What metaphors we have: making sense of sexual violence in and out of the field
Megan Steffen (Tsinghua University)
Paper short abstract:
This paper analyzes the figurative language anthropologists have used and currently use to make sense of sexual violence during fieldwork and outside of it. It draws on examples from Central China and 1930s American anthropology.
Paper long abstract:
This paper analyzes the figurative language anthropologists have used and currently use to make sense of sexual violence during fieldwork and outside of it. For anthropologists conducting participant observation fieldwork, establishing intimacy with interlocutors in the field can help establish scholarly credibility back in the academy; however, the wrong kind of intimacy—such as sexual assault—can undermine one's professional persona. I compare the language my interlocutors used to describe sexual violence in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province in the People's Republic of China, with the language anthropologists used to describe Henrietta Schmerler, a young student of Ruth Benedict's who was raped and murdered in the field in 1931. While my Chinese interlocutors described themselves as "being irrigated"—a metaphor that captured their objectification and made their bodies both passive and productive—Schmerler's colleagues describe her as an economic agent up until the moment of her death who made a mistake and "paid a price." I ask what possibilities each of these imperfect analogies open up for intimate relationships—with people in the field and with colleagues outside of it—as well as what they might foreclose. Finally, I examine how disclosing experiences of sexual violence can change one's sense of one's self as it can collapse personal and professional personas.