, I tried to supress and invalidate my intuition. Thoughts of self-doubt and invalidation triggered by sexual harassment, when internalised by the victim, have the potential to undermine one’s personal power and sense of agency. Alternatively, when communicated and shared in safe and receptive spaces, these thoughts and feelings have the potential to empower women who are victims of violence in the workplace or fieldwork.   

[i] For more, see Haffejee (2015) Xenophobia and bloodshed in His Majesty’s kingdom. The Daily Maverick. Available at: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-04-15-xenophobia-and-bloodshed-in-his-majestys-kingdom/#.VhLQwflViko