Eroticism, Sex, and Consent in the Field

I’m currently reading the fascinating collection “Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork”, edited by Don Kulick and Margaret Willson (London & New York: Routledge, 1995). Despite the fact that I only did anthropology for my undergraduate degree, I find the methodological, ethical, and subjective issues of this particular field endlessly interesting (nerd that I am). The collection of essays deals with issues of eroticism, sex, and sexuality in fieldwork, a topic that most fieldworkers are silent on. There is an unspoken rule that sex while in the field is unethical, and it is assumed that all anthropologists are somehow celibate while performing their fieldwork. I find this book very confronting in that it acknowledges the possibilities, risks, and even benefits of sexual desire for one’s fieldwork. Most of all, the honesty and candid accounts of various ethnographers’ experiences is touching and brings up a lot of issues that I think should be addressed in more anthropology training in universities.

Consider this passage from Ralph Bolton’s chapter, speaking as a gay man who frequently had sex with his participants while researching the gay community and the AIDS epidemic in Brussels:

“I cannot imagine doing fieldwork without sex, perhaps from a feeling that life is too short and one must enjoy it while one can. We don’t get younger. Perhaps it’s because I came out late and am ‘catching up’. In truth, it’s probably because I enjoy sex too much to remain voluntarily abstinent. It is most definitely not a sacrifice I would make for my profession. But the question of identity is implicated as well. In the hierarchy of components of my personal identity, gayness ranks higher than ethnicity, nationality, and profession. And that aspect of my being is expressed and celebrated through sex.” (pg. 149)

This passage just floored me. What a brave statement to make, first of all. I commend Bolton for so openly stating such things. The role of the body, of emotion, of sex, and indeed of love is one that hardly ever enters ethnographic discourse, and certainly not in such frank terms. The scandal of Malinowski revealing his sexual desires in the field in his “Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term” shocked and scandalized the anthropological discipline. Despite all the recent hubbub on self-reflexivity and auto-ethnography, the silence remains.

And as someone who always struggles with issues of consent and ethics (even though my research has never been with high-risk communities), I find this also deeply unsettling. Obviously Bolton’s partners were all consenting adults, and likely also educated Westerners, but obtaining data through pillow talk seems questionable.

Later in the chapter, Bolton details the ethical concerns in performing this type of research. Regarding consent, he explains that he did not obtain signed consent from any participants (partially out of concern for their privacy), and did not hide that he was researching when asked. But would these men have consented to sex if they knew in advance that Bolton was studying them? Would it have affected their decision in some way?

Or am I placing my own subjectivity onto this? Bolton seems unworried for the consequences, and I am neither gay nor male, and certainly cannot claim knowledge of the role of sex in the gay male community. Bolton states that he engaged in sex for personal and not professional reasons, but if he stood to gain professionally from the encounters I believe he should have obtained consent in advance. “…The purpose of informed consent is to prevent hard to the individual, or if harm could occur, then to obtain permission and acceptance of that risk by those who would incur it. In my judgment, no risk was involved in the Belgian fieldwork.” (155) I find this statement problematic for many reasons: if someone slept with me and then started quizzing me as an anthropologist, I would feel at risk. I wonder how Bolton’s participants felt. I agree with Marshall’s review of his work, when she called it “passive deception”, even though Bolton himself does not.

Bolton also points to the necessity of participating in sex in order to fully be a member of the gay community, and of course participant observation is the cornerstone of anthropological methodology. You learn by doing. My own participants have insisted that I make a vid myself in order to fully understand their practices, to be “in” I need to become a vidder myself. Could Bolton have achieved his research goals while abstaining? I doubt it.

I can just imagine the reaction from the UOW ethics committee if I even thought about suggested a project like this!

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